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C-16: A Bill Providing Protection from Discrimination for Transgender and Gender Diverse Canadians

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-16. This bill seeks to recognize and reduce the vulnerability of trans and gender diverse Canadians, and to affirm their equality in our society. Specifically, C-16 adds gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, which currently includes race, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. C-16 also amends the Criminal Code to add gender identity or expression to the definition of “identifiable group” for the purpose of the hate propaganda offences and to the list of aggravating circumstances for hate-crime sentencing.

In plainer terms, within the federal jurisdiction, C-16 means that transgender and gender diverse individuals will be treated the same as everyone else. It will also be a criminal act to publically incite or willfully promote hatred against such individuals, subject to allowances for free expression, such as expressing a religious opinion. 

Passing Bill C-16 is a pressing matter and a question of human rights. By that, I mean passing this bill is a question of legally fulfilling our moral obligation to respect the dignity, liberty and security of trans and gender diverse individuals. Unfortunately, this class of persons has been disproportionately impacted by discrimination and hate crimes in Canada. These vulnerable Canadians too often live in fear of harassment, aggression, and prejudice. Prejudice, like the denial of fair opportunities in the workplace, or being made to feel judged and unwelcomed in spaces like schools, stores, restaurants, and so many other places where most of us take access and peace of mind for granted, is unacceptable. 

In my personal view, the legal protections afforded transgender individuals by C-16 are morally required and long overdue. As Senator Mitchell told us, Parliament first considered similar legislation in 2005 – more than 10 years ago. And as Senator Petitclerc told us, 9 provinces and the Northwest Territories have gender identity protections in their human rights legislation.

Honourable senators, transgender Canadians have waited too long for safety and respect under our national laws. For that reason, I would urge this chamber to expeditiously move C-16 to committee.

The time has come.

This bill arrived in the Senate in November, and it is now February. There has been ample opportunity for all senators to join debate at Second Reading. We must not fall into a habit of allowing months to pass with the expectation that adjournments are sacrosanct. We must remember that each day a bill like this is adjourned, justice is denied.

To reinforce this point, I would reference the remarks of the Minister of Justice in the other place at second reading. Minister Wilson-Raybould described some of the challenges trans persons face as a result of discrimination. For example, in 2009 and 2010, the Trans Pulse project studied the experiences of approximately 500 trans individuals in Ontario. This group reported significant employment barriers, with 13% having been dismissed and 18% having been refused work because they were trans. In light of these barriers, it is understandable that underemployment is a major problem for trans persons, who have a median income of only $15,000, despite relatively high levels of post-secondary education.

In addition, the Minister told the other place that more than half of trans persons in Ontario have symptoms consistent with clinical depression, and a shocking 43% of trans adults in Ontario have attempted suicide, including 10% in the past year.

We should be especially concerned for trans and gender diverse youth. A 2011 national survey by Egale Canada on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools revealed troubling results. Among trans students, 74% reported verbal harassment; 49% reported sexual harassment; and 37% reported physical harassment related to their trans identity. More than half of trans youth reported feeling unsafe in change rooms and washrooms. That’s not right. In Canada, we can and must do better.

Passing C-16 will make important legal changes to prevent and remedy discrimination, and to deter and condemn the incitement of hatred. And socially, C-16 will signal to trans and gender diverse Canadians – and to all Canadians – that we are all equal in our human dignity and before our creator. This is an urgent message, and we need to send it as loudly and as quickly as possible to Canada’s trans and gender diverse community. You matter, you belong, and Parliament and this Senate has your back. 

We all welcome vigorous debate on Bill C-16, but I think we also all recognize that to hold an adjournment is not to engage in sober second thought. Adjourning bills can be used as a mechanism of delay, and such practice does not do our institution credit. Canadians expect us to work as hard and diligently as they do, to speak on these matters and to move business forward. Our chamber must deliberate, but we must also decide. In situations where the critic of a bill does not speak within a reasonable time, the Rules ultimately afford this chamber remedies to move forward the people’s business.  

I would like to thank Senator Mitchell for sponsoring this legislation and for being a tireless advocate for transgender Canadians over the years. I would also thank other senators in this chamber who have added their voices to the debate, including Senators Duffy, Mercer, Jaffer, Dupuis, and Petiticlerc. Thanks as well to all senators for taking the time to consider this important legislation, and I urge the chamber to move Bill C-16 to committee without delay. 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. Let’s vote.