Service Canada's gender neutral directive is 'confusing' and 'will be corrected' says minister

Canadian flag in Toronto (Getty)

A federal cabinet minister says a directive to Service Canada agents telling them to use gender-neutral language — such as 'parent' instead of 'mother' or 'father' — when speaking to the public was badly worded and will be corrected.

The directive, obtained by Radio Canada, the French-language arm of CBC, instructs Service Canada employees who interact with the public to stay away from terms such as Mr., Mrs., father and mother, and to "use gender-neutral language or gender-inclusive language."

"This avoids portraying a perceived bias toward a particular sex or gender," says a copy of speaking notes prepared for managers and team leaders. "It is important that Service Canada, as an organization, reflects Canada's diverse population and ensures that the views and interests of Canadians are taken into account when we develop policies, programs, services and initiatives."

The move was quickly mocked by the Conservative opposition, who suggested Father's Day and Mother's Day would be renamed to be gender-neutral.

But in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos said that the directive is more about asking Canadians how they want to be addressed — and then following that advice.

"The directive that was sent this morning was confusing it will be corrected ... so that it's clear Service Canada agents have the respectful responsibility to do exactly what they are paid to do," Duclos told guest host David Cochrane.

Duclos went on to say that agents will continue to use honorifics such as Mr. and Ms., providing the people they're speaking to agree to be identified with those terms.

"Now, when there is uncertainty as to how Canadians want to be respectfully greeted by Service Canada agents, Service Canada agents will politely and respectfully ask Canadians how they want to be greeted."

The uncorrected guidelines rule out using terms such as mother and father because they are "gender specific" and say the neutral word "parent" should be used instead.

The same goes for honorifics such as Mr., Mrs., and Ms., and in both languages. Instead, the guidelines instruct employees to address customers by their full names, or to ask them what they want to be called.

Service Canada helps Canadians connect with a variety of government programs, including Employment Insurance, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security.

Updating government forms

According to an official — who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak on the issue — the new directive is already in place and has led to some difficult situations for civil servants.

"It happens that we talk to people and we ask, 'What is the name of parent number one?' People do not understand," said the official.

Helen Kennedy, executive director of the LGBT rights group Egale Canada, said her group was "very pleased" to hear about the changes. She said people who don't fit into "neat boxes" often have uncomfortable and negative experiences accessing government programs.

She also urged the government to provide staff with training on why it's important to properly gender people.

"Otherwise there will be a state of confusion," she said.

Conservative MP and Treasury Board critic Gérard Deltell said there are more important issues for the government to concentrate on right now.

"Maybe one day this government will decide to cancel each and every Mother's Day or a Father's Day," he said.

In addition to the changes in how staff interact with the public, the directive indicates that Service Canada is also in the process of amending some service forms, including the Social Insurance Number application form.

Canadians are already able to identify as gender 'X' on their passports.

The new directive also includes a warning that agency employees will be observed to ensure they are following the protocols.

"Going forward, the proper use of gender-neutral language will also be added to the observations in the In-Person Quality Monitoring Program," the directive said.

Earlier this year, a same-sex couple from Nova Scotia called for Service Canada to update its forms so that men don't have to declare a "maiden name" in order to get SIN numbers for their children.

Nick Bonnar and Graham MacDonnell said they ran into a roadblock when an agent told them they had to provide a maiden name to complete and process the electronic form.

Last summer, the Liberal government passed a law enshrining protections for transgender Canadians. The bill updates the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include the terms "gender identity" and "gender expression."