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TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada will plug a loophole in its marriage laws that left foreign gay couples in a legal limbo, able to marry in Canada, but in a union that might not be legal, and perhaps without the ability to divorce.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the problem stemmed from a "legislative gap" that meant some - if not all - gay marriages performed in Canada could not be dissolved in Canada if gay marriage was not legal in their home country.
"We will change the Civil Marriage Act so that any marriages performed in Canada that aren't recognized in the couple's home jurisdiction will be recognized in Canada," he said. "This of course will apply to all marriages performed in Canada."
The issue exploded on Thursday, when court documents emerged about a government argument that two women who married in Canada could not seek a divorce here because their marriage was not valid. One of the women was from Britain and the other from Florida, neither of them jurisdictions that allow gay marriages.
Nicholson said the issue was unfair and the government believed the marriages should be valid.
Thousands of same-sex couples have flocked to Canada to be wed since 2005, when Canada become one of the first countries in the world to formally legalize gay marriage.
That legislation was introduced by a previous Liberal government, and some critics had worried that the latest debate might be part of an attempt by the Conservatives, who opposed same-sex marriage before they took over in government, to roll back the legislation.
Nicholson said that was not the case.
"I want to be very clear that our government has no intention of reopening the debate on the definition of marriage," he said. "Both myself and the Prime Minister consider this debate to be closed."
In court submissions, the Justice Department said the marriage of the two women was not legally valid under Canadian law because the women could not have lawfully wed in England or Florida. It also cited the Canada Divorce Act, which says any couple seeking to end a marriage in Canada must have lived there for a year.
Still left unanswered is the question of why Ottawa allowed so many foreign same-sex couples to get married for so long before deciding the unions were not valid.
Activists estimate that around 15,000 people have held same-sex weddings in Canada since 2003, when some provinces first allowed gay marriages. About 5,000 were foreigners, many from countries and U.S. states that do not recognize gay unions.