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Bill C-16: Canadian Human Rights Act - Senator Plett Amendment

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Senator Plett's amendment to Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code by adding the words "gender identity" and "gender expression" as prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Regardless of whether one supports or opposes this legislation, I know that there is a unanimous view in this chamber that hostility and discrimination against transgendered persons is completely unacceptable and must not be tolerated in a just and caring society like our own.

The intent of this legislation is to protect the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming persons. I believe that this is a virtuous intent because there should be no person in our country who feels unsafe due to their gender or their sexual identity.

Although there is a lack of consensus among transgendered individuals, the gay and lesbian community, and the feminist community on the value and efficacy of this legislation, there are a large number of people who do believe that this legislation is required to protect their rights.

It is for this reason that I voted to support this legislation at the clause-by-clause stage in committee.

To those who believe that Bill C-16 will make them safer and more protected against bigotry and hatred, it is my sincere hope that it succeeds in doing so. However, we would be fooling ourselves to believe that this legislation is any kind of panacea to end the extremely elevated depression and suicide rates among transgendered people. It does not have the power to stop bullying in schools nor on social media. It will not end transphobia.

Those are issues that need to be dealt with on a societal and educational level. Unfortunately, every social ill cannot be remedied through well-meaning legislation.

This has been our experience provincially, where the Ontario Human Rights Commission's addition of gender identity and gender expression has not had an impact on the suicide, depression or discrimination rate.

My support for this bill does not mean that I have no reservations about it. I remain concerned that due to its overly broad language and the Justice Minister's failure to provide definitions for the vague terms "gender identity" and "gender expression," there is reason to be worried that this bill will have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech.

The compelled use of pronouns, a potential consequence of Bill C-16 — and I think we heard just now the argument that Bill C-16 will not compel speech but that it is okay if it does — that is what I heard — because benign words can do damage and misgendering is harassment. Compelling pronouns may seem harmless to some, but for those of us who cherish the supreme ideal of free speech, the slippery slope is obvious and alarming.

Our committee heard testimony to this effect from a number of academics, including Professor Bruce Pardy from the Queen's University law school who said:

Any speech that is compelled is, by definition, unreasonable. If you had a statute, for example, that compelled people to say 'hello' and 'please' and 'thank you,' all of which are perfectly reasonable things to say, the statute would be totalitarian because it puts words in the mouths of citizens. In a free country people, decide for themselves what to say, and as soon as you take that right away from them, you cannot claim to be living in a free society any longer.

Because I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, I support Senator Plett's amendment that makes it clear that the purpose of this legislation is not to compel speech but, rather, to protect individuals against workplace and other forms of discrimination.

The text reads:

4.1 For greater certainty, nothing in this Act requires the use of a particular word or expression that corresponds to the gender identity or expression of any person.".

This simple sentence makes clear Parliament's intent: This bill is designed to combat prejudice and discrimination, not to infringe on the freedom of speech.

Colleagues, most Canadians are not concerned with this bill's intent. Rather, many Canadians have legitimate concerns about the effects Bill C-16 will have on their right to speak freely. We have the opportunity to alleviate those concerns without hindering the intent of this legislation.

If we pass the amendment before us today, we will ensure a clear-minded focus on what this debate should be about: protecting transgender and gender non-conforming persons.

I applaud Senator Plett for bringing this amendment forward and urge all honourable senators to support me in supporting it.

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