C-279: To amend or not to amend?

… aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand we still don’t know what Bill C-279 is going to be when it’s voted on at Third Reading.

The bill, which proposes to add trans people to human rights legislation, had an hour of debate at report stage.  Randall Garrison requested that amendments be added to the bill, and the Speaker decided that they should be debated and voted on by the House, prior to Third Reading.  This was the first hour of that, with a second to follow.  Consequently, we still didn’t get any yes / no answer on whether those changes would be made.  Garrison anticipates that the changes are needed in order to have enough multi-party support to pass the bill.

For folks confused by mention that there are nine amendments, that means that the text of the bill is amended in nine places.  What it accomplishes is to drop “gender expression,” to define “gender identity” (details and my take on those changes here), and to correct it by adding some classes that have already been added to existing legislation since Bill Siksay first composed the text of this bill (“marital status, family status, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered”).

Interestingly, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice (Robert Goguen) and two other Conservative MPs (Dan Albas and David Anderson) cite four examples to claim that inclusion is not necessary.  They all avoided talking about outcomes, by using phrasing like “the court dealt with the complaint[s] using the ground of sex.”  There is a reason for this, because one was ultimately decided against a trans woman in the B.C. Court of Appeal (Nixon v. RR), and another may have been arbitrarily ignored by a direct order from the Harper Government (Kavanagh v. Correctional Services of Canada)… although there’s some uncertainty about what policy is actually being practiced in the correctional system, right now.  Ironically, half of the Conservatives’ own examples actually demonstrate why clarity is needed.

Several commentators referred to the testimony of representatives of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, acknowledging that technically, transsexuals were already read into existing legislation.  Randall Garrison correctly notes that they (particularly Ian Fine) did so reluctantly, while also stating that clarification would be helpful.

MP Anderson kept falsely characterizing the bill as “expanding the definition of sexual orientation to gender expression and to gender identity.”  Anderson (who showed up to be part part of the attempt to filibuster the committee proceedings, despite the fact that he was not a voting member of the committee) had his speech cut short by the end of session, and he will be continuing when debate resumes.

Highlights and lowlights of the debate can be found in the Hansard (audio, starting after 4:30), but here are some excerpts:

Randall Garrison:

… As we have just heard, the package of amendments is quite complex, but it really only does two things. Nine amendments are required because of the complexity of legal drafting, but again, only two things are happening here.

The first is that the bill adds the definition of “gender identity”, which we just heard the Speaker read out in the House. The second is that the term “gender expression” is removed from the bill.

I hope this reassures those members who wanted a somewhat narrower bill, a bill that was somewhat easier to explain in public, and a bill that might rule out some of the more extreme concerns or fears that some people had. I believe that if we approve these amendments, we will have that bill in front of us.

There were some concerns about “gender expression” being less well defined in law and that this would somehow open the gates to abusive practices on the basis of the gender identity bill. I will be very frank and talk about the main one of those, which was the concern that somehow people could use this bill to gain illegitimate access to public bathrooms and change rooms in order to commit what would always be criminal acts of assault.

I contacted the jurisdictions in the United States that have had these provisions in place for a very long time. Four of those did reply, those being California, Iowa, Colorado and the state of Washington. All of them reported the same thing: there have been no instances in any of those states of attempts to use the protections for transgendered people for illegal or illegitimate purposes—no incidents, zero, none.

There have been concerns on the other side from members of the transgendered community or those who have gender variant expressions that they wish to carry out. To them I would say that this is a somewhat narrower bill, but we believe that it preserves the essence of the protections we are seeking here, which is that transgendered and gender variant persons should have the same rights as all other Canadians.

If these amendments are adopted, it would be a somewhat narrower bill than that passed by the previous Parliament.

I have to take a moment to pay tribute to former MP Bill Siksay, who brought that bill forward through the minority Parliament. However, the bill died on the order paper of the Senate as a result of an election call.

If we approve these amendments and we go on to adopt this bill, what is it that we would actually be doing here? I am arguing that we are simply completing the Canadian human rights agenda. This bill would create no special rights, no additional rights and no unusual rights, but would simply provide the same rights, no more and no less, to transgendered and gender variant Canadians.

Another argument against the bill has been that it is not necessary to have it, that somehow people are already protected in Canada. I have a legal answer to that, and then I have a practical answer to it.

