For Fae Johnstone, getting an invitation from Hershey’s Canada to participate in an International Women’s Day campaign alongside many women she admires left her “blown away.”
“I was floored and honoured,” says the Ottawa-based trans activist and executive director of Wisdom2Action. “It was an opportunity to be spotlighted for a moment and give visibility and representation to young trans folks, particularly young trans women and girls.”
When her limited-edition chocolate bar was released, Johnstone heard from trans people all across the country and beyond “who were just thrilled to see a campaign that spoke to them and included them in a powerful way.”
But at the same time, the anti-trans backlash was ramping up.
Within an hour of posting her ad on social media, Johnstone faced a “tsunami” of far-right and anti-trans hatred. That continued to spread, as many infamous right-wing American commentators and media personalities picked up the story.
“I do think I’m probably one of the only Canadians who can claim to have been stomped on by Tucker Carlson, Matt Walsh, Ben Shapiro and Michael Knowles in a period of 24 hours,” she said.
And some of the attacks came from close to home, from Canadian organizations.
Pour les droits des femmes du Québec (PDF Québec) is a women’s group that has lobbied in support of Bill 21 (which prevents civil servants, teachers and others from wearing visible religious symbols), and against legislation such as Bill C-16, which aims to protect gender-diverse people from discrimination.
After Johnstone’s ad came out, PDF Québec responded on Twitter, repeatedly misgendering her and calling her a “violent man.” The tweets have since been deleted. The organization denies promoting anti-trans views.
“PDF Québec does not attack people in their lives, or in their choice of sexual orientation or gender identity. On the contrary, we want everyone to live with dignity and without discrimination,” the organization told CBC in a statement.
But PDF Québec’s social media feeds contain many posts encouraging trans people to detransition, calling gender-affirming surgeries “mutilations” and specifically targeting trans activists like Johnstone.
“In the moment, it was just more of the same,” Johnstone says of PDF Québec’s tweets. “It was a tsunami—I couldn’t pick out an individual wave. But it wasn’t a surprise when I looked back and saw them engaging with my inclusion in the campaign specifically, because it’s not the first time they have taken issue with me.”
For the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Québec’s government gave PDF Québec $143,000, CBC reported.
Organizations who receive this funding are supposed to meet strict criteria, including being a non-profit or a co-operative created for social needs, being community-based, encouraging democratic life, pursuing a mission for social change and demonstrating civic practices.
Despite its longstanding pattern of transphobic harassment, PDF Québec met the criteria for independent community action and collective defense of rights, Labour Ministry spokesperson Catherine Poulin told CBC.
When Johnstone found out about the organization’s funding, it was a painful shock.
“I was outraged,” she tells Xtra. “It felt like a slap in the face. Québec likes to talk about themselves as a progressive society, but for their government to be funding what I would describe as a group motivated by hate and a dislike for trans people, and for them to be resourced by the provincial government … is just sad to see.”
“And for an organization that calls themselves feminist to facilitate the mobbing of any individual, regardless of if they are trans or what their gender identity happens to be, the fact that they would further add fuel to the fire in those moments is absolutely abhorrent.”
19-year-old trans activist Celeste Trianon, who runs a legal clinic in Montreal, has also been targeted by PDF Québec.
“[PDF Québec] came onto my radar almost immediately after I started doing trans activism in Quebec, because its members were responsible for what I believe is the majority of anti-trans op-eds published in the media,” she says.
Trianon said the anti-trans rhetoric from PDF Québec has been constant, and has escalated to more personal online attacks against her this year, and she worries about the day someone might decide to take their hatred of her from digital spaces into the physical world.
“It makes me sad,” she says. “I know my safety—my own personal safety—is compromised, even if I choose one day to no longer be at the forefront of fighting for trans rights. Trans activists should not have to put their lives in danger in order to fight for the community. But that is exactly what’s happening to me.”
“People forget that trans activists are, fundamentally, humans who just want to be able to walk a better road; humans who do this out of a desire to make things better. Not worse, but better,” says Trianon.
So funding PDF Québec, Trianon says, is exactly the opposite of what the government should be doing.
“It’s disheartening,” Trianon tells Xtra. “It’s dehumanizing. It speaks a lot to how the government thinks that trans lives are disposable—that’s the impression I have.”
A spokesperson for Québec’s minister responsible for the fight against homophobia and transphobia, Martine Biron, told CBC that “Quebec is an open and welcoming society where homophobia and transphobia have no place,” and that the government’s decision to provide funding to PDF Québec “is not a sign of support for all their positions.”
Amidst a global rise in extremist right-wing movements, Johnstone says Canadians need to be aware of how anti-trans hate is manifesting, and what can be done to fight back and protect trans lives.
“For a long time, Canada has pretended that these issues aren’t problems here as well—and that is absolutely not the case; this is a Canadian problem, too,” Johnstone says. “We are seeing rising hate against 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, connected to white supremacy and far-right extremism.
“So Canada has an opportunity here to look at what’s happening in the U.S. and the U.K. and to take intentional steps to prevent the same from happening here.”
Trianon, too, says many Canadians operate under the misconception that Canada is a haven for trans life, sheltered from the bigotry that trans people are facing in other parts of the world.
“What they have right is that Canada is better than the United States, and the U.K.,” Trianon says. “What they have wrong, though, is that anti-trans discourse does exist here, and it exists in massive quantities.… Canada might think it’s ahead by a lot, but truly, the difference is much smaller than what you might think. And we are also being influenced by the same discourse as the one happening in the United States. And the arguments used by anti-trans groups remain the same.”
In a positive development, Johnstone has noted that the mainstream Canadian feminist movement has “loudly and proudly stood up for trans people, and disavowed any pseudo-feminist that calls themselves a feminist in the name of fighting trans people’s rights.”
But, she says, governments need to do more to step up and protect trans rights while the community faces increasing threats.
“The federal government, while they like to talk a big game on queer and trans issues, are consistently dropping the ball and not delivering for our communities,” she says. “So I’m hopeful that our federal government and our provincial governments take a hard look at the rising hate we’re seeing, and put in resources and strategies and supports to combat that hate.”