Wait times for bottom surgery in Canada can be as long as eight years. The impact on individuals can be deadly

The story of a 30-something Albertan shows how broken the Canadian system is. It may also be a gross violation of their human rights

“It’s harrowing.” 

That’s how Ash describes the process of trying to access gender-confirming bottom surgery in their home province of Alberta. (Ash is not their real name. In order to protect them from possible retaliation by Alberta Health, Xtra has agreed to use a pseudonym.)

Almost three years after Ash, who is now in their 30s, got a referral from their family doctor to one of the province’s gender clinics, they still haven’t received provincial approval for this medically necessary operation—and it will likely be another nine months before they hear from the province. Even then, they’re not guaranteed to get approved at all. All it takes is one bureaucrat at Alberta Health to say no and they’re back to square one.

If Ash is approved for surgery, they’re still facing a wait of up to four years at the one clinic in all of Canada that performs bottom surgeries for trans Albertans. All told, even if Ash is approved soon, they’ll be facing a wait of about eight years total to receive care.

“It’s awful waking up every day and just feeling this weight, this misfortune of … having the wrong body parts that could be fixed,” Ash says. “Some days you wake up, and the only way to continue moving forward with your day is just to completely dissociate from yourself, which, of course, impacts how you go about interacting with other people. People do notice.”

Often, dissociating is the only way they can keep functioning. “The dissociation isn’t something that can be helped; it’s either that, or I let in the full emotion, discomfort, tangible pain of my existence.” 

Ash received no mental health supports from Alberta Health Services during the years they were waiting for the gender clinic to process their referral. The waiting game they are currently playing with Alberta Health has caused them major depression, which they have had to hide for fear that their application for bottom surgery funding will be denied—a legitimate concern given that Alberta Health criteria prevents people with symptomatic depression from receiving funding.

The relational cost of that depression has been severe. “The depression, dysphoria and the dissociation I use as a defence mechanism have completely destroyed my marriage,” they say. “A relationship in which one individual is physically in limbo for such a long period of time simply can’t be maintained in a healthy way.” 

All the while, they feel they’ve been “watching their life go by,” and worry constantly about whether they will receive bottom surgery at all.

 “Is one person along the way with more power than me going to decide that, actually no, this person doesn’t deserve this surgery?” they ask. 

 

Ash’s story is one told many times over across the country. The story of trans healthcare in Canada is one of lack of access, gatekeeping and provincial inaction. Many argue that these systemic problems may also be a gross violation of human rights.

A bureaucratic nightmare just to start access

Getting vaginoplasty and phalloplasty—more commonly known as “bottom surgery” or gender confirmation surgery—is an intensively bureaucratic process in Canada, one that involves a complicated interplay between public and private health agencies. A recent improvement in the bureaucratic tangle in Alberta reveals just how complicated it is to navigate the system in Canada.

In 2022, Alberta Health quietly revised its criteria for approving trans patients for gender confirmation surgery. Previously, approval required a psychiatrist’s diagnosis and referral, a slow process given the few qualified psychiatrists in the province. Now, any physician can make the required diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and any “practitioner with extensive training or clinical experience in assessing and managing the needs of the transgender population” may make a valid referral. 

It would be difficult to overstate the sea change in trans health policy this revision represents. 

Alberta Health Services operates a gender clinic in each of Alberta’s major cities: The Gender Program in Edmonton and the Adult Gender Clinic in Calgary. Both offer comprehensive medical, psychological and social support for people experiencing gender dysphoria. Until this year, both were also the only places in the province where trans people could reliably obtain referrals for gender-affirming bottom surgery. 

The problem with the gender clinic model is, of course, facilitating access to the gender clinics themselves. At Edmonton’s Gender Program, the wait time for adults was between four and eight months in September 2022. At Calgary’s Adult Gender Clinic, wait times are currently closer to two years. And those are just the wait times to begin the process of securing the necessary documentation and referral for bottom surgery approval. 

Xtra reached out to Alberta minister of health Adriana LaGrange to ask what the province was doing to reduce wait times at the gender clinics and received no response from the minister’s office as of press time. 

However, by allowing any qualified physician to refer trans patients for bottom surgery—not just those psychiatrists who work at a gender clinic—Alberta is allowing patients to bypass the backlogged gender clinics, throwing open the door to vaginoplasty and phalloplasty access. Not a small thing in what is arguably Canada’s most conservative province. Indeed, this puts Alberta ahead of neighbouring Saskatchewan, which only accepts funding applications that include a referral from one of four provincially recognized physicians; and, in this respect, even British Columbia, which still requires trans people seeking bottom surgery to obtain a surgical recommendation from a pre-approved list of clinicians.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the fight for trans healthcare in Alberta has been easy, or that it’s over. By removing one bottleneck, the policy change in Alberta smacks hard against an even bigger bottleneck: there are only three clinics in the whole country that offer bottom surgery and two of them are off-limits to out-of-province residents. That means most Canadians, including those from Alberta, are funnelled into one clinic in Montreal where wait times can be up to four years long. 

