Conservative senators accused of stalling transgender rights bill

Conservative senators are deliberately stalling debate on the government's gender identity bill, putting transgender people at risk of further abuse and discrimination, a prominent Independent senator said Wednesday.

Senator Don Plett accused of using bigoted language by referring to transgender Canadians as 'these people'

Charlie Lowthian-Rickert, who is transgender, speaks alongside Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, right, as she makes an announcement regarding legislation on gender identity and gender expression. Conservative senators are being accused of stalling the legislation, C-16, in the Red Chamber. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Conservative senators are deliberately stalling debate on the government's gender identity bill, putting transgender people at risk of further abuse and discrimination, a prominent Independent senator says.

Tories in the Red Chamber have been adjourning debate on the bill for months, Senator Grant Mitchell said in an interview with CBC News, and he fears the stall tactics could cause the bill to languish on the order paper until next fall, or outright fail to pass in the Senate.

Tensions over the bill spilled over late Tuesday when Independent Senator Marilou McPhedran accused Conservative Senator Don Plett — who has opposed the bill — of using bigoted language when he referred to transgender Canadians as "these people."

"To my ears, I heard 'othering.' Othering can be understood as an indicator of bigotry. Colleagues, bigotry does not strengthen an inclusive democracy," she said in her first speech as a senator.

Plett vehemently denied Wednesday he had ever made bigoted comments on the floor of the Senate. "To attribute such a serious charge as bigotry to the phrase 'these people' is preposterous," he said Wednesday, demanding the Speaker rule McPhedran's remarks out of order.

"I would like to kindly remind the senator, and all of us, that this kind of discourse, personal attacks, is not how we do things in this chamber," he said. "My grandchildren, my great-grandchildren will read that I was accused of bigotry on the chamber floor … accusing someone of bigotry is a personal attack of highest order."

Our chamber must deliberate, but we must also decide.- Senator Grant Mitchell

McPhedran said she did not intend to call Plett a bigot, but rather that she simply took issue with the tone he had used during debate.

The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of gender identity protections for the transgender community, and sent Bill C-16 to the Senate last November. Months later, it is still at second reading.

"This is not a technical bill, this is a bill that affects people's lives," Mitchell said. "Trans people face extraordinary rates of suicide, homelessness, very low rates of pay, way below their levels of education, job loss … all of those struggles faced by trans people that can, at least in part, be fixed by this bill."

Bill C-16 would update the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include the terms "gender identity" and "gender expression."

If passed, the legislation would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression. It would also extend hate speech laws to include the two terms, and make it a hate crime to target someone for being transgender.

Mitchell said it is not only the trans rights bill that has been subjected to Tory stall tactics, but also Bill C-4, which would amend legislation dealing with unions, and Bill C-6, which would make changes to the Citizenship Act.

'You don't have a right to delay'

Mitchell said that Plett in particular, the critic of the bill in the Senate, has routinely sought to push off a vote that would send the bill to committee for further review.

"If you're opposed to the bill you have a responsibility to speak. You have a right to speak against, vote against, but you don't have a right to delay a bill that is critical for people living with the abuse and the prejudice that trans people face. The Senate has a job to do," the Alberta Independent senator said.

Plett has said he needs more time to study the legislation and prepare speaking notes on the bill. The Conservative deputy leader in the Senate, Yonah Martin, who has adjourned debate in her name, has said she did so to ensure everyone who wants to speak about the bill has the opportunity.

Conservative Senator Don Plett says it is 'preposterous' to suggest his language regarding transgender people was bigoted. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In an interview with CBC News last week, Plett said that all senators have a democratic right to speak on legislation and adjourning debate is a normal part of parliamentary procedure.

"We as an opposition, need to exercise our democratic right, and need to make sure things are done in the right way," he said.

"Things just don't move at the speed that they should. I know how frustrated I was when I came to the Senate eight years ago," Plett said, adding Liberal senators then regularly stalled legislation, including a human trafficking private member's bill that was before the chamber at the time.

"What goes around, comes around."

Mitchell, who serves as the government's whip in the Senate after leaving the Senate Liberal caucus last May, said he "doesn't buy" the argument that Conservatives need more time to gather research on the issue, given this is the third time a trans rights bill has been before the Senate since 2009.

The previous iterations died on the order paper after debate was punted to a later date. Unlike the past bills, Bill C-16 is government legislation.

Plett was a vocal opponent of those past bills, and in 2015 controversially amended the legislation from applying to "sex-specific" facilities such as public washrooms.

"I don't want to impugn his motives, he has concerns about this bill for whatever reason, but at some point you cross the threshold of legitimate opposition to delay for the sake of delay," Mitchell said, adding he did not want to brand Plett as transphobic.

"Our chamber must deliberate, but we must also decide."

Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, delivered an impassioned defence of the bill in the chamber late Tuesday, urging senators to send the bill to committee without further delay.

"Each day a bill like this is adjourned, justice is denied. Canadians expect us to work as hard and diligently as they do."


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.