Transgender Canadians have been waiting for almost two years since Bill C-279 was tabled to be granted legal recognition and protection of their rights. The legislation, formally titled ‘An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code,’ would include gender identity as a basis for hate crimes protection under the Canadian Human Rights Act. This would add it to the list of distinguishing characteristics of “identifiable groups” protected by hate crimes provisions under the Criminal Code.
Yet just last month, a series of amendments were made to Bill C-279 that many argue move the legislation in the wrong direction. One in particular — an amendment to formally exemption places such as prisons, crisis centres, public washrooms, and locker rooms from its provisions — has dominated recent debate. That means that in these facilities, gender identity will not be protected. Public washrooms have been a particularly controversial point: under the newly amended bill, individuals will be forced to use washrooms that correspond to their biological sex, and not to their identified gender.
Public washrooms should simply be an answer to nature’s call. Supporters of the controversial amendment contend that it is meant to protect the “most vulnerable women,” for whom seeing a man in a gender-specific facility could be a traumatic experience. But this line of thinking only reinforces the intolerance and discrimination against the transgender community that Bill C-279 is fundamentally trying to fight. As transgender rights advocate Amanda Ryan has put it, “We aren’t a man in a dress. We are women.” The government telling trans-Canadians which bathrooms they can and cannot use out of concern of traumatic experiences for others contradicts the very essence of the legislation. In short, the amendment demonstrates the very transphobia the bill is meant to fight.
The path to establishing legal protections for the transgender community has been fraught with delays. Bill C-279 was initially passed by Parliament in March of 2013, with unanimous support from MPs in the New Democratic, Liberal, Bloc Québécois, and Green parties. Even with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the majority of the Conservative caucus voting against the legislation, it quickly moved to the Senate. It later passed the human rights committee and was returned to the House for a third reading and final vote; however, this initial momentum was effectively stalled when Senate adjourned summer of 2013 and Parliament was prorogued.
Seven months after it was initially tabled, Bill C-279 was forced to start all over again – and now, given recent amendments, transgender advocates feel as though legal rights for trans-Canadians are about to take a significant step backwards. Randall Garrison, the MP who originally tabled the legislation, has gone so far as to call the amendment “transphobic.”
The most vocal supporter for the amendment to formally exempt a list of public places from what has been colloquially dubbed the “bathroom bill” is Senator Donald Plett, a Conservative member of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Plett has expressed a belief that allowing individuals to use single-sex facilities – such as public bathrooms – based on their gender identity “allows for pedophiles to take advantage of legislation we have in place.” Several other MPs maintain that the transgender community is already protected on the basis of sex and disability, and content that Bill C-729 is not necessary to begin with.
But opposition from a few Conservative MPs has not deterred the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal from fighting for more explicit legal safeguards for trans-Canadians. Private citizens are also taking to social media to fight the amendments: for example, a transgender woman in Victoria, British Columbia has been posting pictures of herself in front of urinals in men’s bathrooms to highlight how out of place she — and hundreds of thousands of individuals like her — as a result.
As a nation, Canada needs to step up its game when it comes to transgender rights. Although six provinces and one territory already have legislation in place to protect transgender people, the scope of this legislation varies, and federal protection under the Canadian Human Rights Act would set an inclusive tone for the entire country. According to a 2012 report by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, 20 countries have passed formal legislation at the national level protecting the rights of transgender individuals, including Argentina, Uruguay, and Portugal. Comparatively, Canada is surprisingly far behind.
What makes this obvious lack of legal protection most worrisome is the fact that the need for it is alarmingly – and increasingly – evident. Statistics display disturbing trends of gender-related hate crimes in Canada: while police-reported hate crimes motivation by religion and race or ethnicity have fallen in recent years, there was a 10 per cent increase in police-reported hate crime incidents motivated by sexual orientation from 2010 to 2011. And it goes beyond mere name-calling: shows that 67 per cent of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation in 2012 involved a violent offence. A nationwide survey shows that 74 per cent of transgender youth are subject to verbal harassment and 37 per cent have experienced physical violence. Clearly, something needs to be done. Bill C-279 was thought to be that “something,” but with recent amendments, a fundamentally good bill has been twisted to put conditions on basic human rights.
Mr. Garrison, the MP who initially introduced the bill, has said that he believes the amendments are a tactic designed to further stall its progression; and with the impending 2015 federal election and “bigger fish to fry” on the national policy agenda, the delay will likely kill the bill altogether. Unfortunately for trans-Canadians, it looks like formal legal protection of their rights will have to wait (again) until after the election. Or, a warped version of Bill C-279 will pass, and trans-Canadians will finally have some legal protection of their human rights – except when they enter a public washroom.
Tracy Wang is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science from McGill University, where she completed a major in Cell and Molecular Biology and a double minor in English Literature and Economics. Tracy is particularly interested in health policy, but looks to also explore economic and education policy further.