Accessing funding is one thing, accessing surgery is something very different

Like most provinces, Alberta outsources gender confirmation surgeries to a private hospital in Montreal: the Centre Métropolitain de Chirurgie (CMC).

Founded in 1973, the CMC is the only private hospital in Quebec and one of only a handful of such hospitals in Canada. (Though privately run, the hospital accepts provincial health coverage, meaning patients access surgery for free.) Currently owned by Dr. Pierre Brassard, the CMC performs upward of 1,000 gender confirmation surgeries every year. It has been the exclusive provider of bottom surgery for Albertans since 1990, as well as, until recently, for most trans Canadians. The latest available data, published in 2019, indicates that in the three previous years, 90 percent of the patients who came to the CMC for gender-affirming surgery hailed from Canada with: 26 percent coming from Quebec, 35 percent from Ontario, 26 percent from the Western provinces and six percent from the Maritimes. 

The CMC offers patients everything from a preoperative stay at the hospital’s partner hotel in Laval, Quebec, to a postoperative stay at the Asclépiade, the only hospital-affiliated convalescent home in the world dedicated specifically to the care of trans patients who have received bottom surgery, to the care of five surgeons specializing in some or all aspects of gender confirmation surgery.

But the wait-list to access gender confirmation surgery at the CMC is notoriously long. The hospital did not respond to a request from Xtra to confirm current average wait times for the operation. However, reporting by the CBC in March 2023 found that the current wait time to access surgery is currently more than four years from the time the CMC receives a referral from a provincial funding body, regardless of which province is submitting the referral.

And as Alberta increases the accessibility of public funding for bottom surgery, that wait time is likely to increase. That’s exactly what happened when Ontario similarly opened up the funding gates in 2016. In that province, the loosened referral rules caused a nearly threefold jump in the number of gender confirmation surgeries funded each year, from 158 in 2015 to 414 three years later. 

Long wait times have been an issue for trans Albertans since the province began funding bottom surgery on an ad hoc basis in 1984. That year, at the urging of trans healthcare advocate Dr. Lorne Warneke, the province sent three trans patients to Belgium for their surgeries. 

In April 2022, the University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic (PILC) authored a report on the history and state of trans healthcare in Alberta. That report, which is not public, but has been provided to Xtra by the PILC, drew on internal government records obtained from Alberta Health through a 2018 Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy request. It shows that, from the beginning, gender-confirmation surgery has been underfunded and inaccessible.

For the first decade that funding was available, from 1984 to 1994, there was no official policy or system for facilitating access to this medically necessary procedure. “It is most likely,” the report concludes, “that Dr. Warneke was pushing each application through the system [himself].”

It was only in 1996, when Warneke founded the Edmonton Gender Program, that the Alberta government launched an official program to fund bottom surgeries out of the CMC. For the first 12 years that the program was in operation, however, funding was strictly limited to 16 surgeries per year—far short of the demand from trans Albertans. Just five months into the province’s 2008–2009 budgetary year, that quota had already been filled and trans patients were being wait-listed for surgeries in the following year. 

Then, in order to save $700,000 a year—or roughly $0.18 per Albertan based on the population at the time—Alberta Health announced in April 2009 that it would be discontinuing funding for gender confirmation surgeries as an austerity measure. As Ron Liepert, minister of health and wellness at the time, put it in a speech to the provincial legislature, the decision to defund the program “was not based on medical decisions.”

The province never truly followed through on its plan to eliminate funding for bottom surgery; funding kept flowing in a limited capacity, and in 2012, Alberta officially reinstated the program with an annual budget of $1.1 million. That would be enough to cover approximately 25 bottom surgeries per year. In 2016 and 2017, that number grew to 38 surgeries; and in 2018 and 2019, the province funded 83 surgeries, a more than fivefold increase from the original 16 surgery cap. 

As the number of surgeries increased, so, too, did wait times. While Edmonton’s Gender Program saw 580 patients in 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available), more than 650 other patients were on the wait-list for an initial consultation. 

In September 2019, the clinic’s director, Dr. Michael Marshall, publicly resigned, citing the clinic’s financial precarity as his reason for leaving. With one exception, he and his entire staff were dependent on University of Alberta grants—not provincial healthcare dollars—for their funding. “Securing grants as a means of providing care is not sustainable,” Dr. Marshall told Global News at the time.

