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The Trans Rights Bill Is Definitely Screwed Up, and Probably Dead

Thanks to one Senator, a bill designed to help trans people has turned into a discriminatory monster.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA

Trans rights activists marching in the 2013 Dublin gay pride parade. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Citing some made-up reasons, Senator Don Plett took a great idea and made it terrible.

Bill C-279 is legislation that has been debated, in various forms, for nearly a decade in Canada. It's been passed before, but it's never gotten over an insurmountable hurdle: the crowd of appointed partisans in the Senate.

The bill would ensure that if trans people are discriminated against—on the job, by their landlord, in a hospital—they can file a human rights complaint. It will also allow prosecutors to try violent crimes against trans people, if the attack is motivated by their gender, as hate crimes.


Optimism that this time would be different, and the bill would finally become law, was finally snuffed out in a half-hour period on Wednesday evening, as a particularly ornery Conservative Senator injected something so blatantly discriminatory into the bill that just about every trans person in attendance got up and walked out.

"In respect of any service, facility, accommodation or premises that is restricted to one sex only—such as a correction facility, crisis counselling facility, shelter for victims of abuse, washroom facility, shower facility or clothing changing room—the practise is undertaken for the purpose of protecting individuals in a vulnerable situation."

That's the language of Senator Plett's amendment. "The practise" refers to discriminating against trans people—the very thing the bill is designed to prevent. It, in effect, would protect those who discriminate in any way against trans people, so long as they're in a washroom, or a change room, or any of the other places described by the amendment.

VICE interviewed Plett last June about his fervent insistence that affording trans people the same human rights protections as religious and sexual minorities would somehow normalize sexual assault and pedophilia.

"The pedophiles, the Chris Hambrooks of the world, can use this law to their advantage," he said.

Chris Hambrook was a man who tried to enter a women's shelter by claiming to be transgender. The shelter denied him entry and reported him to the police. He was later sentenced to jail indefinitely for various sexual assault charges. A provincial law that does the exact same things as C-279—the things that Plett maintains would protect Hambrook—did not apply.


When Plett's amendment was raised at committee, the opposition Liberals balked.

"This is discriminatory," Senator Mobina Jaffer told Plett.

"I feel my daughter is being discriminated against," replied Senator Plett, offering up his favourite non-sequitur.

Four Liberals voted against the amendment, six Conservatives voted in favour. It passed.

Plett also amended the bill to remove the definition of "gender identity"—something that was only added to the bill because some Conservative MPs felt the legislation was too vague without it.

The unelected Senator hightailed it out of the committee room afterwards.

The bill's path forward is now complicated.

The long version is this: The bill will be referred back to the Senate floor for a vote, where Senators may choose to accept or decline Plett's amendments. Given that all of the Senators on the committee voted for them, it is likely that the entire Conservative caucus will vote for the amendments, and ultimately for the bill itself. After that, the bill goes back to the House of Commons. Since the bill, which originally came from the NDP, now carries wording that is generally offensive to all trans people, it's unlikely that it will get a lot of support from the New Democrats.

"I personally find it difficult to believe that I could support a bill that contains amendments that provide some kind of spurious exemption for bathrooms and change rooms because it contradicts the very purpose of the bill," says the NDP's LGBT critic Randall Garrison, who introduced the bill into the House of Commons.


The House, however, has the option to reject Plett's amendment. Many of the Conservatives who opposed this legislation in the first place also raised the spectre of "the bathroom bill," but 18 others also supported the legislation as it was originally written. Indeed, several Conservative ministers gave forceful and heartfelt endorsements of the protections in the bill.

It's also possible that the Speaker of the House of Commons will rule Plett's bathroom amendment out of order and it will be removed.

A VICE investigation from September also detailed how the Conservatives were trying to push their MPs to vote against the bill altogether.

So it's unclear how that vote will shake out. If the House rejects the amendments, and passes the bill without the bathroom amendment, it must go back to the Senate once more. Convention dictates that they, at that point, stop tinkering.

If the House accepts the amendments, and votes for the bill, it will go directly to the Governor General to get royal assent, and become law. More likely in this scenario, however, is that the NDP will vote against its own bill, albeit a bastardized version of it, and the legislation will die out entirely.

Basically, both chambers have to vote in favour of the exact same version of the bill.

It's also possible, no matter what path the bill takes, that Parliament will rise in June without ever dealing with the bill and it will die.


Regardless, Garrison sees a darker plot at work.

"I believe that there's a small group of senators who are trying to kill the bill, and the Senate's Conservative leadership is allowing them to do so," he says. If that's the case, democracy be damned, the bill never really had a chance.

VICE asked Garrison: Do you think Senator Plett is transphobic?

"I called him that in committee, and maybe I will step back and say, at least the amendments he was talking about to provide an exemption for bathrooms and change rooms are transphobic," Garrison said.

If C-279 does die, it joins an unpleasant class of legislation—bills passed by the House of Commons that did not become law, thanks to amendments from the Senate. Over the last 143 years, there have only been 30 bills that have been returned to the House of Commons, only to later die.

Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell is more optimistic.

"The prognosis for the bill is quite good," he says. "It's still alive. It's not finished."

Mitchell says it's really up to the MPs now. He's optimistic that the Senators will move quickly to vote on the bill, meaning that the Conservatives in the House of Commons will have to decide what they want to do with the bill. He's hoping they'll kill Plett's amendment.

Here's the simpler version about what will happen to C-279: There are two unlikely scenarios where the bill gets passed in its original wording, and one unlikely scenario where the bill becomes law in its amended language. There are also four other situations, which are much likelier, where the bill dies either quickly or in a painfully drawn-out manner.

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