A Montreal woman turned to a Quebec judge yesterday in a bid to obtain alimony from her wealthy ex. She says she was the man's companion, travel partner, and mother to their children: The only thing she wasn't was his wife.
Now the woman is challenging federal law and seeking $50-million of her ex's fortune, saying she was unfairly penalized because she never tied the knot.
"I never thought I would have to go before a judge to ask for my money or my rights," the woman, who is in her 30s, told reporters outside the courtroom. "I want to be recognized as his wife. I always considered myself to be his wife. Everybody treated me as his wife."
The couple's identities are protected under Quebec law.
The outcome is being closely followed in Quebec because the province is champion of common-law marriage in Canada. After the collapse of the Catholic Church's influence in Quebec, many couples opted to live together without saying their vows: 34 per cent of all couples in Quebec live together, compared with 18 per cent on average across Canada.
The impact for children is even greater, since 60 per cent of children in Quebec are born to unwed parents.
While the repercussions of the court ruling could be wide-ranging, the test case happens to be set against an uncommon backdrop of wealth and luxury.
The woman described in Superior Court how she met her future partner on a beach in her native South America. She was a 17-year-old high-school student; he was a businessman from Quebec, nearly twice her age.
The young woman, who moved to Montreal in 1995, embarked on a lavish lifestyle. There were trips to Tahiti and London, sailboat rides, and constant rounds of parties.
Each time she discussed marriage, however, her mate was evasive, she said.
"I wanted to marry him from the start, but all I got from him was excuses," she said.
She says she didn't realize that, as a woman living with a man in Quebec without a marriage certificate, she didn't have the same rights as a woman who was formally married.
Lawyers for the woman are challenging Canada's definition of marriage, set out as the "lawful union" between two people. They argue that two people who live together for years, even if they don't formally tie the knot, should be recognized under the law.
"A ceremony is no longer what creates the marital bond," said one of the woman's lawyers, Marie-Hélène Dubé.
In fact, Quebec is the only province that doesn't afford common-law spouses the same protections as married ones. The lawyers are also challenging part of the Quebec Civil Code.
The woman, who split from her ex in 2001 but has shared custody of the children, receives $35,000 a month in child-support payments. But she wants a separate sum of $56,000 a month in spousal support for herself.
Under cross-examination, she admitted to the court that her former partner was paying for a new $2.4-million home for her and their children in upper Outremont, along with $500,000 for her to furnish and fix it up. He was also paying for a cook, two nannies, and the children's private schooling.
An association representing single parents and reconstituted families in Quebec has obtained intervenor status in the case. A lawyer for the group said the matter is important because it addresses the rights of children.
The woman's former partner is to testify on Thursday.