Transgender community cheers long-awaited legislation – but its passage isn’t a sure thing

by Tim Harper – Toronto Star

It was a day rightly celebrated by the transgender community in this country, but it was also a day to remember the human rights pioneers who went before and the ghosts who defeated them.

It was also a day for 10-year-old transgender girl Charlie Lowthian-Rickert to stand defiantly before the microphones in the House of Commons foyer and state simply, “I feel much safer.”

The introduction of a Liberal bill protecting transgender Canadians against denial of employment or workplace discrimination, and to extend hate laws under the Criminal Code to include gender identity and gender expression, has been a long time coming.

There have been seven attempts to pass such legislation, and recently two private member’s bills by NDP MPs actually did pass the Commons before dying slow deaths in the Senate, through a combination of neglect and active opposition.

This time this bill carries the full weight of a majority government.

Whether it is the passage of time or a natural evolution, some of those ghosts have been exorcised.

But not all, according to Bill Siksay, the former New Democrat from Burnaby-Douglas whose private member’s bill on transgender rights, dubbed the “bathroom bill” by opponents, passed the Commons almost six years ago by a handful of votes, helped by the support of six Conservatives – including three cabinet ministers who overrode the opposition of then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

Siksay intuitively knew the bill’s fate in the Senate and even as it passed
the House, he told the transgender community in Canada, millions loved them and recognized their full humanity, no matter what happened in the other chamber.

His bill withered and died when the 2011 election was called.

Siksay, speaking from British Columbia on Tuesday, told me he knows some views have moved, and it may – may – be viewed differently in the Senate this time.

“Other jurisdictions have done this and people will realize negative criticism is just dark fantasy of a very small minority of people,” Siksay
said.

“I suspect there are people who still have concerns and have been influenced by tall tales told in certain sectors about what this bill actually means. I would rather hear (those opinions) than have them lie low. If we hear them we can confront them.”

Randall Garrison, another B.C. New Democrat, whose private member’s bill also died in the Senate, stood beside Liberal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould Tuesday and asked the government to guarantee passage in the Senate.

It is a guarantee the government cannot deliver and Garrison’s bid Tuesday for quick unanimous support in the Commons was denied.

Garrison actually won support of 18 Conservatives, and in another sign that times are changing, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose indicated she would support Wilson-Raybould’s bill.

But will the ghosts reappear?

It was barely six years ago that Daniel Petit, then the parliamentary
secretary to the Conservative minister of justice, rose in the Commons to
denounce Siksay’s bill as “useless and unclear,” wrapping his opposition in the careful cloak of legal redundancy, claiming that protection already
existed for the transgender community and warning additional protection for one minority group “can have unwanted social and legal consequences for another group.”

A year ago, the Senate ghosts of intolerance rose again.

“As a husband and father, I am worried about the effects of this proposed legislation on my family and on other Canadians, especially on women and children,” said Sen. Don Meredith.

The legislation would allow “certain individuals” to prey on society’s most vulnerable in bathrooms, Meredith proclaimed.

Then Meredith delivered this extraordinary assurance to fellow senators:

“Certainly not all transgender people are sexual deviants.”

Don Plett, a senator and former president of the Conservative party, proposed an amendment that would exclude federal “sex-specific” facilities such as washrooms and change rooms from the bill.

“This act will no longer allow biological males to identify as female and
gain access to vulnerable persons,” he said.

Meredith and Plett remain in the Senate. Ghosts are still there.

This, of course, is no North Carolina-style bathroom debate, but a
recognition of equality and dignity for a transgender community which has suffered disproportionate discrimination.

According to a 2010 Ontario survey, one in five said they had been physically or sexually assaulted.

Some will say this is largely symbolic, but even if it is, there are times such symbolism matters. And as for the pioneers, there was a quiet sense of satisfaction but no special celebration.

“I’ll probably watch the news,” Siksay said.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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