Trans rights bill comes after more than a decade of work: activists

Daily Brew

[ Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially announced a trans rights bill Monday while receiving an award from Fondation Émergence in Montreal. TWITTER/Seamus O’Regan]

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a bill affirming the rights of transgender and non-binary Canadians, which activists say has been the result of more than a decade of difficult work.

“We’ve been working on this for a long, long time,” transgender activist Susan Gapka tells Yahoo Canada News. Previous attempts to enshrine protection for transgender and non-binary Canadians at the federal level have stalled due to unacceptable changes to the bills and minority or unsupportive governments, Gapka says.

Justice Minister Wilson-Raybould will introduce the bill in Parliament outlining those rights on Tuesday —the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia — with support from the NDP. Trudeau officially announced the bill late Monday afternoon while receiving an award from Fondation Émergence in Montreal.

The bill follows the lead of laws already in place in Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador by banning discrimination on the basis of both gender identity and gender expression. 

“A group of trans people met with the minister last Tuesday and it’s been confirmed that gender identity and gender expression are both included,” Gapka says.

Gender identity is how people think of themselves while gender expression is how they present themselves or are perceived by other people. 

Including both those factors was important, Gabrielle Bouchard of the Centre for Gender Advocacy tells Yahoo Canada News.

“What we know for sure is that gender identity and gender expression will be included in the bill. This is what we were asking for,” Bouchard says. “Gender expression is way too important to be left out. Now that both are included we have a much better educational tool to be used in the future.”

Under Paul Martin’s minority government, gender identity was dropped from the bill that added sexual orientation to the Criminal Code’s hate crime provision. Disappointed with the change, Gapka says, the trans community began working on two private member’s bills that were introduced in 2005 and included both gender identity and gender expression. The most recent bill had gender expression edited out in committee.

That bill introduced by NDP MP Randall Garrison died in the Senate last year when Conservative Sen. Don Plett introduced an amendment with exemptions for places like public washrooms, prisons and crisis centres.

Access to public washrooms has been a heated matter of national debate in the United States in recent months, as several states have passed bills restricting access for trans and non-binary people. Last week the Obama administration said trans students in public schools must be allowed to use the washrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

Despite increased attention to trans issues and rights, many transgender and non-binary people across Canada still face discrimination and violence. Earlier this month, in one example, a man entered Montreal’s Centre Métropolitain de Chirurgie, the only clinic in Canada that offers all gender-confirmation surgeries, and set a fire in the clinic.

For this reason, Gapka hopes to see protections against hate crimes in the bill on Tuesday. That itself won’t protect trans and non-binary people from violence, she says — after all, assault and murder are already illegal. But the legal protection still matters, she says.

‘Building a better society’

“There is something to be said about strengthening the protections,” Gapka says. “And having it come from a federal government sends a clear message that we are loved and we are protected.”

Federal protection also will include those who fall outside of existing provincial protections, Gapka says, and areas that are under federal jurisdiction like air transportation and the military.

And discrimination still exists nationally even in provinces and territories with protections in place, Bouchard says. In Alberta on Sunday, protestors both for and against trans rights demonstrated in front of the provincial legislature over Bill 10, which set new guidelines for gender expression in schools when passed in 2015. Activists say that while the bill was a positive move, discrimination is still common in the province, CTV News reported. 

“Discrimination against trans people happens daily all across Canada. It’s not a thing of the past, and it’s not a thing of the south,” Bouchard says. “Having this as a tool to be able to educate people about that discrimination is very important.”

While the federal bill is welcome, both Bouchard and Gapka say that more work needs to follow it to create meaningful change in the lives of transgender and non-binary Canadians. 

“After this bill, what needs to come of it is first of all the Canadian government needs to look back at their own rules and regulations to make sure that they obey this,” Bouchard says. “Put your money where your bill is.”

And while she hopes to see some measure of support for older trans and non-binary people who have lived with discrimination over the course of their lives, Gapka says the bill is ultimately part of building a better society for younger Canadians.

“When I was growing up there were no adult role models. It was a criminal act to be who I wanted to be,” Gapka says. “I’m feeling very pleased and very happy and rewarded that after more than a decade of struggle, my rights and my community’s rights will soon be protected by the highest government in the land. But it’s not really about me. It’s about our young people and our children growing up, who are still struggling.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the first transgender rights bill came under Paul Martin’s minority government. In fact, it came after gender identity was dropped from protections for sexual orientation that were brought in under Martin’s Liberals.