Toronto

Former MPP wants apology from church, province over response to 1st same-sex marriage

Former MPP and Toronto reverend Cheri DiNovo wants a formal apology from the province and United Church of Canada for their response to Ontario's first same-sex marriage, which DiNovo performed in 2001.

Cheri DiNovo, a Toronto reverend, performed Ontario's 1st same-sex wedding in 2001

Cheri DiNovo performed the province's first same-sex marriage at a Toronto church in September 2001. (CBC)

Former MPP and Toronto reverend Cheri DiNovo wants a formal apology from the province and United Church of Canada for their response to Ontario's first same-sex marriage, which DiNovo performed in 2001. 

"This was before the law had changed," DiNovo said at a news conference on Monday at Queen's Park. She was joined by lawyer Douglas Elliott, who represented DiNovo in the legal wrangling that followed the ceremony. 

On Sept. 29, 2001, DiNovo presided over the union of Paula Barrero and Blanca Mejias. The couple had immigrated from South America and decided to be married at Howard Park Church, now called Roncesvalles United Church. 

"Quite frankly, what good reason could I come up with to say no? What reason could any clergy come up with?" DiNovo remembers thinking.

"It seemed to me absurd to even think that way."

While the provincial government would not issue a licence for such a marriage at the time, DiNovo used an ancient Christian tradition to circumvent revealing in official documentation that both people in the couple were women.

The Ontario registrar's office mistook the name Paula to be that of a man, and mistakenly certified the marriage. 

The marriage caught the attention of Toronto media, who covered the story intensely. Shortly after the wedding, a representative from the registrar general's office sent a letter to the United Church requesting that DiNovo lose her licence.

"That would have taken away my livelihood. This was serious. It was what I did for a living," DiNovo said.

"It also affected all of the many hundreds of people in my congregation. It affected, of course, the women that I married and it affected the entire struggle for same-sex marriage at the time."

At the news conference, DiNovo said that former Tory politician and senator Bob Runciman was registrar general at the time and suggested he would have been aware that the letter was sent. In fact, Runciman moved on from the ministry of consumer and commercial relations — the department responsible for the registrar's office — in February, 2001, and had no role in the drafting or sending of the letter. 

Runciman told CBC Toronto that while the provincial government's official position at the time was that it would not certify same-sex marriages, he personally supported the right of same-sex couples to marry. 

DiNovo went on to say that she had expected support from the United Church of Canada. After all, it was the largest Protestant denomination in the country to ordain gay and lesbian ministers at the time. 

"Silence is what happened from them ... To see them turn their back on me was distressing," she told reporters. 

'The government of Ontario was wrong'

Elliott soon sent a cease-and-desist letter to the provincial government, and the push to strip DiNovo of her licence effectively ended. The prominent lawyer called the government's actions "Draconian" and said time has vindicated the reverend. 

"He was wrong. The government of Ontario was wrong," Elliot said. "What happened to Reverend DiNovo is not unforgivable. But to get forgiveness, you need to acknowledge the mistake."

DiNovo said she has already requested an apology from the United Church of Canada, but none has come. Now, Elliott intends to send formal letters asking for one.

DiNovo said ideally, both Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford would acknowledge the government's role in the story. She included Ford, she said, because it was a Tory government that tried to have her licence revoked. 

Same-sex marriage was legalized in Ontario in June 2003, following a lengthy legal battle that wound its way through the courts over several years.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Bob Runciman was registrar general of Ontario in the latter half of 2001. In fact, Runciman left the ministry of consumer and commercial relations in February 2001, when he became minister of economic development and trade.
    Apr 10, 2018 9:31 AM ET

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