Bill 171: An important victory for trans* rights, and a call to action for Canada’s labour movement

By Kent Peterson and Donna Smith

On December 8, 2014 the Government of Saskatchewan passed Bill 171 – an act to amended the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code (SHRC). The bill went through second reading, committee, and third reading all in one afternoon. After the bill was passed, Saskatchewan’s Lieutenant-Governor arrived at the Legislature to give the bill immediate royal assent. The unusually speedy process to pass Bill 171 was made possible by rare cooperation between the governing Saskatchewan Party, and the opposition New Democrats.

Along with some administrative changes, Bill 171 amended the SHRC to include gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination. This critical, and hard-fought change to the Code acknowledges the bigotry and violence faced by the trans* community in Saskatchewan. And while the reform has been a long-time goal of the trans* community, and their allies in the province, the effort was revitalized in 2013 following a particular instance of discrimination.

A trans* woman, Rohit Singh, had been denied access to a bridal gown shop in Saskatoon, because the shop owner only served “real women”. Singh took her case to the Human Rights Commission, at which point the trans* community and its allies came together to push for additional trans* rights. The injustice of the situation and the publicity it created galvanized activists to make real demands for changes to be incorporated into the SHRC.HRC Amended

The Chief Commissioner of the Sask Human Rights Commission, David Arnot, insisted the provisions of the SHRC – as they existed before gender identity was included – already protected trans* people from discrimination, and maintained that were was no need for change. The Government of Saskatchewan also indicated that it was not interested in amending the SHRC to explicitly include gender identity.

The Gender Equality Society of Saskatchewan (GESS) started a social media campaign called Time4Rights.ca. The campaign advocated for the rights of trans* people, with a specific goal of pressuring the government to include gender identity and expression into the SHRC. This Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr campaign raised awareness of the issue, and pushed the government to address the lack of trans* protection in Saskatchewan.

Joining the Time4Rights momentum, the Avenue Community Centre, a non-profit agency in Saskatoon that works to address health and social issues in the LGBTQ community, released a policy recommendation with regards to trans* rights. The recommendation, “Toward the Inclusion of Gender Identity and Expression as Protected Grounds in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code”, added to the public discussion that was well underway.

Many individuals, such as Jai Richards, took part in the campaign for trans* rights. Richards, a trans* man and a registered psychologist, joined community members and made personal calls to the Minister of Justice advocating for amendments to the SHRC. As public support for the idea increased, so too did the pressure on the provincial government. Richards believes the defining moment in the trans* rights campaign occurred in March, 2014 at a panel on transphobia in Saskatoon.

At the panel event, Commissioner Arnot continued to insist that trans* people were protected under the existing SHRC. During the question and answer period of the panel, Ken Norman, a lawyer and former Chief Commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, challenged Arnot on his position. Norman urged Arnot to support adding gender identity and reminded him that explicit protection is different from implicit protection. Norman referenced language specific to the SHRC where sex is defined to mean gender. It was specifically put in the code that way back in 1975 to exclude sexual orientation and it wasn’t until 1993 that sexual orientation was explicitly put in the code. Norman’s challenge of the Commissioner was a powerful incident, and people in attendance agreed that Commissioner Arnot appeared to reconsider his previous position.

New Democratic MLA, David Forbes, was also on that panel and believes it was a tipping point for Commissioner. Forbes is the Critic for Diversity, Equality, and Human Rights and has been at the forefront of pushing for this inclusion. The NDP MLA worked with trans* individuals, community groups, and interested stakeholders to forward the issue with opposition and government.

Forbes is also the Critic for Labour Relations, and the connection between working people and trans* rights was not lost on him or anyone involved in this campaign.

Trans* rights & labour rights

Transgender and transsexual persons have always been some of the most marginalized workers and union members. Discrimination in employment is one of the biggest factors facing trans* people, as transitioning at work leaves trans* people incredibly vulnerable. Financial, emotional, and risk to personal safety can be very high. There is often stress around health-related absences due to medical treatments. Workplace support and advocacy is critical. Privacy and confidentiality is equally important, and strong collective bargaining language to support these issues is a must. There is a growing awareness about the discrimination faced by trans* people and their right to be and live as they choose, in equality, safety and dignity.

