This June, Denis-Martin Chabot retired from CBC Radio-Canada after 32 years as an anchor, local and network reporter. Some of his biggest stories included covering the deadly shooting at Columbine High School and the execution of a Canadian man on death row in Texas.
But he also leaves an important legacy for all gay and lesbian employees at CBC Radio-Canada. In 1993, Chabot was a legislative reporter in Edmonton. His partner had Huntington’s disease. Chabot wanted to get spousal health benefits and pension survivor benefits for him. But CBC Radio-Canada refused.
So he decided to fight.
“As a journalist, I was concerned and uncomfortable about becoming the story,” Chabot recalls today. “But I knew human rights were more important than the news.”
Chabot says it wouldn’t have been possible without the backing of the Canadian Media Guild. “I knew I had job security. I knew I was privileged to have a job and knew they couldn’t fire me because I had a union. I had to do it for those who couldn’t.”
CMG filed a grievance asserting that by refusing to grant same-sex benefits, CBC Radio-Canada was discriminating based on sexual orientation — a violation of the collective agreement.
At the time, employers were taking the position that granting benefits to people who were legally single would cost money because, by extension, they argued benefits would have to be extended to people in all types of relationships.
The grievance went to arbitration and, in February 1995, the arbitrator, Donald Munroe, decided firmly in the Guild’s favour. Within months, CBC-Radio Canada announced it would provide same-sex benefits for health, dental and life insurance plans. The great victory is a case cited in legal histories of gay rights in Canada and a superb example of how union contracts can change lives. But the fight wasn’t over.
The bigger battle was over the CBC’s refusal to grant survivor pension benefits despite the arbitrator’s orders to do so. Pension issues are more complicated because they involve the Income Tax Act, which didn’t recognize same-sex couples. CBC-Radio Canada (and other employers) said it would be more expensive to pay for pension benefits for same-sex couples as a result.
CBC-Radio Canada applied for a judicial review of the arbitrator’s ruling. In July 1998, the judge at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta sided with the Guild – again.
The corporation continued to fight hard against allowing same-sex pension survivor benefits. Senior CBC managers threatened to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, but ultimately the law overtook them and they found themselves on the wrong side of history.
With similar cases winding their way through courts and human rights tribunals, the Liberal government introduced the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act (MBOA) in 2000. That gave same-sex common-law partners the same benefits as opposite-sex common-law partners, at last.
“Looking at it now with 2016 eyes, it was a big deal to come out publicly back then,” Chabot says. “I didn’t like my life exposed. But I would not hesitate to do it again. I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Now that same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada for over 10 years, it’s hard to believe this was the hard-fought battle it was. It was a case of union leadership being ahead of the law when it comes to human rights. That’s something about which we should all be proud.