Back in the early 90s, I was a volunteer writer at CLUE! Magazine. One of the most challenging articles I wrote was: Private sector takes lead with same-sex spousal benefits (January 1995). The reason – I had to cold call more than a dozen of Calgary’s largest companies and ask them about their HR policies: were they gay friendly, and how did they accommodate their LGBTQ employees?
I remember that several HR managers were surprised by the question, and some companies registered no comment. It felt a little bit like journalism activism. Some companies were interested in discussing the idea, having never really considered it before, and others were proud to say they already offered same-sex benefits despite complications with the Federal Income Tax Act and Provincial employment legislation.
Nova Corporation led the way here in 1990, and a handful of other Calgary companies had followed their lead by 1995. It was interesting to note that even if same-sex benefits were offered, often very few employees would claim them.
The issue was a high-profile one due to Ontario’s Bill 167, the Equality Rights Statute Law Amendment Act, defeated narrowly in the summer of 1994. Bill 167 promised to revamp adoption right, spousal employment benefits, property rights and survivor pensions for LGBTQ couples, and received national attention.
A June 1994 Angus Reid poll showed that 54% of Canadians opposed the bill – 64% in Ontario – although it was determined that the adoption rights portion of the bill was more frowned upon then same-sex employee benefits.
Corporate culture however was in turmoil, independent of public discourse, with activist gay employees taking their employers to task. At Imperial Oil, a gay chemical engineer named David Mitges, who had been working for the company since 1980, started attending his company’s annual shareholders meeting in 1993. For eight sequential years he asked Imperial to offer same-sex benefits, despite the booing and harassment from the audience present. The national press described Mitges’ protracted tussle as “David vs. the Energy Goliath.” In 2000, Imperial capitulated and began offering same-sex benefits, which by that time had become more normative in corporate culture.
Coming full circle this week, the Pride Employee network of Imperial, invited The Calgary Gay History Project to their corporate headquarters to talk about the city’s gay history. About 40 employees came to a lunch-hour presentation at which the company’s management concluded with their expressed commitment to diversity at Imperial.