The two other clinics in Canada don’t accept out-of-province patients

The CMC does not have a monopoly on the provision of bottom surgery in Canada. 

In 2019, the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto—a public healthcare institution—began offering vaginoplasty to trans Ontarians. That came two years after the hospital launched the Trans Health Expansion Partnership, an undertaking in partnership with Sherbourne Health Centre, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and community consultants meant to increase the availability of transition-related healthcare across Ontario. 

Also in 2019, British Columbia began offering its trans residents access to bottom surgeries at the Vancouver General Hospital. This made it the first province in Western Canada to offer gender-confirmation surgeries for both transmasculine and transfeminine people.

Ontario’s gender-affirming surgical clinic “has the capacity to perform 40 vaginoplasty surgeries in an average year,” according to Emery Potter, nurse practitioner and clinical lead of the Women’s College Hospital’s Transition-Related Surgery program. Last year, the program received 75 referrals for vaginoplasty—almost twice as many as the hospital had the capacity to perform, evidencing the high demand for the health services the program offers.

In B.C., patients move toward bottom surgery in stages. “The first phase includes an intake and consult,” Vancouver Coastal Health told Xtra via email. At this stage, “the wait time is typically 12 to 18 months.” Patients then have the choice to pursue pre-surgery hair removal, which takes about 12 to 18 months by itself; or “intra-operative hair removal” (permanent hair removal during bottom surgery), which can reduce their wait time considerably. Either way, “Once patients are deemed ready, the provincial objective is to ensure that patients wait no longer than six months for surgery.” In the most recent fiscal year, 2022–2023, Vancouver Coastal Health performed 44 vaginoplasties under this program.

Perhaps accounting for their shorter wait times, neither clinic accepts out-of-province patients. (British Columbia’s program does accept referrals from patients in the Yukon, however.) This means that trans people in Canada’s other provinces and territories must still brave the much lengthier wait-list at the CMC, or pay out-of-pocket costs of upward of CAD 13,000 to 20,000  to receive their bottom surgery in another country, like Thailand, for example.

The latter speaks to a deeper problem with the state of healthcare for trans people in Canada. The country has, with two major exceptions, effectively privatized vaginoplasty and phalloplasty. Those with the money to do so can access these procedures fast by going elsewhere. Those without must go to the back of a very long line.

For many trans people, delayed access to gender-affirming bottom surgery is more than an inconvenience. It’s a matter of life or death. 

The suicide rate among Canada’s trans population is notoriously high. Compared to the cis lesbian, gay and bisexual population as a whole, trans Canadians are twice as likely to consider or attempt suicide. In 2019 alone, 31 percent of trans Canadians considered suicide and six percent attempted it.

Adequate access to gender-affirming care can help to reduce that risk. Gender-affirming surgeries demonstrably reduce psychological distress and suicidal ideation, according to research undertaken by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And a 2020 Dutch study found that, among trans youth, accessing gender-affirming medical care reduced rates of suicidal thoughts compared to those seen in the cis population.

One Alberta trans woman, Donna Battaglia, told CBC News in March that the wait time to access vaginoplasty in Montreal drove her close to suicide twice. She ended up receiving the operation from a local surgeon who agreed to provide it in tandem with cancer-correction surgery. But there is currently no official mechanism for trans people to obtain any gender-affirming bottom surgery at an in-province clinic because neither gender-affirming vaginoplasty nor phalloplasty are listed on Alberta’s Schedule of Medical Benefits—the list of services that Alberta’s public healthcare program will fund with public money. So while there are surgeons in the province capable of performing bottom surgeries, they don’t usually do so.

All of which raises a pointed legal question.

Might it be a violation of trans Canadians’ human rights to deny them ready access to life-saving genital surgeries like vaginoplasty and phalloplasty?

Are the provinces violating trans Canadians’ human rights?

There’s no free-standing right to healthcare in Canada. But there is a right to be free from healthcare discrimination on the basis of one’s gender identity.

Calgary psychiatrist Joe Raiche thinks Alberta Health has violated that right. He helped develop the city’s Adult Gender Clinic and, in February 2017, filed a human rights complaint against Alberta Health alleging discrimination against the province’s trans population.

The quota in place at the time—which limited funding to 25 bottom surgeries per budgetary year—created a “funding bottleneck,” Raiche argued in his complaint, “since there are always more than 25 Albertans perpetually applying for surgery in a given year.” 

“By virtue of being transgender, certain Albertans will be discriminated against as they not only need to wait for medical care/surgery (uniformly seen in healthcare), but also need to wait an additional time specifically for funding (not seen in other areas of healthcare). A medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria is the only condition where an additional barrier exists based solely on waiting for funding. This amounts to discrimination based on gender identity, as only transgender patients will experience this additional burden.”

