On May 17, 2016 Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould tabled Bill C-16, which proposes adding “gender identity” and “gender expression” as prohibited grounds of discrimination to both the Canadian Human Rights Act and the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code. This is not the first time such legislation has been introduced: in 2012, NDP MP Randall Garrison introduced a near-identical bill that didn’t make it past the Senate—but as a sitting government is responsible this time, it seems fairly likely that the bill will become law.
There has been a surprising lack of fanfare around this announcement, relatively speaking. The bill coincided with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia; given the current debates in the US about “bathroom laws,” it was virtually guaranteed to be picked up by the mainstream press—and it was. For about a day. Subsequently, there were a few think-pieces (there’s an especially great one by Shelina Ali on Rabble.ca’s Pro Bono column), a few angry letters to local papers, and not much else. The gay press (by which I mean Xtra) isn’t even talking about this much anymore. Maybe the conversation is different in trans* communities, but for cis communities, it seems to me that this news was met with a smile and a shrug. Sure, the bill hasn’t passed yet—but that hasn’t stopped us from getting excited
So is the relative quiet around this bill evidence of the continuing marginalization of trans* concerns in straight and queer quarters? Have we reached a place where human rights advances like this one are seen to be quotidian? Or do we think that this bill is more symbolic than anything else?
Regardless, I don’t want to lose sight of the extraordinary effort required to bring this law to pass. Wilson-Raybould’s announcement may not have been revolutionary—or even very surprising—but the scaffolding underlying this step has been decades in the making and is the result of the unceasing efforts of trans* activists and their allies. Let us not forget that this is the seventh time such a bill has been introduced to Parliament. Even if this is symbolic, let’s not forget that symbols matter. Explicit protections in the Human Rights Act aren’t going to necessarily stop transphobic violence overnight or make interviewing in a hostile work environment easier, but it does say to trans* and non-binary folks: You are seen. You matter.
So, what’s next? Off the top, I hope this change to the Canadian Human Rights Act, which only pertains to areas of federal jurisdictions, inspires other provinces that have yet to pass similar legislation to do so (looking at you, BC). I also hope it means there is an increase in support for human rights agencies and Legal Aid support: human rights are meaningless if there are no robust apparatuses to support complainants. Other policy priorities I have seen identified by trans* people include allowing trans* women (and men) to be placed in a prison that matches their gender identity and not their assigned-at-birth sex, and removing the need for proof of gender-affirmation surgery in order to legally change one’s gender (some provinces have done this but not all). If you’re cis and want to support trans* communities, these are good places to invest some energy.
But before any of this happens, this bill needs to pass first: the Senate is still controlled by Tories. Please write/call/tweet and otherwise harass your Senator and MP to make sure they don’t fuck this up again. V