Civil Unions & Other Quebec Curios

The 2011 production of Stephen Sondheim's The 2011 production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company", starring Neil Patrick Harris.

Marry me a little,
Love me just enough.
Cry, but not too often,
Play, but not too rough.
Keep a tender distance
So we’ll both be free.
That’s the way it ought to be.
(Stephen Sondheim, “Marry Me a Little”, from “Company”, 1970)

“Company”, Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy about marriage deserves another mention. It presents Bobby, a man turning 35 and still seemingly unable to commit to marriage, interacting with 5 married couples and 3(!) girlfriends. Bobby’s various songs through the musical go from him wishing for someone to “Marry Me a Little” to someone to make him aware of “Being Alive”. In the 1970s, being in your mid-thirties and not married would be considered an anomaly, but have times really changed in our attitudes towards marriage and couple’s rights? In Canada, following the Eric vs. Lola decision, marriage is still the only way to enforce a couple’s obligations to one another, including alimony for any children born from a union.

A marriage has to be celebrated by the regular route: that is, either by a notary, a judge, or someone else authorized to conduct a marriage. That is, one has to have an actual marriage certificate to say they are married. This applies to opposite and same sex partners (as of 2004). It is the only legal method to truthfully proclaim that one is married. But in Quebec, if you don’t want or need those obligations that come along with marriage, there are other options.

A little-known and often less used way to become legal partners in Quebec is that of the civil union. It was Quebec’s response to Canada, a judicial status invented by the province to accommodate same-sex partners who wished to marry but, prior to 2004, couldn’t under the Canadian marriage laws. Open to both opposite and same sex couples, it is a contract similar to marriage, with similar obligations due to each partner, but has since fallen out of favour when Canada allowed same-sex couples to marry; there remains only about 125 couples under this status today. It seems all well and dandy, but the problem is that it has no bearing outside Quebec, since it is in effect a status special to Quebec.

Another type of union is that of de facto marriage, which is possibly the least stable of the two unions mentioned. Contrary to popular belief, five years of cohabitation does not make a de facto marriage in Quebec. In fact, the definition for people in a de facto marriage is wishy-washy in itself, the only definition being a de facto marriage is the presumption that two people are in such a union since present themselves as a couple. No mention of the amount of time on the official paper (tax forms and other official documents have their own criteria). Officially, de facto couples don’t even have to live under the same roof to be considered a couple. This type of partnership, the type discussed in the Eric vs. Lola decision, has absolutely no rights compared to married people; if one partner dies, the other partner cannot inherit his or her estate without a will. However, these couples can have access to some of the benefits married couples have, such as adopting a child or government benefits, but not all.

With people getting married later than they did even half a century ago, or forgoing a conventional marriage altogether, as well as major advancements in marriage equality, it seems like times would have changed with it to include obligations for couples who are not married and yet living as a couple. Forty years after Sondheim’s musical, the courts still insist that it is only through marriage that one’s rights as a couple are protected. Plus ça change.