Government records provided to Xtra by the Calgary lawyer who worked with Raiche, Drew Yewchuk, indicate that Alberta Health chose to eliminate the cap on bottom surgery funding rather than fight Raiche in front of the Alberta Human Rights Commission Tribunal. Indeed, an internal government memo submitted in November 2017 to the assistant deputy minister of health indicated that “in response to public calls to reduce the wait time for [bottom surgery] funding approval from transgender Albertans, the media and some of Alberta’s referring psychiatrists, including [Raiche’s] Human Rights challenge, decreasing and eliminating the wait time for [Final Stage Gender Reassignment Surgery]  FSGRS funding approval is a program priority.”

In other words, the combination of public outcry and human rights litigation was enough to force the province to dramatically restructure its program for providing trans healthcare. That should offer some hope to trans activists and their allies: change is possible.

And change is needed. Alberta Health may have lifted the formal quota on the number of surgeries it will fund each year, but it still only allocates $1.1 million toward bottom surgeries annually. That would be enough to cover approximately 40 vaginoplasties, Raiche tells Xtra. But the money also has to cover phalloplasties, which can cost four to five times as much. In practice, this means funding for bottom surgery continues to be strictly limited in a province whose population is now estimated to be over 4.5 million residents.

That $1.1 million funding cap needs to go, Raiche says, and vaginoplasty and phalloplasty need to be listed in the provincial Schedule of Medical Benefits. Doing so would place both surgeries on par with other publicly funded operations like gallbladder removal or urethral repair and “allow [Albertans] to have a funding system in place that’s scalable and expands or contracts depending on the needs of the population … at the time.” 

Xtra asked Adriana LaGrange why gender-confirming vaginoplasty and phalloplasty are not in the Schedule, as well as when they would be added to it. Spokesperson Andrew Livingstone declined to say when that would happen. 

Ideally, there needs to be surgeons in the province performing bottom surgeries under the Alberta Health Services umbrella. 

Alberta is moving in the right direction by increasing the availability of public funding for gender-confirmation surgeries. But its progress will remain minimal so long as the province continues to send trans patients out of province. It, along with every other province and territory without its own bottom surgery clinic, needs to follow the lead of Ontario and British Columbia and open up a local clinic for the provision of this surgery.

“There are no legal barriers to Alberta providing such a service in the province,” according to University of Calgary law professor and health law expert Lorian Hardcastle. As far as funding goes, “it is extremely easy for the government to make changes and add new insured services to the Schedule of Medical Benefits.” 

The absence of a bottom surgery clinic in the province “seems to be the product of policy choices either by government” or Alberta Health Services (AHS). “These policy choices may be deliberate decisions that the government or AHS has consciously made to send patients out of province, or it may be policy inaction.”

Indeed, “it would be interesting to know,” Hardcastle says, “what AHS has done to try to encourage or facilitate the opening of such a clinic.” 

The answer, it seems, is nothing.

According to Raiche, in 2019 a multidisciplinary group of Alberta physicians—including psychiatrists, surgeons, endocrinologists and primary care providers—put together a proposal for an in-province centre for gender-confirmation surgery. Alberta Health Services rejected that proposal due to “budgetary constraints.”

“It’s not that Alberta doesn’t have the providers or the clinicians necessary,” Raiche says. “I think we have a really strong network of particular surgeons who are very passionate and committed to trans care. It is just a financial funding decision that, right now, Alberta Health would rather choose to pay for people to go to Montreal as opposed to working together with AHS to create a surgical program here.”

Indeed, when Xtra asked LaGrange what Alberta Health is doing to facilitate the opening of a bottom surgery clinic in the province, the minister’s office declined to say.

Inaction from provincial governments ultimately means that trans Canadians will face more suffering.

Canada’s provinces are, with two exceptions, failing their trans residents. By relying on a backlogged clinic in Montreal to provide a medically necessary and life-saving operation, the provinces are putting trans people’s health, safety and well-being at risk. 

References

Sources And Methodology

Xtra contributor Charlotte Dalwood began work on this story while researching access to gender confirmation surgery in the province of Alberta. The University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic (PILC) report on the history and state of trans healthcare in Alberta prompted the focus of this story. Information about access and wait times in other provinces was gleaned from a number of sources including news reports, information sheets from clinics and official government sources published online. The Alberta government was given an opportunity to comment on what it was doing to improve access to bottom surgery in Alberta.

Charlotte Dalwood is an English-speaking freelance journalist and JD student based in Calgary, AB. Her other publications include a monthly column on 2SLGBTQ+ and legal issues for rabble.ca.

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