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Parliament to Vote on Rights of Trans Canadians

How has similar legislation changed lives in Nova Scotia?

by Hilary Beaumont

Megan Leslie rides her bike during a pride parade in Halifax (Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford).
Megan Leslie rides her bike during a pride parade in Halifax (Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford).

On March 20, the House of Commons will vote on Bill C-279, known to supporters as the “gender identity bill,” and detractors as the “bathroom bill.” If passed, the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code would be amended to protect gender identity and gender expression.

In Canada, trans people disproportionately face violence, workplace bullying, job discrimination, job loss, trouble accessing health care, lack of clarity in applying for identification and discrimination when looking for housing.

Currently, trans Canadians must file federal human rights complaints on the basis of sex, gender or disability. If C-279 becomes law, they can file based on gender identity or gender expression. Nova Scotia passed similar legislation last November.

Critics have argued the bill’s definitions of gender expression and gender identity are too broad. Alarmists have said the private member’s bill will allow pedophiles and peeping Toms to enter women’s bathrooms—a criticism trans people have said is offensive.

“The bill does a small thing by adding trans rights to the Canadian Human Rights Act and by adding trans motivated hate to the hate crimes list,” Halifax MP Megan Leslie said in parliament earlier this month. “It is a small thing, but it is a magnificent thing."

It is not enough to fit trans people into the margins, under classifications such as sex, gender or disability, when it is none of those, Leslie said.

“It is meaningful to look at rights and see ourselves there,” she said. “It is important to know that we are protected, that we can hold up a human rights act and say, ‘I am protected. I am here in this document.’”

The MP said she had a transgender client who once requested an official legal aid letterhead that gave a legal opinion on her right to use the bathroom. “She would keep it in her purse and use it if she ran into problems,” Leslie said.

“Imagine walking around with a legal document, a legal opinion, in one’s purse or wallet to settle disputes about the right to use a bathroom. Imagine the indignity of arguing this with mall security, with a bouncer, with classmates or co-workers, just to heed the call of nature,” Leslie said.

Prior to legislation that protects trans rights in Nova Scotia, Laura MacIntosh (who identifies as gender-queer and prefers the pronoun “they”) felt vulnerable entering gendered bathrooms in Halifax.

During one incident in a female bathroom, a woman told MacIntosh: “You don’t belong here.” When MacIntosh protested, the woman responded, “You’re lying, you don’t belong here.” They had to run across to the male washroom instead.

“There was no protection for me, really—not day to day,” MacIntosh said.

This bill is not just about bathrooms. MacIntosh added their gender isn’t recognized when they fill out forms, or join a sports team. When the only option is male or female, MacIntosh becomes invisible.

In Nova Scotia, MacIntosh now has the ability to file a human rights complaint when they are discriminated against in these ways.

However, a trans man, who preferred to remain unnamed, is skeptical discrimination against trans people will change anytime soon.

For the last five years, he has been trying to get a hysterectomy—major surgery to remove his uterus. He considers this surgery medically necessary because of the way the testosterone therapy interacts with his uterus. However, the surgery is not covered.

When he was 17, his parents took out a loan so he could undergo top surgery to remove his breasts. They considered fundraising to cover the surgery, but because they lived in a rural Nova Scotia town, his parents feared job loss if they brought attention to the fact their son was trans.

He is currently considering moving to another country to access health care.

“I feel worthless to my country. The system is failing me and that hurts emotionally,” he said. “How can you feel any basic worth when you’re being denied health care?”

Now that Nova Scotia human rights legislation covers gender identity, he could file a human rights complaint, but he says the years of court battles would be too much to handle.

There’s a large difference between legislated change and discrimination in an everyday sense, he said. However, he conceded, life will likely improve for trans people in the long run.

First sexual orientation experienced a legal revolution, and now gender identity and gender expression are experiencing a similar shift. But it’s not clear yet whether the lives of trans Canadians are improving.

After sexual orientation was added to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act in 1991, and then to the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1996, it brought about immediate and long-term change, according to Halifax human rights lawyer Kevin Kindred.

Initially, it simply meant people could bring human rights complaints based on sexual orientation. Eventually, people felt more comfortable coming out of the closet, which lead to more visibility, spurring more social and legal change.

Currently, trans people are wary of expressing themselves publicly due to discrimination and violence. However, Kindred says legislation will make it “easier to stand up and challenge that and say, no, that’s not the way that the trans experience needs to be.”

But just because legal change happens doesn’t mean social change will automatically fall in place, he added.

“It’s important that we not delude ourselves that making the world a better place for trans people is entirely a legal project,” he said.

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