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Sylvie Levesque, director general of the Federation des associations de familles monoparentales et recomposees du Quebec speaks with media following a Supreme Court decision in Ottawa on Friday, January 25, 2013. By a slim majority, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Quebec does not have to give common-law spouses the same rights as married couples.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canadians have come to view marriage and living common-law as almost interchangeable. Social attitudes have changed. "Shacking up" has lost its shock value and, according to the last census, a growing number of Canadians are skipping "I do" and saying "what for?"

Yet the country's top court, in a 5-4 ruling, has effectively decided that in the trenches of domestic life and conflict, a distinction endures in Canada's second-largest province. The justices said that after a split between unmarried couples, Quebec can legally continue to exclude one of the partners from getting spousal support. For about 1.2 million Quebeckers, it means the ring around the finger matters.

"This says that marriage is a formal commitment with which you have rights and obligations, and you don't have the same commitment with a common-law relationship," says Céline Le Bourdais, a McGill University demographer and Canada Research Chair in Social Statistics and Family Change.

Quebec has gone its own way on the domestic union front for years, and is home today to among the highest concentration of unwed couples in the world. About a third of all couples in the province live common-law. The conjugal arrangements are so fluid that in Quebec, the French terms conjoint and conjointe are often used to refer to both a common-law spouse or married partner.

"Quebec is a laboratory," Prof. Le Bourdais said, "when it comes to the transformation of domestic life, and what it means to be in a union."

Response to the ruling in Quebec has been divided. Many say the decision, which upholds Quebec's civil code provisions that entitle separated common-law spouses to child support but not alimony, will leave legions of spouses – usually women – vulnerable. The woman whose case for alimony wound up before the Supreme Court lived a jet-setting life of luxury yachts, planes and parties with her billionaire partner. She was hardly typical.

"Some realize that after 25 years as a common-law spouse, they have no rights for themselves," said Johanne Lapointe, who works with women on Montreal's South Shore who have split with their spouses. Many were unaware or never thought about the consequences of beginning a common-law relationship, she said.

"You're in love, and all you think about is love and having kids, and you come last," Ms. Lapointe said. "So a lot of women don't see it coming."

Others, however, say the ruling upholds what many consider to be a badge of liberty in the province. Quebec legislators drew up the rules on common-law marriage based on the idea that they gave couples the freedom to dispense with the obligations of marriage; Quebec feminists backed the idea in the late 1980s as freedom from patriarchy. It was a view that evolved out of the oppressive legacy of the Catholic Church as Quebeckers rejected the traditional religious institution of marriage.

"Their view was that you don't have to treat women like children, they're not stupid, and they can make their own decisions," said Sylvie Schirm, a Montreal family lawyer. "The view was that it was patronizing to women and if they don't want to get married, we shouldn't force them."

They include women like Fannie St-Cyr, 27, a Montreal actress who lives in a common-law relationship with her partner of almost five years and is expecting the couple's second child next week. She says the two have an agreement to share their assets in the event of a split.

"If they impose marriage on common-law couples, it will end freedom of choice," she said of Friday's court ruling.

It's not that there's any lingering hostility toward religious marriage – although civil marriage tends to be more popular among young people – just that it's not a top-of-mind concern for large numbers of Quebeckers.

"I've never been to a wedding in my life," Ms. St-Cyr said, laughing.

"There's no social pressure to get married, my children aren't considered illegitimate, there are laws in place [for common-law couples]. I really don't feel any need to get married or see that it's necessarily in my interest. We already have a mortgage, we've drawn up wills."

Census figures show that while Quebeckers remain the champions of common-law unions, the rest of Canada is warming to the idea; nearly 17 per cent of all Canadian couples aren't married. While the largest number of such relationships are among younger people, the largest growth rates are among older Canadians.

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