“Part of the Family”: Transgender Rights in Canada
In every way, Charlie Lowthian-Rickert is a normal, awesome 10-year-old girl.
She loves Chinese food, sleepovers and playing video games. She wants to be a politician, a scientist or a singer when she grows up. She’s a Girl Guide, a soccer player, and a musician. She’s also transgender.
Charlie’s mom, Anne Lowthian, said Charlie told her at age three that she wasn’t a boy. She was sitting in the bathtub, Anne said, and reached up to hold her mother’s face before telling her in no uncertain terms that she, Charlie, was a girl – despite what her parents and doctors might think.
In the years following, Anne said, Charlie faced severe bullying and even violence at school due to her gender identity and expression, from teachers and peers alike. Eventually, the family was forced to move from their home town to Ottawa.
“It’s frustrating to push against that and face that kind of contempt every single day,” said Anne. “If people don’t understand, they just don’t bother. It’s the privilege of being able to put someone on ‘ignore.’”
“It’s frustrating to push against that and face that kind of contempt every single day. If people don’t understand, they just don’t bother.” – Anne Lowthian
Source: Ontario Human Rights Commission, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons
Among transgender people in Canada, Charlie’s experience is tragically common.
Source: Trans PULSE Project
Provincial and Federal Protection
Trans people can take action according to their provincial or territorial human rights legislation, although gender identity and gender expression are not explicitly included in five provinces and territories (these consider trans rights as protected through the interpretation of other grounds).
Source: Trans Equality Society of Alberta
Yet there is currently no federal legislation specifically protecting trans people from discrimination. The Canadian Human Rights Act provides protection for discrimination based on 11 factors – including race, religion, age, sex and sexual orientation – but there is no provision explicitly protecting trans people.
The Criminal Code defines hate crimes as targeting an “identifiable group,” distinguished by “colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability” – leaving trans Canadians without explicit protection.
In his ministerial mandate letter for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau identified the addition of gender identity to both the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code’s hate crime provisions as one of the Minister’s “top priorities.”
During his election campaign, the Prime Minister promised the legislation would come in the form of a government bill, although no such bill has been introduced as yet.
“The government is committed to helping ensure that all Canadians feel protected from discrimination,” a Ministry of Justice spokesperson wrote in an email. “Details of any potential legislation will be provided in due course,” she continued, although she was unable to provide a more specific timeline.
Making its way through parliament right now is Bill C-204, introduced by NDP MP Randall Garrison as a private member’s bill. If passed, the bill would add gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination on those grounds, and amend the Criminal Code to include the terms in the list of recognized groups targeted by bias, prejudice or hate.
Introduced in December 2015, the bill is Garrison’s second attempt to enshrine trans rights in Canadian law. His first bill, Bill C-279, experienced strong opposition and finally died.
“Transgender Canadians who continue to be subject to high levels of discrimination and even violence are counting on this Parliament to act now,” Garrison said in a 2015 press release.
Need for Protection?
Opponents to the changes argue existing protections are sufficient, with trans rights already protected by other grounds such as sex.
While some argue courts across Canada already interpret existing law to include trans rights, Ottawa human rights lawyer Anne Levesque said that’s not enough.
“That’s part of access to justice, to be able to read a law on its face and … understand that the law applies to you,” she said. “Employers, service providers, unions need to know that they can’t discriminate on the basis of that. It’s not everybody who’s so sophisticated to go out and read the case law.”
“Part of the Family”
Independent Liberal senator Grant Mitchell sponsored Bill C-204 in the Senate.
He says the bill is more than just a legal protection.
“It sends a message to those groups of people who are included (in the Human Rights Act) that they belong,” he said. “It means that they are part of the family, and it says that in one of the most high-level ways that a society can say it.”
Amanda Ryan is a trans woman in Ottawa. When she came out 14 years ago at age 49, she said ‘trans’ was still a bad word. Now the outreach committee chair at Gender Mosaic, a local trans support group, Ryan said she’s optimistic the legislation pass – but she wasn’t always.
“I never expected it in my lifetime,” she said.
“It recognizes the trans community as an entity under Canadian law … I think that has a tremendous psychological impact on the trans community.” – Amanda Ryan
Like Mitchell, Ryan said the symbolic significance of the bill is essential.
“From my mind, equally important, it recognizes the trans community as an entity under Canadian law, and I think that’s huge for trans identity,” she said. “If trans identity is recognized… we’re someone. I think that has a tremendous psychological impact on the trans community.”
A Vision for the Future
Charlie and her family have followed the bill closely. She said among her many career aspirations her most dearly-held goal is to be a politician.
“I just really want to tell people what it’s like … and how much it took to get there,” she said. “I want to tell them what I’ve been through, and make sure that (it) never happens again.”
Header photo Human Rights Memorial © Aidan Geary
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