In May, Slate ran an article entitled “I Don’t.” It concerned a de facto spouse, that is a girlfriend from Quebec, who is now suing her ex-boyfriend for support. The article said that the Canadian courts may soon rule that 1.2 million people are suddenly married. Read the article and you can quickly see that is a bit overplayed, but it does beg the question as to what is marriage and whether society has the obligation to give couples living together in monogamous relationships the full protection of the law afforded to the married.
In a nutshell the argument is being made that those who file tax returns together and live together should now have the same rights when they separate as married couples do when they divorce. In essence the de facto spousal relationship will be a common law marriage. This means that couples who long ago gave up the idea of marriage for an independence that argued for egalitarianism, but was unable to ignore the compulsion to be in a loving monogamous relationship will now be “forced” to call their relationship what it is. And even if they don’t, the state will. After all if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a ….
When earlier in the year a lower court decided a duck was a duck, the fine people of Quebec could not be more upset. (That is except for groups advocating for the rights of women and children; they were more than happy.) Over a million Quebecois chose not to be married. The majority recognized the responsibility of parents, married or otherwise, have to children, but nothing guaranteed an ex-girlfriend (it is usually a woman in need of support) any right to a former boyfriend’s wealth. And that is, of course, the way it should be if one is truly just a boyfriend or girlfriend, but the breakdown of sacramental and civil marriage that occurred during what has been called the Quiet Revolution did not stop the behavior of marriage, evident in the fact that over half of all Quebec’s children are born outside of wedlock. And some judge was quick to recognize this and now the matter has made it to Canada’s highest court, where Quebec may have to fall into line with the other provinces and call a relationship what it is. Suddenly the couples of Quebec may realize you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
The Canadian situation is one that besets the west, but it is more thought out than in many places which says more of the comedic pathos of the west than it does of the sanity of Canada. If Quebec’s “couple status” comes to be understood as a common law marriage (actually more like our civil unions than our common-law marriages south of the border) then at least Canada will have a pretty close to unified understanding of common law marriage and the obligation that people in relationships have to one another. I should say here that on a certain level this is very sad. It means traditional marriage has eroded so much that society must see to the full protection of its citizens in ways other than marriage and family. But there is a silver lining. If thought about, the Canadian situation can bring us to think of what a marriage is. Maybe if we think about that enough we can return to a better understanding of marriage and perhaps even one day put it back into practice.