Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier reverses support for transgender rights bill

Conservative Party leadership candidate Maxime Bernier has denounced a transgender rights bill he previously supported, saying C-16 poses a threat to free speech in Canada.

Quebec MP now 'regrets' supporting Bill C-16 after hearing U of T prof's objections

Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier has backtracked on his support for the Liberal-sponsored Bill C-16, aimed at adding gender identity to Canada's anti-discrimination laws. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier has denounced a transgender rights bill he previously supported, saying it poses a threat to free speech in Canada.

In a statement posted to Facebook over the weekend, Bernier said he would no longer support the Liberal-sponsored Bill C-16, which amends the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include the terms "gender identity" and "gender expression."

Bernier, along with other Conservative leadership contenders including Steven Blaney, Michael Chong, Lisa Raitt and Deepak Obhrai, voted in favour of the bill in October. Candidates Andrew Scheer and Brad Trost opposed it.

The bill passed the House and is now before the Senate.​

"I regret my decision to vote for Bill C-16. If the vote were held again today, I would vote against it," Bernier said in the statement.

Bill praised by human rights groups 

The bill, hailed by human rights and civil liberty groups as a means of protecting transgender Canadians, was introduced last May by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. If passed, C-16 would see gender identity and gender expression join race, religion and age on the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

This would make, for example, workplace discrimination based on how a person expresses or identifies their gender illegal.

The proposed amendments would also make changes to the Criminal Code — extending the protection against hate propaganda or hate speech to include "any section of the public that is distinguished by gender identity or expression." It would also open the door for harsher sentencing if a criminal offence is motivated by "bias, prejudice or hate based on gender identity or gender expression."

When Bernier voted in favour of C-16 last fall, he said the bill "ensures that we respect and treat all Canadians fairly."

But in his Facebook statement, the Quebec MP said he had changed his mind, pointing to the bill's proposed changes to discrimination and hate-speech laws as impediments of free speech.

The threats to fundamental rights posed by the bill, he wrote, were made clear to him after meeting with University of Toronto professor and outspoken critic of the legislation, Jordan Peterson.

Citing backlash that Peterson has received for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns when addressing students who identify as non-binary, Bernier says the bill's proposed changes to current laws would erode free speech by dictating the words Canadians must use.

"Prof. Peterson believes that if adopted, C-16 will, in conjunction with the Ontario Human Rights Code, become a clear threat to this right," Bernier wrote.

The Ontario Human Rights Code, adopted by the province in 2012, already protects Ontarians from "discrimination and harassment because of gender identity and gender expression." Under the code, refusal to address a trans person by a personal pronoun aligned with their gender identity — called misgendering — is deemed discrimination when committed in social settings, including workplaces and schools.

Ontario discrimination laws 

While C-16 follows Ontario's lead by including gender identity and gender expression in the Canadian Human Rights Act, the federal bill does not define gender expression and gender identity, leaving grounds for discrimination up to the interpretation of courts and tribunals. Wilson-Raybould has said the definitions and examples set by Ontario "can offer good practical guidance" on that front.

And while Ontario's code does not lay out specific pronouns or terminology to be used when addressing non-binary people, it does state that failure to use preferred pronouns can amount to discrimination.

Bernier has cited University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson's argument that the bill's mirroring of Ontario's discrimination laws will infringe on free speech. (jordanbpeterson.com)

For Peterson, that opens the door to federal discrimination laws based on pronoun use. 

"The thing about Bill C-16 is that it looks rather innocuous until you look into the policy that surrounds it," Peterson told CBC News. "And those are mostly laid out in the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, because that's where they detail the rest of the policies that will essentially apply to the implementation of bill C-16."

Bernier initially wasn't aware of these implications, Peterson said.

"Maxime didn't know much about that, and I don't think that any of members of Parliament, to speak of, who voted for that bill, knew much about the background because it's not obvious."

Despite continued efforts to delay the bill, Peterson says he believes the legislation will pass into law.

The government's representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, spoke to the issue in the Senate Tuesday afternoon, urging members of the Red Chamber to fulfil their duty to Canadians and expedite the bill to committee. 

"In my personal view, the legal protections afforded transgender individuals by C-16 are morally required and long overdue," Harder said, reminding senators that a similar bill had been considered ten years earlier. 

Alluding to the deliberate, partisan stalling of the bill, Harder continued: "Adjourning bills can be used as a mechanism of delay, and such practice does not do our institution any credit," he said adding that there has been ample time to move the bill forward. 

"Trans and gender diverse Canadians have waited too long for respect and safety under our laws, and the Senate must not keep them waiting any longer," he said. 

C-16 was sent to the Senate last November but is still at second reading, in large part because Conservatives have not allowed it to move to committee for further review.

Bernier was unavailable for comment, though his spokesperson, Maxime Hupé, told CBC News that his reconsideration of Bill C-16 is "honest and transparent."