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Elections Canada Is Accidentally Outing Trans People on Voter Cards

There are many other urgent obstacles trans people still face in Canada, although you wouldn't know it from a federal election that has mostly ignored the topic.

by Rachel Browne
Oct 7 2015, 9:45pm

Image via VICE Canada doc, On Hold

Angie Reid, a transgender rights activist in Alberta, feels no attachment to her birth name and doesn't want to reveal it. Many in the trans community call them "deadnames" because, she says, they're used in media reports about trans people who have been murdered or committed suicide.

So Reid, who sits on the board of the Trans Equality Society of Alberta, was startled when she saw that the voter registration card Elections Canada mailed her recently referred to her by the name she had legally changed nearly a decade ago. 

She has heard, through social media, from 25 others in Alberta and Saskatchewan going through the same thing, and says many of them are being forced to "out" themselves to Elections Canada staff as they explain the discrepancy on their identification.  

"It's frustrating," said Reid, who has since had her own registration card fixed and is helping others with theirs. "When you're transitioning, it can be a vulnerable time, and it takes time and money to change your identity documents. And then this, again, forces us to reveal secrets we might have otherwise not wanted to."

Reid says that process could be painful and embarrassing. "Worst case scenario is that they have to get in a lineup with other people waiting to vote, and there's scrutiny from those around you," Reid explained. "This might be very intimidating for a lot of people who don't want it to be known publicly that they are trans."

Elections Canada hasn't said why it's sending trans people the wrong voting cards, telling VICE News in an email that since they issue 26 million voter registration cards to Canadians ahead of this month's federal election, "some will have errors." And even though Reid suspects the errors are nothing more than a database glitch, and name mix-ups aren't happening only to trans people, the ordeal makes her think about the other urgent obstacles trans people still face in Canada, especially during a federal election that has mostly ignored the topic.

In Canada, each province and territory controls education and healthcare. They also have their own human rights codes. This means that trans people across Canada have different — sometimes unequal — status under the law and access to government services

It's this inequality that has been motivating advocates fighting to get gender identity and gender expression added to Canada's federal Human Rights Act, and to the hate crime provisions in the criminal code.

Related: Canada's Most Populous Province Just Banned Conversion Therapy for LGBTQ Youth

That federal trans rights bill, known as Bill C-279, has slouched its way through Parliament in one form or another for the last decade, never making it through the Senate. In February, the bill died again when Conservative Senator Donald Plett, who has long opposed the legislation, proposed it be amended to prevent trans people from entering "sex-specific" facilities such as public washrooms. That amendment, decried by other politicians and activists as 'transphobic,' undermined the point of the bill, to ensure that trans people could use facilities according to their chosen gender. Soon after, Parliament was dissolved and the future of Bill C-279 is once again uncertain.

Watch the VICE Canada documentary, On Hold: Investigating Transgender Health Access in Canada, here:

According to trans rights advocacy group Egale Canada, Bill C-279 would help address widespread discrimination and violence against trans people in Canada. An Egale national survey from 2011 found that 74 percent of trans youth experience some form of verbal harassment in school. Only one territory and three provinces have human rights codes that recognize complaints based on gender identity.

"The original Bill is what was needed. If Senators passed the bill in Committee with no amendments, we would be well on our way to having life-saving human rights protections in place in a matter of weeks," Amnesty International Canada's Secretary-General said in a statement about Bill C-279 earlier this year.

Jennifer McCreath, the first transgender candidate to ever run in a Canadian federal election, is running for the leftist Strength in Democracy party in Newfoundland and Labrador — in part to ensure her community has a voice.

"Trans people are still just political pawns," she said in an interview with Daily VICE

McCreath stressed that access to healthcare for trans people is something she would try to tackle if elected. "There's a myth within Canada and beyond that we have this great healthcare system," she said. "Most would be shocked to learn how much trans healthcare is not available or not paid for by governments. And the amount of red tape that is required to get what little there is available."

New Brunswick, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories are the only provinces and territories in Canada that do not fund gender-reassignment surgeries. On top of that, a private medical clinic in Montreal is the sole place in the country that offers genital reconstruction surgery, with wait times as long as two years. And very few doctors in Canada feel comfortable treating transgender patients looking to access hormone therapy.

Even in the places that do fund gender reassignment surgery, also known as "gender-affirming" surgery, the wait-times and red tape to get them, as well as the recommended preceding hormone treatments, can put lives at risk.

According to a 2010 report from the Trans Pulse research group, trans people in Ontario who made the decision to medically transition, but faced delays in doing so, were often suicidal. Around 55 percent of the 433 trans people in the study said they had considered suicide and nearly 30 percent had attempted it. Rates of suicide attempts and thoughts significantly dropped for those who were able to fully transition.

One in every nine trans people in Canada commit suicide every year, compared to one in every 167 non-trans Canadians.

For Ryan Dyck, director of policy development at Egale Canada, it's disappointing that federal parties aren't making issues affecting trans Canadians a priority. But Dyck is still hopeful that Bill C-279 will eventually make it into law, and finally bring the federal government in line with the Canadian provinces that take trans rights seriously. "That would provide a basic foundation in law that recognizes trans people as respected in our society," Dyck said.

"We would better be able to prevent them from living their chosen gender in fear of discrimination and violence."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne