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Trans Bill C-279 stalled once more

Bill to protect human rights of trans people finds harsh opponents in Senate

Trans activist Joanne Law, Senator Grant Mitchell and MP Randall Garrison at Gender Mosaic’s 25th anniversary reception on May 29, 2013. Credit: Bradley Turcotte

A Senate justice committee heard more of the same on Oct 9 as it continued its interminable study of the stalled, and likely doomed, trans rights bill.

Bill C-279 — which has now been passed through the House of Commons twice, considered by the Senate twice and studied by the Senate committee once — had two days of hearings that stacked the increased calls to pass the bill onto the volumes of endorsements for the legislation.

The bill, as drafted, is meant to codify human-rights protections for trans people in the federal Human Rights Act, allowing them to file complaints over workplace harassment and offering a clear indication to the courts and the community that the government believes these protections should be afforded to the trans population. It would ensure that any hate crimes committed against trans people would be investigated and prosecuted as such.

One of the bill’s harshest opponents, Senator Donald Plett, dredged out his reasoning — previously trumpeted by Rob Anders — that the legislation would allow sexual predators into women’s washrooms.

In questioning Ryan Dyck, the research coordinator at Egale Canada, Plett read a letter from a man who expressed concern over the “awkwardness” of his daughter or mother “sharing [washrooms] with the opposite gender.”

It’s a preoccupation that consumed Plett for much of the hearings.

“Apparently, 0.3 percent of the people in our country are trans. Are we not infringing and trumping people’s rights by giving trans people the right to go into these areas?” he asked at the first hearing.

While it might be otherwise unremarkable that a senator opposes the bill, Senator Plett has considerable power to hold up the bill, or to kill it outright, if he sees fit.

Under Senate rules, Plett could move to adjourn debate in the Senate — as he has done several times in the past — pushing the debate further and further back until it becomes near-certain that it will not be considered before Parliament dissolves ahead of the next election, effectively killing the bill.

Plett also spent much of the committee hearings asking about amendments. Amending the bill would mean that it would have to be sent back to the House of Commons for a further vote, which it might not survive.

Either way, the senator made quite clear during the hearings that he wasn’t going down without a fight.

“How can this 0.3 percent of society trump the rights of my grandchildren, my granddaughters?” he asked.

Senators like Plett are seemingly intent on killing this bill, and it might just be at the behest of the Harper government.

Many of the witnesses have already been through the wringer of committee hearings, pointing out that trans people face greatly elevated levels of discrimination and violence. A new face to the process was Jesse Thompson, who won the right to use the change room of his choice on his hockey team, thanks to Toby’s Law, which enshrined similar rights for trans people into the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“It was just such a big thing,” Thompson told the committee via video link. “Now all these kids can start to feel equal and not have to hide out and stay home anymore. They can go out and see their friends, be a part of their team and play sports with their guy friends because they can just be equal; they are part of the team now and not left out. I was just really excited and happy.”

Not all the Conservative senators appeared against the bill — Liberals believe they have more than a dozen Conservatives who will vote to support the bill, if it ever comes to a vote.

Those that do oppose it do so because they say the bill is unnecessary, as courts and tribunals already consider trans people protected.

But Egale’s research suggests that there has never been a single case of violence against trans people treated as a hate crime, despite there being ample instances of violence directed against the community.

Michael Crystal, a prominent human rights lawyer, argued that forcing trans people to argue themselves into another protected class like “disability or “sex” will frustrate their efforts. He added that there is an obvious benefit to formalizing the rights.

“The moment that you have enumerated ground like gender identity, the wheels in the bureaucracy start spinning. You start to get guidelines and these types of reports that we have here: policies on preventing discrimination because of gender discrimination,” he told the committee.

Two of the more forcefully supportive endorsements came via the Ottawa Police Service.

“It’s our strong belief that the inclusion of hate crimes and the appropriate sentencing practices associated with those offenders does play a role in reducing further victimization,” superintendent Don Sweet said.

Witnesses also pointed out that these amendments would push police services into reporting statistics on hate crimes against trans people, as they currently do for violence against gay, lesbian and bisexual Canadians.

It’s unclear what the timeline will be for the bill’s progression, but neither the senators nor the House of Commons sponsors for the bill have much hope that it will actually become law under this government.