In Canada, in fact all around the world, transgender individuals face some of the highest risks of human rights violations of any sector of society. By any measure, the levels of violence, discrimination and other abuses they face are shockingly high.
It is a grave human rights problem in need of attention. More needs to be done to assure and uphold the equality rights of transgender individuals, and protect them from discrimination. More also needs to be done to keep them safe from hateful acts of violence.
For ten years there have been efforts in Parliament to do just that; but a decade later it remains stalled.
Meanwhile the need is urgent. Just consider this handful of statistics. A recent nationwide survey revealed that 74% of transgender youth experience verbal harassment at school and 37% are subject to physical violence. Transgender Ontarians face three times the national unemployment rate; and 43% of transgender Ontarians have attempted suicide at least once.
There is a need for action on many fronts, including school programs, public education, health care and social services. It also, however, necessitates turning to the legal system. We need laws and legal enforcement to ensure that the human rights of transgender people everywhere are upheld and protected.
Attempts to do just that have been winding their way through the Canadian law-making process in the form of various private members bills, since 2005.
The most recent attempt, Bill C-279, is a clear and simple way forward. If passed into law the Bill would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include ‘gender identity’ as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination and would change the Criminal Code to similarly add gender identity under Canada’s hate crimes laws. In a few short paragraphs Bill C-279 would strengthen equality rights and provide greater protection from hateful attacks for transgender individuals.
But this commendable and sorely-needed human rights Bill has been before Parliament for close to four years, having been introduced by British Columbia MP Randall Garrison back in September 2011, and is still not law. And Bill C-279 is not the first attempt. Going back ten years, before C-279 there have been Bills C-392, 326, 494, 389 and 276. Ten years, six attempts, to fill a glaring human rights gap in Canadian law; and still not there.
Meanwhile, 8 provinces and territories (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories) have amended their provincial human rights codes to add gender identity. That notable progress stands in obvious disappointing contrast to a decade of stalling and delays federally.
Bill C-279 has come tantalizingly close but seems doomed to disappear (like its many predecessors) when we head into a federal election later this year.
Remarkably, even though Prime Minister Harper and his government, officially, have opposed Bill C-279, it was not a whipped vote in the House of Commons and 18 government MPs (including four Ministers at the time) voted in favour of its adoption. That was sufficient to ensure it passed the House in March 2013, eighteen months after it was introduced.
But two years later it is still in the Senate, where it has faced at least one determined opponent in Senator Donald Plett. It was referred to the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for review in June 2014. And finally, at the stage of clause-by-clause review of the Bill in late February 2015, Senator Plett proceeded with an amendment he had long been expected to introduce.
Concerned, apparently, that these changes would increase the likelihood that men might pretend to be transgender and dress as women so that they could gain access to public washrooms and sexually assault women, he brought forward what has colloquially come to be known as the “bathroom amendment”. The change means that the new guarantee of non-discrimination on the grounds of gender identity would not extend to ”any service, facility, accommodation or premises that is restricted to one sex only — such as a correctional facility, crisis counselling facility, shelter for victims of abuse, washroom facility, shower facility or clothing changing room.”
Why Senator Plett imagines that a man intent on committing sexual assault in a women’s washroom would only do so if he felt confident that the Canadian Human Rights Act would protect his right to dress as a woman is, to say the least, unclear. Meanwhile the Senator has dismissed the real fears and violence that transgender individuals face every single day across Canada; everywhere, not just in bathrooms and changing rooms.
Ironically, extraordinarily and very worryingly, the change adds discrimination to an amendment the very purpose of which is to prohibit discrimination.
The amendment was adopted by the Senate Committee, with a majority of government Senators. The revised Bill now awaits Third Reading in the Senate.
There were two other changes made to the Bill at the Committee stage. One was an important housekeeping change to ensure that Bill C-279’s changes to the Criminal Code hate crimes provisions would be consistent with recent amendments that were part of Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from On Line Crime Act. One of the provisions in Bill C-13, which became law at the end of 2014, adds “sex” to the Criminal Code hate crimes provisions. Bill C-279 had to be revised to stay current with that change. The other change, which was not considered controversial, was to delete a provision that had offered a definition of gender identity.
If any of these changes are included in the final version of the Bill adopted at Third Reading in the Senate that means the Bill is no longer the same version that was adopted by the House of Commons and would have to return to the House to begin its journey again. There is no way that would be completed before the 2015 election, meaning Bill C-279 would die with this session of Parliament.
As the sitting days left in this session of Parliament dwindle down, it is not at all clear whether Bill C-279, with or without its bathroom amendment, will even make it out of the Senate and back to the House.
What is clear is that transgender individuals in this country appear to be on the verge of being let down once again. There have been committed and eloquent champions of their rights, in both the House and the Senate. But there have been many opponents and others who simply have not cared enough to make this happen in time and with integrity.
It is a struggle that must continue nevertheless.
That means pushing, now, for the bathroom amendment to be removed from the Bill.
That means seeking commitments from candidates and leaders in the 2015 election that they would be prepared to bring the issue of transgender rights back to the next Parliament and ensure a strong and non-discriminatory version of Bill C-279 does become law, and quickly.
The stalling, the misconceptions and the insensitivity shown by many parliamentarians over the four years of debate about C-279 are unworthy of what Canada stands for when it comes to human rights. It is time to turn that around.