Canada trails Wales when it comes to transgender protections

The tiny country of Wales has just released what might be the most comprehensive transgender rights plan in the world, while Canada's protections for trans people remain a patchwork.

No timeline for federal legislation, justice minister's office says

Kael McKenzie was sworn in as Canada's first transgender judge in Winnipeg in February. (CBC)

The tiny country of Wales has just released what might be the most comprehensive transgender rights plan in the world, while Canada's protections for trans people remain a patchwork.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to fix that, but his objective might be in danger of getting lost among the government's long and growing list of priorities. And even when Ottawa does get to it, our legislation is likely to fall far short of that in Wales, which is taking steps to make schools safer for trans people, compel employers to accommodate them and extend government services for them.

"We will make sure that trans rights are recognized as human rights and fully protected," Trudeau said in his platform.

His mandate letter to Justice Minister Jodi Wilson-Raybould said one of her "top priorities" was to "Introduce government legislation to add gender identity as a prohibited ground for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and to the list of distinguishing characteristics of "identifiable group" protected by the hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code."

A spokesman for Wilson-Raybould told CBC News there is no timeline as yet for when such legislation would be introduced.

Trans rights bill coming 'in due course'

"The government is committed to helping ensure that all Canadians feel protected from discrimination, and details of any potential legislation will be provided in due course," Ian McLeod said in an email.

A bill to this end already exists. It was twice passed in the House of Commons (as Bill C-279 and, before that, Bill C-389) before being defeated in the Senate. The NDP re-introduced it as Bill C-204 in December.

McLeod declined to say whether the government would revisit Bill C-204 or introduce its own bill.

"Transgender" is an umbrella term that refers to people whose gender identity and/or gender expression is different than the gender they were born with.

Study after study – by advocacy groups, academics and government agencies – has found that trans people face a disproportionate level of discrimination: They are more far likely to:

  • Be bullied in school, sometimes to the point of having to drop out.
  • Be physically or sexually assaulted.
  • Be turned down for jobs.
  • Be denied housing or evicted.
  • Wait longer for medical appointments or be refused care outright.

It's a direct result of these experiences, researchers say, that trans people are also more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, leave school, live in poverty and attempt suicide.

Discriminiation 'widespread'

Egale Canada, a national charity that promotes LGBT rights, says enshrining gender identity protections in federal law will "help combat widespread discrimination and violence against transgender people in Canada."

A federal law is also needed to bring together the disparate regulations across the country.

For instance, after enshrining gender identity in its human rights code, Alberta went on to overhaul its school board gender policy. The document, released in January, gives students the right to "self-identify" using the name and pronoun of their choice, to choose whether to play on the girls' or boys' sport teams and to use whichever washroom is "congruent" with their gender identity.

"So we now have trans people in some provinces that have more rights than trans people in other provinces," Egale spokesman Ryan Dyck told CBC News.

Ontario and Saskatchewan no longer require that trans people undergo sex-reassignment surgery in order to change their identification documents, while many other provinces and the feds do.

As a result, close to half of trans people in Canada don't have government-issued ID that matches their gender identification, Dyck says.

That causes all manner of problems, including the possibility of being barred from boarding a plane — something airlines are allowed to do under the federal Aeronautics Act.

"You've got a lot of systemic barriers here — this is just one jurisdiction of travel. That situation repeats in all sorts of other areas, as well," Dyck said.

Wales releases multi-agency action plan

Passage of a federal law is a necessary first step but it won't automatically eliminate these barriers, Dyck says.

"We would love to see the government actually take this issue seriously and put together a substantive piece of legislation that touches on all these different areas of systemic discrimination against trans people," he said, adding the Civil Marriage Act changed hundreds of relevant statutes to pave the way for same-sex marriages.

Wales — where it's estimated there are approximately 31,000 trans people, or just over 1% of the population — has taken this sort of omnibus approach with a plan involving multiple government agencies that will:

  • Revise school curricula for transgender inclusion.
  • Guide employers on how to support trans employees, such as through dress codes policies.
  • Review — and, if necessary, amend — guidelines for eligibility to compete in male/female sporting competitions domestically and internationally.
  • Revise the national transportation code of conduct to promote safety for trans people.
  • Expand services in the areas of domestic abuse as well as health care related to gender dysphoria, such as psychiatric assessment, endocrinology (hormone treatment) and speech and language therapy.

"This action plan will be the vehicle to drive forward our cross-government actions in working towards greater equality for transgender people," Lesley Griffiths, minister for communities and tackling poverty, says in the document released earlier this month. "It consists of identifiable and concrete actions with the intention of making specific improvements to trans people's lives."

McLeod said the government is "aware of" the guidelines introduced by Wales, but said it would not be addressing specific policies or services.

"Questions related to health and education services for transgender people should be directed to provincial and territorial authorities," he said. 

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