Canada will finally push through legal protections for its transgender minority on Tuesday, after more than a decade of debate on the matter.
The change would grant federal protections to prevent eviction, discrimination, and violence against transgender and non-gender binary Canadians.
Asked directly about the changes, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told VICE News that Tuesday — May 17, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia — would be “a very big day.”
Michael Davis, director of communications for the minister, remained largely evasive about exactly what would be announced on next week, but pointed to the mandate letter for Minister Wilson-Raybould, which commits her to “introduce government legislation to add gender identity as a prohibited ground for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act” and to add it as an “identifiable group” that is protected from hate speech in the Criminal Code, which could also give direction to the courts on recognizing violence based on an individual’s gender identity as a hate crime for the purposes of sentencing.
When she was asked directly about the legislation in the House of Commons last Tuesday, the minister told opposition Member of Parliament Randall Garrison — who had been pushing the bill through the House of Commons since 2011 — that “legislation will be coming forward very shortly.”
If the legislation is introduced into the House of Commons on Tuesday, it would likely become law before the summer.
Garrison told VICE News that, in his discussions with the justice minister, he’s been assured that the forthcoming legislation will be either identical, or quite similar to the legislation he’s been fighting for, entitled bill C-279.
“It’s the beginning of the changes we need to see,” Garrison said. And while he cautions that there is a lot of work to be done, but said that this law would give “a very clear basis in law for forcing those policy changes.”
Last year, a VICE documentary investigated the political, regulatory, and financial barriers that make it difficult for trans Canadians to obtain healthcare.
The effect of the new laws would be to give trans Canadians protection from discrimination in federal workplaces or federally-managed housing, and to recognize violence targeting trans people as a hate crime. It could also open the door to improving trans healthcare access.
Before he was elected prime minister, VICE asked Justin Trudeau about whether he would commit to advancing the cause of trans Canadians.
“The federal government needs to do an awful lot more to stand up for trans rights,” Trudeau said, adding that he would bring up the issue of healthcare for trans people — which is largely not covered under Canada’s public health system — with the provinces, who manage health delivery.
The effort to enshrine those protections in law has had a tortured history. The legislation was first introduced by the New Democratic Party in 2004 — before even gay marriage became the law of the land — it was ignored and voted down until 2010, when Siksay finally convinced a majority of the House of Commons to support the bill.
But procedural quirks of Canada’s parliamentary system and stalling tactics meant the bill would pass through the lower house three different times, only to be killed in the Senate — Canada’s unelected upper house that normally approves all legislation sent to it.
In 2014, VICE interviewed senators that confirmed that they were actively working to thwart the bill and obtained records showing that the government led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had actively worked behind the scenes in order to stop its passage. Last year, the Senate amended the legislation to specifically permit discrimination against trans Canadians, although that bill died when an election was called last summer.
Garrison is hopeful that, because the government is championing the bill this time instead of fighting against it, the Senate will get in line and support the legislation. There, however, is no certainty in that.
Rhetoric from opponents of the legislation — who dubbed it “the bathroom bill” — was virtually identical to the arguments put forward by social conservative groups currently defending discriminatory laws in North Carolina, which forces transgender males into female washrooms, and vice versa, based on the notion that their sex at birth should determine which facility to use.
Several provinces have already introduced human rights protections for the trans community, but only the federal government can change the criminal law. The federal legislation will also specifically cover the federal public service, including the military; several federal industries — including airlines and the telecommunications sector — and housing provided through the federal government.
While the ongoing debate in the United States serves as a contrast to the Canadian discussion, the need for the protections appears particularly pressing after an attempted arson at a Canada’s largest public clinic that handles transgender surgeries. Police are treating that attack as a hate crime.
The clinic, located in Montreal’s east end, neighbours Trudeau’s constituency.
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