For the first time in Canadian history, the federal government has promised to introduce new legislation which will provide new rights for the transgender community.
On Nov. 13, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly released the mandate letters for his Cabinet, which outlined the priorities for each department. In the mandate letter addressed to Jody Wilson-Raybould, the newly appointed minister of justice and attorney general, Trudeau provided a 15-point list which covered a variety of topics from the legalization of marijuana to repealing certain sections of the previous government’s controversial anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.
Most interesting for the transgender community was the final point which says the department should introduce legislation that will make gender identity a “prohibited ground for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act” and make the transgender community an “identifiable group protected by the hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code.”
These types of issues are important in order for transgender people to feel safe and to be comfortable in their own skin.— Talia Johnson
For Stephen Hartley, president of the PFLAG Canada – an organization that is committed to advancing LGBT rights – this legislation is long overdue.
“It would definitely be a step in the right direction,” said Hartley. “If this legislation passes, it would bring the transgender community at least a bit closer to equality.”
Canada’s understanding and acceptance of the transgender community has arguably grown over the past few years thanks to the advocacy efforts of LGBT groups and transgender celebrity figures such as Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Caitlyn Jenner.
As a transgender woman and activist, Talia Johnson hopes the recent increase in popularity of these stories will help to push forward this legislation in the upcoming Parliament session.
“The mandate announced by the federal government will certainly make a huge difference in terms of human rights,” said Johnson.
“We already have similar legislation in a number of provinces including Alberta which just introduced new legislation [on Nov. 19],” she said.
“Human rights legislation is an important step toward reducing discrimination and violence against transgender people.”
Addressing the lack of transgender rights in other areas
Introducing new legislation is a good primer for protecting the transgender community, but Johnson also points out the importance of ongoing education about transgender issues both at the individual and organizational levels.
“Transgender people face an inordinate amount of violence, and often this type of transphobia is invisible to other people around them,” said Johnson.
“Part of the work I do is offering training and workshops to organizations who are seeking to learn about transgender issues and how they can better serve and work with transgender people.”
In light of the mandate letter addressed to Wilson-Raybould, Johnson hopes that MPs will be encouraged to pursue other legislative protections for the transgender community.
“There are many issues that have yet to be fully addressed, such as better access to health care,” said Johnson.
Currently in Ontario for example, medical procedures such as hair removal, chest contouring, or vocal surgery are not covered by the province’s provincial health care plan.
For many people, these medical procedures are an essential part of their personal transition. But due to high medical costs, they often are not financially attainable.
“These types of issues are important in order for transgender people to feel safe and to be comfortable in their own skin,” said Johnson.
Infographic created by Kate Hawkins and Arianna Danganan
Previous attempts at legislating transgender rights in Canada
Although this is the first time that the government in power will attempt to introduce transgender rights legislation, there have been two previous attempts in the past to introduce legal protections through Private Member’s bills.
In 2009, New Democrat MP Bill Siksay introduced Bill C-389, a piece of legislation that outlined the same priorities for the transgender community as the ones listed in Trudeau’s mandate letter to Wilson-Raybould. Despite being a private member’s bill, the legislation garnered support from all parties and passed in the House of Commons by a small margin of 143 in favour of the legislation and 135 against. But the bill died in the Senate when the 2011 federal election was called.
In 2011, New Democrat MP Randall Garrison tried to revive the legislation by introducing Bill C-279 – a bill which carried forward key tenets of the previous bill.
In this version of the bill, there was significant controversy over an amendment proposed by Conservative Senator Don Plett. The suggested amendment exempted “sex-segregated” areas from adhering to the legislation proposed in the bill.
In a senate committee meeting, Plett argued that allowing individuals to self-identify as the opposite gender would grant them “unrestricted access to sex-specific facilities on federal jurisdiction” including public washrooms, changing rooms and women’s shelters. Plett argued this would compromise the safety of vulnerable individuals since there is no way to prevent sexual predators or violent offenders from self-identifying as another gender in order to gain access to these areas.
Due to delays associated with the proposed amendments, the transgender rights legislation died for a second time on the Senate’s order papers when Parliament’s most recent session ended for the 2015 federal election. In a previous interview with the Toronto Star, Garrison said that this amendment was “designed to provide additional delay” so that the bill would be forced back to the House of Commons.
When asked about the future of the proposed legislation in the mandate letter, the department of justice stated that they cannot speculate on specific details.
“It is worth noting however, that Bill C-389 and C-279 were private member’s bills,” said media relations advisor Ian McLeod.
“Any legislation brought forward by the government on gender identity would be treated differently, since it would be a government bill.”
Since the government is now under Liberal power, it is more likely that the bill will receive enough support in the House of Commons.
However, given that a significant portion of the Senate remains Conservative – and therefore may disagree with the premise of the proposed bill – Trudeau’s push for stronger transgender rights may face yet another roadblock in the future.
Bringing forward transgender rights in 2015
For the past three years, Johnson has been the organizing chair of the Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil held in Ottawa.
Started in 1999 in San Francisco, the annual vigil acknowledges the losses that the transgender community has experienced as a result of transphobia and transmisogyny. Over the past sixteen years, the vigil has expanded to hundreds of cities around the world, and is held each year on Nov. 20 as a public reminder of the constant struggles that the transgender community faces legally, socially and politically.
This year’s vigil in Ottawa was held at the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, a national memorial that is the gathering place for many human rights events in Ottawa.
“The vigil is when we take a moment to acknowledge our individual and collective grief as a community,” said Johnson.
“For many it quite important. Others mark the day in other ways, either attending more celebratory events, being alone or with small groups of friends. We find meaning in different ways and I hope that the vigil helped those who attended find meaning and connection.”
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