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Experts scheduled to testify on trans-rights bill in April

Senate drew out deliberation of Bill C-16 for 13 weeks

Bill C-16 would encode gender identity and expression into Canada’s human-rights and hate-crime laws.

Credit: torbakhopper/Flickr/Creative Commons

Experts will be called to testify in April 2017, on a bill aimed at encoding trans rights in Canadian law, after the Senate delayed the bill’s deliberation over the course of 13 weeks.

Bill C-16 is likely to pass a committee study without major amendments that gutted similar legislation in 2013, according to senators, despite some of their colleagues opposing the bill’s potential costs and espousing theories that it will lead to a crackdown on free speech.

On May 17, 2016, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould tabled Bill C-16, which would enshrine protection from discrimination based on gender identity and expression into Canada’s human-rights and hate-crime laws. 

The House of Commons passed Bill C-16 on Nov 18, 2016, after the government fast-tracked the bill’s committee phase in the House. The Senate then took up the bill, starting its second reading Nov 28, 2016.

But the bill has languished through six weeks of Senate breaks and 23 sitting days in the chamber, 16 of which saw the bill postponed without debate. In the same time frame, two other bills started and completed their second-reading phase.

A Senate committee has now invited the justice minister to testify on Bill C-16 in the first week of April. Her appearance should be followed by four two-hour sessions of testimony by experts, such as human-rights lawyers, activists that support or oppose the legislation, and psychologists. The committee will then study the bill clause by clause.

Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell, the bill’s sponsor, notes that the House passed a similar bill back in 2009, only to see it die in the Senate. “It’s been eight years. It’s way past due; this is a human rights issue, and every day that it’s not passed is a day that injustice is perpetrated.”

The debate 

Four Conservative senators have spoken against Bill C-16. Some cited the controversy surrounding University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. Others took aim at campaigns for and against the bill.

Meanwhile, 13 senators spoke in support of the bill, including new senators like André Pratte.

“Gays and lesbians have made great strides in their fight against prejudice. Transgender people are just beginning their journey. By passing Bill C-16, we can help them take a crucial step,” he said.

But minutes later, Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak warned the bill would lead to higher taxes to fund lawsuits and public-awareness campaigns, and force businesses to buy new bathroom signs.

“There is simply not enough taxpayers in our nation to pay for everyone’s preference or choice,” Beyak said.

She praised John McKellar, a ’90s activist who founded Homosexuals Opposed to Pride Extremism “to prevent the radicals of the gay movement, who expected all of Canada to be their closet, from setting the agenda.” 

“My other gay friends” agree, Beyak said, that “by living in quiet dignity, they have never had to face any kind of discrimination or uncomfortable feelings.”

Beyak added that “sex education is better left to parents,” because the topic takes up scarce classroom time. She also said her northwest Ontario district would be best left to make its own choices on bathroom signs.

“We do things differently in Rainy River than they do in Vancouver or Montreal, and we certainly know our needs much better than folks in Ottawa or Toronto,” Beyak said.

Beyak’s comments prompted outcry and mockery from trans people and allies.

Mitchell says the debate was “a juxtaposition of where the society had been

and where it is going,” noting that many senators spoke about discrimination they had witnessed. “There wasn’t one that wasn’t moving.”

The delays

Conservative and Liberal-leaning senators blamed each other for the bill’s delay, with Mitchell noting that Senator Don Plett — who opposed a similar previous bill on the grounds of perverts allegedly assaulting children in bathrooms — repeatedly left the chamber around his scheduled time to speak.

In a response, Plett noted that the government had set six other bills as a priority. 

Because Bill C-16 is a government bill, Liberal head Peter Harder could have invoked time allocation, ruling that enough debate had taken place. Harder’s office did not respond to Xtra’s interview request.

But Mitchell says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to make senators independent means the Liberals can no longer force them to vote along government lines. He also says it’s a measure of last resort. “Time allocation is just the flipside of those who oppose delaying by adjourning.”

Committee likely favours bill

Bill C-16 has now been assigned to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, where 15 senators will closely examine the legislation. 

It was at this stage that the same committee gutted similar legislation in 2013. When a Senate committee studied Bill C-279, Plett amended it to exempt trans protection in jails, women’s shelters, bathrooms and change rooms, warning “it allows for pedophiles to take advantage of legislation.” 

As a non-government bill, C-279 spent 20 months in the Senate, whose committee was preoccupied with tough-on-crime bills at the time, before Parliament ended with the summer 2015 election call.

But on Dec 14, 2016, the Senate reshuffled its committee seats for the first time since the election. 

Bill C-16 is facing a committee with six senators appointed by Trudeau, three members of the Liberal caucus and six Conservatives, just half of whom voted for the 2013 bathroom amendment: Denise Batters, Jean-Guy Dagenais and Paul McIntyre. In an Xtra survey in November 2016, Batters’ office said she’d have to study Bill C-16 before deciding whether to support it, while the other two did not reply.

Mitchell says the committee’s new structure, along with evolving popular opinion, give Bill C-16 a much better chance than its predecessors.

“The public society really has evolved, and is much more supportive of the plight of trans people,” he says. “We are fair and we are just. Sometimes it takes society a while to get there, but we get there.”