Transgender and transsexual persons have always been some of the most marginalized workers and union members. Discrimination in employment is one of the biggest factors facing trans* people, as transitioning at work leaves trans* people incredibly vulnerable. Financial, emotional, and risk to personal safety can be very high.

Recognizing the importance of the fight for advancing trans* rights, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) played a supportive role in pressuring the government to include gender identity and gender expression in the SHRC. For the past several years Federation delegates have brought forward resolutions to the annual convention as a means of encouraging affiliates to lobby the government to add these grounds to the code. These resolutions have also worked to encourage affiliates, and the SFL as a whole, to require the government to amend the Vital Statistics Act to reflect a new gender declaration.

The SFL organizes many educationals and workshops that include diversity and equality, and ensure there is discussion around LGBT issues. The SFL Solidarity and Pride Committee has for years had a trans representative on their committee, and discussions around trans issues are always included on the agenda. Members from unions represented on the committee ensure resolutions and information are brought to their own Union conventions, educationals, and gatherings as well.

The labour movement plays an important role in helping to shape public opinion, in lobbying governments, and in working with social justice groups. Behind the scene conversations help to move issues to the forefront. In March 2012 members of the SFL Solidarity and Pride Committee and SFL staff helped with getting signatures for a petition encouraging the government to introduce legislative changes to amend the Human Rights code to include gender identity and gender expression, started by TransSask Suport Services.

The labour movement plays an important role in helping to shape public opinion, in lobbying governments, and in working with social justice groups. Behind the scene conversations help to move issues to the forefront.

Trans* workers are workers, trade unionists and part of our movement. Accordingly, unions have a legal and moral responsibility to defend all members.

The labour movement believes in everyone’s right to dignity in their workplace and everyone’s right to a safe and healthy workplace free from harassment and discrimination. Allied voices are extremely important and the labour movement has been a strong voice in advocating for trans rights.

The following in an exert from Workers in Transition: A Practical Guide about Gender Transition, published by the Canadian Labour Congress:

Union Action on Trans Issues

Unions have a responsibility to defend all members on the job. The collective agreement is one critical tool. Enforcing the collective agreement and defending trans workers makes the tool effective.

  • Add the words “gender identity” and gender expression” to our non-discrimination and anti-harassment language.
  • Negotiate benefit coverage for the medical treatments required for transition. Trans people are not only being denied public health care for transition-related expenses, but they are sometimes denied access to private health care benefits that are available to other members.
  • Ensure that all information collected on employees is held in confidence. This is especially important for transgender workers who do not want to be out at work
  • Negotiate anti-harassment training that includes harassment based on gender identity as well as homophobia. And, we need to make it clear to employers that the union will challenge any attempts to discriminate against trans workers.
  • Negotiate Transition Plans that include transition leave, benefit coverage, and plans for transitioning on the job.
  • Enforce the employer’s duty to accommodate.

Reflecting on the important trans* rights victory that Saskatchewan had just achieved, Jai Richards had this to say:

“It takes a community to advocate for change; both members of the marginalized group and our allies. The labour movement has been an ally of the queer community and other diverse groups for decades. Thus, it is no surprise that they have supported the actions of the trans* community in advocating for changes to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code to include gender identity as a protected grounds from discrimination.”

Donna Smith works at the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) and is the staff person attached to the SFL Solidarity and Pride Committee. She has served on the Canadian Labour Congress Solidarity and Pride Committee since 1998 and on the CUPE National Pink Triangle Committee as the Saskatchewan representative for several years. She is an advocate, lobbyist and educator on LGBTQ issues.

Kent Peterson is a student movement and labour movement activist based in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has served as president of the University of Regina Students’ Union, as a representative on the national executive of the Canadian Federation of Students, as well as on the boards of other student-run and student-funded organizations. Currently he is the Strategic Advisor for the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, and coordinates their community organizing initiatives.

 

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