In 2000, the federal government announced same-sex partners of Canada Pension Plan beneficiaries could claim survivor benefits, as long as their bereavement had occurred no earlier than 1998.
This was of cold comfort to George Hislop, whose partner Ron Shearer had died in 1986. In 2003, the LGBTQ2S+ rights advocate and businessperson launched a class action lawsuit against the federal government and served as the lead plaintiff.
“George was a great leader in establishing gay rights in Toronto,” says John Sewell, who served as the city’s mayor between 1979 and 1980. “He was also strategic in the way he looked at things.”
In 1971, Hislop was a co-organizer of Canada’s first LGBTQ2S+ rights protest on Parliament Hill and a co-founder of Toronto’s first LGBTQ2S+ rights organization, the Community Homophile Association of Toronto. Within political circles, he was also known for his work on the Toronto Planning Board, which he’d joined in 1978. It was in that position that he’d first met Sewell, then a city councillor.
“I knew him best for that work — making reasonable decisions for the community at large.”
During the 1980 election, Hislop stood as a council candidate and Sewell sought re-election as mayor. Both bids failed and Sewell’s defeat has often been credited to his decision to back Hislop, though the former mayor rejects this interpretation of history.
While he didn’t find success at the ballot box, Hislop would, decades later, prevail in court. The case hinged on an open question in Canadian law, according to Daniel Guttman, a constitutional law expert who has served as an assistant Crown attorney with the Attorney General of Ontario and as an assistant professor of constitutional law at the University of Windsor.
“The main issue at play in the case was whether the equality provision in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms required benefits to be extended back in time on a retroactive or retrospective basis,” wrote Guttman, who authored an article on the implications of the case for the Supreme Court Law Review in 2008, in an email to the Canadian Investment Review.
In 2004, the Ontario Superior Court found in favour of the class action. However, the federal government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in 2007. “It appears that the federal government appealed the original superior court decision because [it] believed . . . legislation extending survivor pensions to same-sex partners was constitutionally valid and the Superior Court had found [it] unconstitutional on the basis that the charter required benefits to be extended backwards in time retroactively,” said Guttman.
While Canada’s highest court found in favour of Hislop, he died in 2005, two years before the final judgment.