The legal answer is that we heard from the Canadian Human Rights Commission in committee that it would be very useful to clarify the law by having this explicit mention of transgendered rights in the Canadian Human Rights Act and in the hate crime section of the Criminal Code. It is true that in the past the Human Rights Commission and the tribunal have decided cases involving transgendered Canadians on the basis of sex discrimination; however, as they have pointed out, that is no guarantee that all future cases would meet the test of sex discrimination. Therefore, in order to make sure that all the possible issues that might arise are covered, it would be better to have an explicit statement in both the Canadian Human Rights Act and in the hate crime section of the Criminal Code….

Robert Goguen (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice):

… As I have said, the ground of sex is already in the act and has been used to address instances of discrimination against this group. The addition of gender identity is therefore unnecessary.

However, if its addition is not purely symbolic, as the sponsor tells us it is not, then we would ask ourselves this. If this ground were to be added to the Canadian Human Rights Act, what sorts of new complaints of discrimination will be brought before the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Tribunal? How will employers know what kinds of workplace behaviour and expression would be prohibited? The answers to these questions are not clear to me and they are questions that we should carefully consider…

Irwin Cotler:

… As I mentioned with respect to the exclusion of “gender expression”, it was initially my preference that both terms remain in the bill. Again, I am cognizant of the possibility that even in the absence of “gender expression”, the term “gender identity” might, through case law and through an appreciation of travaux préparatoires, eventually come to encompass part or all that would have been protected by the former.

… To start, they [opposing Conservatives] came with their own amendments, including a handful that only reinforced the status quo formula of “sex” and “disability”. Then there was a frivolous amendment exempting official Canadian sports authorities from the provisions of the bill, as if to contain some fictional mass of men trying to compete in women’s sports, and vice versa. Finally, there was an out-of-context amendment that sought to ensure that no part of the Canadian Human Rights Act could infringe upon the rights of aboriginal peoples. While I firmly believe that we should only enact legislation that is mindful of the rights of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, I found there was no reason to codify this specific protection into the act, as the charter supersedes any statutory act, which is clearly set forth in section 52 of the Constitution Act. It appeared that this, too, was a diversionary item…

Kennedy Stewart:

… Passing the bill into law would be an important step forward for Canadians expressing themselves as transgendered. Trans people have regularly been shown that they are denied things that we all take for granted, such as adequate access to health care and housing, the ability to obtain or change identification documents, access to washrooms and other gender stations, as well as very fundamental rights such as the ability to exercise the right to vote and to acquire and maintain meaningful employment…

… We need to do this in the spirit of the anti-bullying pink shirt day that we are seeing here in Canada. Wearing a pink shirt is a good thing. It shows that Canadians care. However, this is an opportunity to actually do something concrete, to change the laws of our country to make sure that people who are facing discrimination are no longer discriminated against, or if they are, that they have remedy within our legal system, whether it is the Canadian Human Rights Act or the Criminal Code, in order to make sure that they obtain justice and are able to pursue their lives as they see fit.

What we need to take into account also is how the trans community is suffering under the current circumstances. Worldwide since 1970, 717 trans people have been reported as murdered. However, this of course is a severe undercount, because many countries do not collect adequate statistics in this area, nor do they correctly record violence against the trans community….

Dan Albas:

… By adding the proposed definition for the term “gender identity” in Bill C-279’s preamble, it remains unclear what situations it would cover and how the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, or the criminal courts and the sentencing judges, would interpret these terms. This gives rise to the potential for subjective interpretations. These interpretations do not provide clarity nor certainty. In the absence of having greater certainty and a clear definition, it is important to recognize that existing laws already do apply to discrimination against transsexuals…

Mylène Freeman:

… Dr. Shuvo Ghosh, who is a trailblazer in this field is a pediatrician, a developmental-behavioural pediatrician to be specific, and an assistant professor at McGill University and at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, noticed that he was seeing more and more transgendered children and decided that he would open a clinic to specifically support their needs. It is the first one of its kind, in fact. I am very happy and proud that it is in my province of Quebec and so close to my home in Montreal.

Dr. Ghosh wrote me this letter to share with the House:

 (quoting) To the Honourable Members of the 41st Parliament of Canada:

Last year when Bill C-389 passed its third reading in the House of Commons, many questioned the wisdom of enshrining “gender identity” or “gender expression” in the Canadian Human Rights Act and whether this was redundant given that “sex” is already protected. With the NDP’s Private Member Bill on Gender Identity now up for debate, these questions are once again being raised. As a paediatrician who cares for gender non-conforming children, adolescents and their families who are part of the roughly 1-2% of all Canadians with differences in their gender expression, I would like to highlight the main reasons why this issue is crucial for Canadian society.

