New gender-neutral Ontario health cards make it harder to get a passport

Ontario's decision to issue gender-neutral health cards is making it more difficult for some people to get a passport, since the federal government wasn't consulted on the switch.

Ottawa says it wasn't consulted on province's decision to change cards

Ontario's new gender-neutral health cards are creating problems for people without a driver's licence who are trying to obtain a passport. (Canadian Press)

Ontario's decision to issue gender-neutral health cards is making it more difficult for some of the province's residents to get a passport, since the federal government wasn't consulted on the switch.

Hamilton native Rachael Bestard found that out the hard way when she applied for a passport this week.

Bestard, 24, is going to Europe in October — she hopes — which would be her first trip out of the country since she was a child. That's when she last had a passport.

She went through the usual motions — getting guarantor signatures and passport photos and finding her birth certificate. The other required documentation is government-issued photo ID that includes her name, date of birth and sex.

Bestard doesn't have a driver's licence, so she planned to use her Ontario health card.

She applied for a new one on June 24, but when it arrived, the card didn't have her gender on it — and because of that, her passport application was rejected.

"I was quite surprised," she told CBC News. "I've been a female for 24 years, so it does feel a little strange."

Her headache is about to become all too real for some Ontarians. The province announced in June that it will start issuing health cards that no longer display information about a person's gender on the front of the card.

Changes made to be fair and equitable, province says

Beginning in early 2017, drivers will also have the option on their licences to select X, instead of an M for male or F for female.

The province's Liberal government said it is making the changes "to ensure the fair, ethical and equitable treatment of people with trans and non-binary gender identity."

Bestard maintains this is a positive step for non-binary people, and one that she has absolutely no problem with. "I do understand the nuances of the LGBTQ community, and the challenges they face," she said.

Rachael Bestard, 24, has booked a plane ticket to Europe in October. (Rachael Bestard)

The issue, she says, is the headache that has been created by the two levels of government not working together.

"The lack of communication is quite surprising," she said.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Lindsay Wemp told CBC News that "IRCC was not consulted as part of this initiative from the government of Ontario."

Christine Burke, spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, says ServiceOntario has been working with the federal government to address this situation.

"No consultations took place with the federal government prior to the change, as we were unaware that the photo health card was being used and accepted as an identity document by Passport Canada," she said in an email.

Kwok Wong, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario, told CBC News that the ability to just mark an X for gender on an Ontario licence complies with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards for machine-readable official travel documents. 

"In various other countries, X is used in place of M or F when gender is not specified," he said in an email.

"Ministry of Transportation officials discussed this proposal with the federal government counterparts including Passport Canada and Canada Border Service Agency."

It appears that a licence marked with an X would not be able to be used to obtain a passport, as proof of gender is still one of the requirements.

Change also affects children

Bestard said she has been told by the province that if she is reissued a receipt for her temporary health card, that should have her gender on it, and that would be accepted on a passport application. She said that "seemed like news to the passport office," so it remains to be seen if that stopgap measure will work.

"IRCC has recently been in contact with Service Ontario about the message that their staff may use when they receive calls from individuals asking about how the changes to the OHIP card impact them getting a Canadian passport," Wemp said. 

Bestard's other option is an Ontario photo card, which costs $35 and would take four to six weeks to arrive by mail.

Toronto mom Jennifer Moore is trying to renew passports for her 16- and 17-year-old children and is running into the same problem, as they both have the new Ontario health card that doesn't list if they are male or female.

"If my children are forced to obtain an Ontario photo card for the purpose of obtaining a passport, I think this should be provided at no cost to them, since Ontario has unilaterally removed a key piece of information from the health card which has created this situation," she wrote in a letter to her MP and MPP, which she provided to CBC News. "This will also create a significant delay in the passport application process, since they will first have to wait for the Ontario ID card to be issued and approved."

"The Passport Canada ID requirements are discriminatory toward Canadian citizens who do not drive and who do not have any other need for an Ontario photo card."



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.


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