Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Parliament Following the Lead of Organized Labour

On March 20, Parliament passed a private member’s bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) and the Criminal Code. The bill aims to include “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the CHRA. It also aims to include gender identity and gender expression as “distinguishing characteristics”, which will fall under the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code. The bill will also require a judge to consider distinguishing characteristics during sentencing. Despite Prime Minister Harper’s opposition, the bill passed in a vote with 149 yeas and 137 nays. Though Parliament passed the bill it won’t become law until it is passed by the Senate and receives royal assent. If the bill receives royal assent it will become law 30 days later.

Hate crimes are governed by sections 318 and 319 of the Code. These crimes may be triggered when a crime is based on a person’s race, colour, ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation. It is worthwhile to note that despite the vast number of crimes committed against women simply because of their gender, sex is not a basis for a hate crime under the provisions of the Code[1]. This has left a large gap in the protections offered by the Code. While Bill C-279 refers to gender identity and gender expression and does not specifically address sex, it has brought renewed attention to gender issues and hate crimes. There is a chance that the Legislature will be more amenable to including sex as a basis for hate crimes in the future. In that respect, the bill may yet have a direct positive impact on all people in Canada.

Randall Garrison, the NDP MP, who introduced the bill in the House of Commons said after the vote:

We are happy there was all party support for formal protection of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Variant Canadians’ rights under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code with Bill C-279.

We need to recognize the work of the many people and organizations across the country who worked hard to advance this important issue.[2]  

Among the organizations Garrison notes as being important to the passage of this bill are unions across the country. Ever aware that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, unions have for years been one of the greatest protectors of the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people. In the rights void created by an absence of legislation, union contracts have commonly offered protections for members of the LGBT community by negotiating non-discrimination, non-harassment and anti-violence clause in collective agreements.

Unions may assist transgender members by negotiating for access to benefit coverage for the medical treatments required for transition (the process of changing sex). Transgender people are often denied access to health care treatments of transition-related expenses. In the absence of legislation, the unions have commonly been a source of support for transgender people in need of assistance in their fight for equal treatment[3]. There are times when the collective agreement is the only source of support transgendered people have. This support is often considerable. Negotiation of a clause ensuring medical coverage for sex-reassignment surgery, for instance, has been one significant benefit unions have been uniquely positioned to ensure for transgender members[4].

Unions continue to be pivotal in the ongoing fight for rights of transgender members. Unions support transgender members in myriad ways, from demanding employers abide by their duty to accommodate, to the negotiation of inclusive clauses in collective agreements to educating employers and the public about the unique challenges and interests of transgender members. Organized labour has been far ahead of lawmakers in respecting the basic human rights and dignity of all people. It’s nice to see that Parliament may finally be catching up.

It is noteworthy that 18 Conservative MPs boldly chose not to toe the party line and voted to recognize the rights of transgender people. These MPs deserve some recognition themselves. To view how the MPs voted, a record of the vote on this bill can be found here.

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