On June 19, 2002, the NWT’s MLAs considered for the final time a bill that changed the definition of a spouse, a move the government of the time said would allow same-sex couples to adopt.
Michael Miltenberger, introducing the bill, said the NWT would be “open to a costly court challenge” regarding discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation if the territory’s legislation did not change.
“It is incumbent upon us to ensure that our laws comply,” said Miltenberger, framing the bill as “a legislative issue” rather than a decision to actively support those people affected.
The bill passed, but not without dissent. For example, Steven Nitah – the Tu Nedhé MLA at the time – said the bill’s contents were “contradictory to religious belief” and Elders in his constituency “do not like the idea of same-sex couples being able to adopt children.”
Before it passed, five MLAs tried and failed to have the bill delayed and sent out for public consultation. Among them was the Hay River South MLA, Jane Groenewegen, who three months earlier had raised “concerns about the Aboriginal governments and chiefs not having been specifically consulted.”
In a 2018 editorial about equality, newspaper group NNSL wrote that Groenewegen and others had walked out of the legislature in a form of protest as the bill passed. The dissenting MLAs “voted with their feet and left before the third and final reading vote,” NNSL’s editorial board wrote, quoting its reporting at the time.
Groenewegen, earlier in 2002, told the legislature: “I do not hold any ill will towards the people who make choices different than mine, but I am held to a standard for what I believe in. If I do not respect that, if I do not stand for that, I do not stand for anything. This is probably more of a personal issue to me.
“I believe that the relationship that holds life between a man and a woman, that creates life, is a mystery. It is a beautiful thing. I think that as legislators, to enact laws that would contradict that shows disrespect to the Creator. Life continues on the basis of the way things were created. I believe it is a beautiful thing. I cannot personally be involved in an action I perceive to make a mockery of that or to show disrespect for that.”
Now, Groenewegen is running as an independent candidate in this month’s federal election – and some voters have asked how she reflects on those views, almost 20 years later.
Groenewegen declined an interview by phone on the subject but responded to a series of emailed questions on Saturday.
The former MLA said she felt no need to apologize for her stance at the time but acknowledged societal norms had since changed.
“A lot of the Indigenous members representing small communities on the regular members’ side of the House felt this was a ‘Yellowknife’ issue,” Groenewegen wrote. “For various reasons – perhaps things like more a conservative-tradition view of same-sex marriage – they wanted to oppose the legislation.
“I walked out before the vote in solidarity with some small-community fellow members.”
Groenewegen argues focusing on that act alone is unfair as she later sat on a committee that drafted what she calls “the first made-in-the-North human rights legislation,” designed to protect citizens “on many grounds, including sexual orientation.”
“As we know, the world has changed a lot in the past 15 years,” she continued.
But in a 2021 campaign where Groenewegen has been able to step into the vacuum left by a silent, parachute Conservative candidate, some residents want to know if Groenewegen has changed with the world around her.
“Jane does not have my vote,” read a comment left by one Yellowknife resident when, on Facebook, Groenewegen was floated as an alternative to Conservative candidate Lea Mollison or Liberal incumbent Michael McLeod (McLeod, also an MLA in 2002, objected to the same bill on second reading as he said Indigenous governments should be consulted, but expressed no opposition on principle and did not vote to amend the bill on third reading). Green Roland Laufer and New Democrat Kelvin Kotchilea are also candidates.
“I’ll stand firm until I hear a public retraction or apology from her,” the comment concluded, referring to her opposition of the 2002 bill.
Asked on Saturday how she personally feels about same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting, Groenewegen wrote: “Societal norms have evolved a great deal in the past 15 years. I have no issue with families that are comprised of same-sex parents.
“The most important thing is that children are nurtured and cared for in a happy, healthy, safe, and loving home.”
To the suggestion that she might apologize for her actions in 2002, Groenewegen added: “No. It is how I felt at the time.
“I’ve explained my position and if that isn’t sufficient, I respectfully understand if people do not want to support my candidacy for this reason.”
Update: September 12, 2021 – 10:32 MT. This article has been updated to reflect the position at the time of Michael McLeod, who was also an MLA in 2002 and is seeking re-election as the NWT’s MP in 2021. To read the positions of McLeod and Groenewegen in full, consult Hansard – the record of debates in the NWT legislature – for February 28, 2002, which was the bill’s second reading, during which both spoke on the topic. Neither spoke at third reading on June 19, 2002.