Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island have become the latest provinces to explicitly add protections for trans people into their human rights codes, with provincial legislatures passing amendments adding “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination on Nov 25 and Dec 6, respectively.
Newfoundland Justice Minister Darin King credited openly lesbian NDP MHA Gerry Rogers with bringing the issue to his attention, despite his initially siding with a 2009 review of the province’s Human Rights Act that concluded that an amendment was unnecessary since the Human Rights Commission understands gender identity and expression to be included under the ground of “sex.”
Trans activist Jennifer McCreath, who has been pushing the Newfoundland government to amend the human rights code for years, says the new changes will make it easier to advance the cause of trans equality.
“It allows for better record keeping. Now we’re finally going to be able to track specifically instances of discrimination for transgender issues as opposed to sex issues,” she says.
The changes in PEI came as a surprise and were not controversial, says Sarah Smith, communications coordinator at the Abegweit Rainbow Collective of PEI. The bill was first proposed in the legislature on Nov 13 and passed just three weeks later.
“It happened pretty fast,” Smith says. “It’s always been something that small organizations have been requesting. I think with it being legislated across Canada, the PEI government felt the push.
“With PEI, we’re just so small, you get either a lot of people for or a lot of people against. We didn’t really have a lot of negativity,” she says.
The two provinces join Ontario and Nova Scotia, which have added explicit protections for “gender identity” and “gender expression” in their human rights legislation. Manitoba and the Northwest Territories protect “gender identity” only.
In all other provinces, the provincial human rights commission interprets the law to include protections for trans people under various grounds, such as “sexual discrimination” (British Columbia), “gender” (Alberta) or “sex” (Saskatchewan, Quebec and New Brunswick). The Yukon and Nunavut human rights commissions do not include any information about trans people on their websites.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission, which adjudicates complaints against the federal government and federally regulated businesses, such as banks or telecom companies, considers trans people to be protected under “sex” in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
But trans rights groups want explicit protections under the law. An NDP-sponsored private member’s bill, C-279, which adds “gender identity” to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the hate crime sections of the Criminal Code, passed through the House of Commons in the spring but remains at second reading in the Senate.
Bills to explicitly protect trans people in provincial human rights codes have now passed through governments of all stripes: NDP in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, Liberal in PEI and Ontario, and Progressive Conservative in Newfoundland.
“The fact that a PC government is doing this is a clear indication that trans human rights is not a political issue. It’s a human issue,” McCreath says.
But McCreath is not happy with C-279. She says the fact that the bill does not include “gender expression” as a prohibited ground for discrimination leaves trans people vulnerable. She’s started a website to protest the current version of the federal bill.
“A lot of people don’t know my identity; it’s how I express myself that may lead to discrimination,” she says. “If you’re not going to include gender expression, then you shouldn’t pass the bill. I’d like to see the Senate restore expression.”
For queer Islanders, the changes to human rights legislation are just the beginning of a more complex campaign to get the provincial government to provide the necessary medical and social resources to trans people.
PEI is one of only two provinces where sex-reassignment surgery is not covered (the other is New Brunswick), and most trans-related health issues have to be taken care of off-island, in Halifax. Nova Scotia briefly considered delisting the surgery in June but reversed course after pressure from queer activists.
“It’s all part of the advocacy. Hopefully, [SRS coverage] is next to come,” Smith says. “It’d be nice to see some of the more preliminary processes done on the island, such as getting on hormones . . . so they don’t have to deal with transportation or financial issues. Whether they have to actually go out of province for the final SRS, that can be understandable, but simple things can probably be done on the island.”
Although Newfoundland’s health plan covers SRS, it does not cover “top surgery” and requires patients who want genital surgery to travel to Toronto for a recommendation from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. McCreath says she’d like to see the province’s Human Rights Commission be a more vocal advocate for fairness in the health system.
“We’ve actually seen three or four trans men go public with fundraising, soliciting donations for their surgeries,” McCreath says.