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Opposition supports trans rights bill in Commons debate

Tories say gender identity is "vague" and needs definition

Credit: Olivier Bruchez photo, Flickr, CC licence

Opposition parties spoke in support of NDP MP Bill Siksay’s trans rights bill during a Commons debate on Monday, but two Conservative MPs raised concerns.

Siksay’s C-389 would add gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination to the Canadian Human Rights Act. The private member’s bill would also amend the hate crime and sentencing provisions of the Criminal Code to protect trans people.

“I’m really happy that there’s clear support on the opposition benches,” says Siksay. “Even the government’s response raised important questions that need to be answered as part of this debate, and I think can be answered, and answered successfully. I’m still hopeful that we may convince them that this is an important route to take.”

The Conservative government’s prime concerns, raised in debate by both the parliamentary secretary for status of women, Sylvie Boucher, and MP Lois Brown, were that the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression” weren’t spelled out in the bill. They said that vagueness could have unintended legal consequences. Both raised the point that gender expression isn’t found in similar laws in other jurisdictions, and both brought up their government’s tough-on-crime policies to demonstrate their commitment to protecting Canadians.

Neither Boucher nor Brown responded to Xtra’s requests for an interview.

So would Siksay support an amendment to the bill that would spell out those terms?

“I don’t think any of the grounds are defined in the Act now, so I would be really hesitant to add definition for gender identity and expression in the Act,” Siksay says. “That’s just not how the Act has functioned in the past. I think once there are hearings on it, it will become clear that there is an understanding of what gender identity means, and that will answer questions that the government has on that.”

Liberal MP Rob Oliphant says the Conservative objections amount to “splitting hairs.”

“The reality is, gender identity is very well known,” says Oliphant. “GID [Gender Identity Disorder] is part of the medical terminology — people understand it.

“They’re using weasel words to try to get out of supporting this bill because their political base won’t like it. I think the Conservatives understand what [gender expression] means, and they’re simply raising issues to make it more palatable — they don’t want to support this bill obviously, and they’re trying to find a way out, and it’s not going to work.”

Oliphant, a former United Church minister, shared stories about trans people he has known in his personal and pastoral life. On a professional level, Oliphant once chaired the Yukon Human Rights Commission and understands the need for clarity in legislation.

“We can’t assume that people with gender identity issues are going to be included in other terms, whether gender or sexual orientation, because the issues are not sexual orientation or broadly based gender. It’s very specifically people who have gender transition issues.”

NDP MP Olivia Chow related some of her experiences about having a trans woman, Susan Gapka, in her office as a city councillor. Chow says city councillors and staff hassled Gapka about using the women’s washroom.

“It showed the kind of discrimination, day-to-day harassment,” Chow says. “Because her identity is changing, it’s hard enough to be subjected to that kind of constant bombardment and being afraid of being outed, and it’s really difficult. I learned a great deal. Susan’s amazing.”

Oliphant says that the Liberals have discussed the bill in caucus, and he perceives there to be broad support.

Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell signed on as a seconder of Siksay’s bill.

“I think it’s a basic human right in Canada, that everyone should be treated equally,” Bagnell says. “Everyone should have the ability not to be discriminated against, not have hate crimes against [them]. I think Canada can be a lead in this just like when we approved same-sex marriages.”

“It’s really a no-brainer for me — it’s something that should have been done long ago, and I’m happy to support the bill.”

Monday was the first hour of debate during Second Reading of C-389. A second, final hour of debate may occur before the summer break, with a vote to follow. If it passes, the bill would proceed to a Commons committee for further review.

Dale Smith is Xtra‘s federal politics reporter.