C-389 passes but faces further delays

Bittersweet victory in struggle for trans rights

Bill C-389, which would extend rights to trans people, passed a vote on report stage in the House of Commons on Dec 8 with 143 votes for and 136 against. Five Conservatives voted for the bill, three Liberals against, and there were three abstentions.

“Every stage we push this bill forward is historic,” says trans activist Susan Gapka, who was present for the vote.

“Today was the first time that I know of that a trans bill was debated and had a standing vote in Parliament,” she adds. “MPs stood up and were counted on whether they support the Canadian Human Rights Act or not, including … expanding human rights for women, for aboriginal people, for prisoners, for gays and lesbians, and now for trans people. That’s the evolution our history dictates, and now we know who is supporting us and who is not.

But despite the victory, the bill faces further delays and an uncertain future. The Conservatives demanded the vote at report stage, a step that would normally be skipped in cases, like this one, in which there were no amendments at committee. That the Conservatives opted to force a vote now could leave the bill to die on the order paper before the next election. And it may have something to do with allowing evangelist Charles McVety’s campaign against the bill to gain traction. He has said the bill will allow “perverts into women’s washrooms.”

While the bill’s author, NDP MP Bill Siksay, says he’s not sure McVety is a factor, Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings says, “It would not surprise me at all.”

“The government is clearly trying to put the Opposition in a difficult position,” says Jennings.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who normally doesn’t vote on private member’s bills, was present in the house and voted in favour of C-389.

“We’re the party of the Charter,” Ignatieff says. “We’re the party of equality, we’re the party of reaching out and including all Canadians, and excluding rights of gender expression and sexual expressions seemed to be just where I’ve always been and where I’ll always be, and where our party will always be, so of course I was there. It was important to us.”

There were surprises from the Conservative benches. MP Sylvie Boucher, who spoke against the bill at second reading, voted in favour. And MPs Daniel Petit and Bob Dechert voted in favour of the bill at committee, but voted against it at report stage.

“I think we knew that there were going to be some Conservatives that supported the bill,” Siksay says. “I don’t think there were any surprises today.” He added, “There could be technical reasons why they supported it at committee but didn’t support the content of the bill.”


Liberal Rob Oliphant says members of his own caucus are coming to the realization that trans rights are not a “gay” issue or a “sexual” issue, but one of identity.

“The leader made it very clear this was a free vote,” Oliphant says. “I argued that this is not an issue of conscience, but it’ll take more learning and more education.

“The champions of this issue in our caucus are Larry Bagnell from the Yukon and Marlene Jennings,” Oliphant says. “It’s great to have those kinds of champions on an issue like this, and it makes us feel like we’re making steps.”

The bill will return for its first hour third reading debate toward the end of February, with a second hour and subsequent vote scheduled after that.

“As always, a potential election could throw it completely off-course, but today is a good day to celebrate,” Siksay says.

“It’s a step forward. It’s the first standing vote we’ve had, so we know who supports and who doesn’t support now, and who abstained as well, so that’s helpful for us and gives us information that we can use working towards the third reading vote.”

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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