Chief Commissioner's Presentation to the Independent Senators Group on Bill C-16

Speaking Notes 
Marie-Claude Landry
Chief Commissioner
Canadian Human Rights Commission

Presentation to the
Independent Senators Group on Bill C-16, 
a Bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include “gender identity or expression”
 as a listed ground of discrimination.

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017
Ottawa, Ontario

 

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Honourable Independent Senators, 

Thank you for inviting the Canadian Human Rights Commission to contribute to your meeting today as you discuss Bill C-16, a Bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include “gender identity or expression” as a listed ground of discrimination.

Let me begin by clearly stating that the Commission strongly supports this bill, as originally written.  And we strongly urge all Senators to pass Bill C-16 without amendment.

While this bill may simply be words on paper for some, or be the subject of vigorous philosophical and academic debate for others, I am here today to ask you to put those debates into context and to concentrate on practical decisions you can make that will help keep people safe.  

I am here to lend my support to the thousands of people, trans and gender-diverse, for whom this bill represents much, much more.

Speaking most broadly, it represents three main things:

  • It represents access to justice.  
  • It represents dignity and safety.  
  • And it represents the future.

First, access to justice.

The Canadian Human Rights Act celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.  

A law meant to recognize the lived experiences of all Canadians – not just the majority of Canadians.  
Not just those who most Canadians can identify with. But all Canadians, who together, form one of the most inclusive and diverse countries in the world.  

An important, if not essential, part of the effectiveness of this law is that Canadians should see themselves in it.  They should be able to identify with it.

If I have restricted mobility and cannot use the stairs, I can see myself in the law through its protections of persons with disabilities.

If I am a single mother competing for a promotion in a male-dominated industry, I can see myself in the law through its protections of sex, marital status, and family status.

If I am an Indigenous person who wants equal access to social services, I can see myself in the law through its protection of race, colour, and national or ethnic origin.

But trans persons, and gender-diverse persons, cannot say the same.  

They have limited access to justice since gender identity and gender expression are not explicitly recognized in the law. 

I ask you to remember, that there have been times when other categories were refused recognition, using many of the same arguments we are hearing today. 

Similar arguments were made to exclude sexual orientation as a listed ground in the Canadian Human Rights Act.  

It became a ground in 1996, almost 20 years after the Act was originally formed, and only after a Supreme Court ruling on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

And only three years after that, in 1999, the Canadian Human Rights Act Review Panel recommended the addition of gender identity that we are discussing today in its final report, known as the Laforest Report. 

This happened almost 20 years ago.

My wish is that in 20 years from now, as is the case with sexual orientation rights, future leaders will be looking at today’s debates as a positive turning point for trans and gender-diverse rights.

This change in legislation will increase access to justice to a particularly vulnerable group of Canadians. 

But let me be clear: No right under the Act is unlimited. 

The addition of new grounds does not mean an uncontrollable influx of complaints.  

It doesn’t mean that every request for accommodation will be necessary, or reasonable, or fulfilled perfectly. 

It doesn’t mean compelled speech or prison for pronouns. 

It doesn’t mean that women lose their rights to safety and privacy.

What it does mean is that — like any other Canadian — trans and gender-diverse persons have clearer access to a robust complaints process that carefully examines important legal, contextual, and individual considerations.  

This includes the seriousness of allegations of discrimination or harassment, the impact on health and safety, the public interest, and conflicting rights.  

A wonderful characteristic of human rights law is that it was drafted by Parliamentarians to contain a number of safeguards to ensure reasonableness and balance in its application.

For example, as you may already know, we receive thousands of enquiries every year.  

Well, of the 1,488 complaints we received in last year, we referred only 41 to the Tribunal.

This speaks to the rigour with which complaints are carefully screened at the Commission.

Why do we do this?  Because we know that complaints affect the lives of all who are involved.

So let us not be swayed by hypothetical or academic concerns, or by inaccurate views of human rights law.  

Let us instead be influenced more by real concerns and what really matters.

This brings me to the second thing we believe this bill represents: dignity and safety of trans persons.

I have spoken to many advocates and trans persons since I was appointed to the Commission 2 years ago. 

The discussions have always come back to the most basic needs that any person wishes for themselves:  dignity and safety.

And while you have heard from adults throughout this process, let me also give voice to a younger group that will be affected for much, much longer by the decisions you make on this issue.  

Some of you have already heard from parents of gender-diverse children in Committee, and of course from your other guest this morning. 

This year in our annual report to Parliament, the Commission also featured the stories of two trans children, who, through their courage — a courage, I need to add, that should not be needed — have helped put a face to the issues that you are considering today, and the people who are affected. 

  • Trans youth who are bullied and fearing for their safety, wondering if today is the day they get beat up on the way to school — brutal attacks that impact their mental health, their physical safety and their personal dignity.  These are scars that last a lifetime.
  • Families of trans children who are heartbroken and uprooted, seeking communities that are more accepting — communities that will support their children, not reject them.  
  • Loved ones who feel abandoned for lack of resources and supports for their children, and watching helplessly as their trans child spirals downward.  

I need not remind us that trans children are four times more likely to take their own life than their peers.  

As a group, I implore all Senators to ask themselves this question:  Will you let hypothetical or philosophical debates prevent you from taking this visible step to help improve human rights?  To help protect people’s safety and dignity — both today and tomorrow?

This brings me to the third thing we believe this bill represents: the future.

All provinces and territories have made – or are making – changes to recognize trans rights.  Federal jurisdiction is slowly being left behind by the times.  

The UN has declared “trans rights as human rights.”   

Is Canada prepared to say that we are world leaders in human rights, even when trans rights are denied?  

And are we prepared to deny them when we know that younger Canadians see value in extending rights to all vulnerable Canadians?  

Indeed, we have observed growing support for trans rights. 

Canada’s youth, in particular, are more likely to support the inclusion of trans rights in the spectrum of human rights.  

Just as the baby-boomers were the generation that saw sexual orientation embedded as a right, we need to recognize that we are putting in place laws that will outlive us. 

Therefore, our laws must reflect the empathy, acceptance and diversity we see in the next generation of our children and young adults.  

Let us carve out the rights today that will keep these children safer tomorrow, and for the next 40 years.

Let me conclude by urging Senators to offer to this community the same respect and dignity we have offered to others who live in Canada— the same protections that we offer to all those who live in vulnerable circumstances.  

Let’s work together, so that all Canadians, including all trans and gender-diverse persons, see themselves in their human rights laws.

Je vous remercie de votre attention. Nous serons heureux de répondre à vos questions.

Merci.  Thank you.