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Canada's Supreme Court will soon decide whether gays and lesbians are entitled to the same rights and protections as heterosexual couples when it comes to legal issues such as alimony.

Four years ago, when public opposition stymied efforts to amend Ontario's family laws to include homosexual unions, Charles Harnick, a politician with the then-opposition Progressive Conservative Party, predicted the battle for family rights laws that also would apply to homosexual couples would end up in the Supreme Court.

"If the courts take the view of broadening the definition of spouse and marriage, I could live with that. We must respect the definitions the courts provide us with. I suspect that's the way this country will go anyway," he said in 1994.

Now Ontario Attorney General Harnick's office is battling to keep the court from ruling in favor of expanding its definition of spouse in a landmark case known as "H vs. M."

In 1992, the lesbian couple ended their 10-year, common-law relationship, and M, left with only $10, discovered she could not sue for support payments under Ontario law, which defines spouse as a partner of the opposite sex.

For more than five years, M's efforts to have the provincial law declared unconstitutional has worked its way through the courts. M won both lower court cases, with the Ontario Court of Appeal ruling 2-1 that the provincial law contravened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada's version of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Though the two women reached a settlement in January, their case went before the Supreme Court on March 18, with the Ontario government battling to keep the current laws untouched.

The province's family laws, argued government lawyer Robert Charney, deal with the problems of women in "heterosexual couples" who often sacrifice paid work to raise children and commonly suffer economic setbacks after a divorce.

The same "power imbalance that is part of the opposite-sex relationships is not the same as (those in) same-sex relationships," he told the panel of high court justices.

However, M's lawyer, Martha McCarthy, said the provincial government's history of backing away from protecting the rights of gays and lesbians proves they need a declaration from the high court that homosexuals are protected by the Charter.

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