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Human Rights

Canadian attitudes towards gender identity, expression changing

The federal government is catching up with its provincial counterparts in Ontario by introducing legislation to protect the human rights of transgender people, says Toronto human rights lawyer Deborah Howden.

Bill C-16, introduced recently in the House of Commons, would add the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA), mirroring language added to Ontario's Human Rights Code back in 2012.  

Since then, a number of complainants have launched applications at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) under the updated code.

“I expect there will only be more applications for the protections that are offered in the provincial code, and now with the federal government also recognizing the rights of transgender persons,” says Howden, a partner with Shibley Righton LLP. "The federal government is staying in lockstep with what has happened at the provincial level.”

In 2014, one HRTO case resulted in three transgender women and their employer winning damages from the organizers of a market who tried to shut their booth down because they claimed the employees were dressed “inappropriately.”   

Howden says attitudes have slowly changed in Canada towards transgender people, helped along by high-profile transitions, such as former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner who is now known as Caitlyn Jenner.

“Even before that, I think there has been increasing awareness that the transgender community has not received the same level of recognition and protection as other persons,” Howden tells “In the past, there has been a focus on sexual orientation, but now there is a recognition that we also have to think about protecting people whose biological sex may not match their gender identity or expression.”

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she was “proud” to have introduced legislation that would “ensure that Canadians will be free to identify themselves and to express their gender as they wish while being protected against discrimination and hate.” In addition to the CHRA amendments, bill C-16 would also change the Criminal Code to ensure crimes motivated by a victim's gender identity or gender expression would be considered hate crimes.

According to the CBC, the legislation was timed to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, with Wilson-Raybould portraying the move as the latest in a long line of human rights advancements spearheaded by federal Liberal governments.

The CHRA was initially passed in 1977, during Pierre Trudeau's first spell as prime minister, protecting Canadians from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Canada later became one of the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage in 2005 when the Civil Marriage Act passed both houses of Parliament under the government of Paul Martin.

“Today the tradition continues,” Wilson-Raybould said outside the Commons chamber, according to the CBC. “Diversity and inclusion have long been among the values that Canadians embrace, and Canadians expect their government to reflect these values.”

The bill's chances of passing are enhanced by indications from both main opposition parties that they will support it. Randall Garrison, the NDP critic for LGBTQ issues, was at the government launch of C-16.  

“This is an important day, but I want to remind people this is the seventh time that this bill has been introduced in the House of Commons,” Garrison said, according to the CBC. “What makes today special is it's the first time that it's a government bill.”

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose also told the CBC she would support the legislation, despite past opposition to similar legislation.

“I'm supporting it and my caucus will be free to make their decisions on that,” Ambrose said.

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