While “gender identity” and “sex” are related terms, they are no synonymous. The most obvious example of this dichotomy is in children born with medical intersex conditions who identify more with one gender of another, or rarely, neither or both; but their physical sexual characteristics frequently do not correspond with their identity. Are we to conclude, then, that they fall outside the protection of the Human Rights Act because their “sex” is indeterminate or incongruent with their behaviour? Youth with any variation in their gender identity…have been shown, in numerous studies and in various clinical databases, to be the group most vulnerable to extreme and violent bullying, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

Adolescents with gender variance are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than any other sub-group of teens, including other recognized and protected vulnerable populations. They are also the most likely to be rejected by peers and family members, and often lacking even any legal recourse to simply “be” who they are, frequently enter a spiral of self-harm that can lead to substance abuse and alcoholism. This heartbreaking distress is seen and reported even in children as young as 4 years old who simply recognize that their gender identity does not correspond with their anatomic sex, and have asked their parents to help them die. So many families of gender variant kids experience severe discrimination, societal rejection, and serious psycho-social difficulty. This translates to higher levels of divorce, greater school and emotional problems in siblings, and severe marginalization. These families need their children to be recognized, included and protected, just as any family does.

Isn’t it fair for Canada to stand up and to stand together, to say that our most vulnerable children and teens deserve to be specifically protected for the very characteristic that makes them vulnerable? Do we as a nation not have the responsibility to enshrine gender identity in the Canadian Human Rights Act? It is imperative. The medical evidence supports it; and these young Canadians, slipping through the cracks of our society, deserve to have their tears of loneliness and rejection wiped away so that instead of living and dying in fear, they may grow up to share and contribute to this wonderful country in which we are so privileged to live… (still quoting)

David Anderson (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and for the Canadian Wheat Board):

… The desperate attempt, I would say, by member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca to amend the bill shows that the bill itself is not adequate. The bill is just not up to the level it needs to be in order for anyone to support it in this House. The amendments to the act as proposed by Bill C-279 are largely symbolic and vague, and I would say that they risk introducing confusion to the law. I would suggest as well that the amendments he is making do not add anything to it.

The bill is not properly designed to remedy the supposed social problem that it is aimed at addressing, and I would argue that it is largely unnecessary as well. For those reasons and a couple of others, I will be opposing Bill C-279.

… I understand that the member is now starting to try to put definition into some of these things because he is afraid he is going to lose the bill, and I think that he should lose it. Expanding the definition of sexual orientation to gender expression and to gender identity in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code makes who and what is being protected even less clear than it is. If the member’s purpose was to clarify the existing grounds, which I would maintain is unnecessary, he could have proposed adding an appropriate definition to the Canadian Human Rights Act. He did not do that. He has come back lately with an attempt to do that, but it was not his intention at the beginning.

… I would suggest that even with the definition he is trying to add today, he probably is still thinking that hopefully the courts and the human rights commissions will define it. However, I would argue that it is inadequate for a legislator to proceed in this way.

If our role is to bring laws forward, they should be brought forward with enough content that the courts and commissions are not the ones who are defining what those bills are and what they say. I believe that is inappropriate. It is an abdication of our parliamentary responsibility to pass laws that would leave us in a situation like that. For parliamentarians to leave new and undefined terms to the courts and human rights tribunals, I would argue, is risky and irresponsible.

I also want to point out—and I think this is probably something that the member hopes will happen—that when the courts rule on these grounds, they usually assume that the old language was inadequate and that they should make new and broader interpretations and that such broader interpretations must be sought…

Previous records or notes:

3 thoughts on “C-279: To amend or not to amend?”

  1. Also it’s fascinating how all the detractors of the bill use ‘transexuals’ exculsively, while supporters primarily use ‘transgender’. Gotta keep pushing the sex sex sex!

  2. Actually, the reason the opposing Conservatives are focusing on transsexuals exclusively might be an attempt to obscure the fact that there are more people who are trans and need legal inclusion than just transitioning people. As long as they stick to “transsexual,” their claim that protections are unnecessary is an easier sell.

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