I am certainly pleased to be here with my deputy minister and pleased for the opportunity to be able to present on Bill C-16 today. I look forward to answering any questions.
In my remarks today, I will outline the broad objectives of the bill, take you through some specific amendments, and then respond to three points that were raised during second reading debate.
Bill C-16, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, is an important step forward in protecting the equality, dignity, security, and freedom of transgender and gender-diverse Canadians.
Trans Canadians, like all Canadians, should have an equal opportunity to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have. Indeed, all Canadians should be free to be themselves, without fear of discrimination, hate propaganda, and hate crime. Sadly, this is not yet the experience of many trans people.
As you are aware, trans and gender-diverse people face an elevated risk of violence, including physical and sexual assault, and verbal, physical, and sexual harassment. They also face significant obstacles in obtaining and advancing in employment, and not because of their lack of qualifications but because of discrimination.
Yet our human rights protections and criminal law do not explicitly protect this vulnerable group. With Bill C-16, Parliament has the opportunity to affirm in clear language that trans and gender-diverse people are entitled to equal protection from discrimination, hate propaganda, and hate crime.
Canada is strengthened by its diversity. Diversity flourishes when our laws and institutions promote social inclusion and participation for all, which is fundamentally what this bill seeks to do. To this end, Bill C-16 proposes to make three amendments.
It would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to add two prohibited grounds of discrimination: gender identity and gender expression. As a result of this amendment, it would be a discriminatory practice, in matters of employment and the provision of goods, services, facilities, and accommodation in the federal jurisdiction, to disadvantage people because of their gender identity or gender expression.
This bill also proposes to amend the Criminal Code. It would expand the list of identifiable groups that are protected from hate propaganda by adding gender identity or expression to the list.
Finally, it would make it clear that hatred on the basis of gender identity or expression should be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing for criminal offences.
It is not the first time that parliamentarians are studying this issue. Indeed, this House has already passed substantially the same bill twice before. Moreover, most provinces have already made similar amendments. I believe these amendments are overdue. Nevertheless, it is evident from the debate in the House that there are questions about why we need to enact these amendments and what they will do. I listened carefully to the debate and I acknowledged the perspectives of my fellow parliamentarians. I would like to address some of the questions today.
Some wondered whether the amendments are necessary. It was pointed out that trans people may already complain of discrimination on the ground of sex under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and that the hate crime sentencing provision is open-ended and would therefore already include gender identity and expression. Allow me to offer three responses.
First, Canadians should be able to turn to our fundamental laws, like the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, and see their rights and obligations spelled out clearly. Promoting access to justice means working on an ongoing basis to make our laws as clear and easy as possible for everyone to understand.
Trans people who feel they have been discriminated against should not have to become experts in legal interpretation to advocate for their basic rights. Employers and service providers should know explicitly what legal duties they have towards their employees and customers. Adding these grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act as well as the Criminal Code would ensure they are clear for all to see.
Second, Canadians expect parliamentarians to speak on their behalf to the social issues of the day and to affirm their fundamental rights. With this bill, Parliament has the opportunity to affirm that all Canadians should be free and feel safe to be themselves. The House can stand with trans and gender-diverse people to affirm their equal rights.
It is more than a symbolic gesture; this is about embedding new language of respect and inclusion in two important laws that set basic norms about how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis. This is about the Government of Canada sending a clear message that all Canadians are protected by and have the benefit of the law.
The third reason will be of special interest to this committee in its role of studying and recommending improvements to Canada's justice system. This legislation would fill an important gap in the criminal law. The Criminal Code's hate propaganda offences currently extend to the ground of sex, but there is no mention of gender identity or expression. As you know, gender identity is not the same characteristic as sex. Since criminal prohibitions are interpreted narrowly, in order to ensure that the offence protects against hate propaganda which targets trans and gender-diverse individuals because of their gender identity and expression, it is important for Parliament to legislate explicitly on this point.
We also heard questions about why gender identity and expression are not defined and whether their meaning is too subjective. Again, let me offer some comments.
Gender identity and expression are now found in most provincial human rights codes. Commissions, tribunals, and courts are expected to elaborate the meaning of such grounds in a reasonable way, with reference to the purpose of the law. They clarify these grounds, and indeed all grounds, through application of real-life examples, allowing the law to respond to individual situations in line with its purpose.
This does not mean that grounds are completely open-ended or that people can claim protection on a whim. There are real limits to what any ground can mean. The Federal Court of Appeal has insisted that the grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act must be interpreted in ways that do not trivialize the Canadian Human Rights Act's important role in the legal system. By way of comparison, the ground of religion is also undefined in the act, yet one's religious beliefs are subjectively determined. As the Supreme Court of Canada has stated, legal protection depends on the religious beliefs being sincere, a requirement that tribunals and courts are used to assessing on an individual basis.
Finally, we've heard that there are diverse understandings of sex and gender in Canada. Some may ask whether these amendments would lead to criminal prosecution of people who express disapproval of diverse gender identities or expressions. The answer is no. As explained in the statement of potential charter impacts that I tabled at second reading, the amendments to the hate propaganda provisions respect freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression in a free and democratic society. The criminal prohibitions on hate propaganda impose a narrow limit on expression. This limit is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, given the important objective being pursued, namely, to target extreme and dangerous speech that one, advocates genocide; two, wilfully promotes hatred; or three, incites hatred in a public place likely to cause a breach of the peace against vulnerable groups. The target is speech that promotes unusually strong and deeply felt emotions of detestation or vilification, which is far from the expression of religious faith, dissenting views, or even opinion that some may find offensive.
The Canadian Human Rights Act is concerned with protecting for all persons, equal access to goods, services, and employment in the federally regulated sector. It is not concerned with regulating the expression of one's beliefs. Rather, the act prohibits discriminatory practices, including harassment when harassment is inflicted in the employment context or in the provision of goods, services, facilities, or accommodation available to the general public, commercial premises, or residential accommodation.
As interpreted by the courts and tribunals, harassment involves serious incidents of persistent treatment that accumulates to create a hostile environment in these contexts.
Many other topics have been raised in debate in the House; however, several of them concerned matters of provincial jurisdiction, and others referred to situations that are outside the scope of the bill, keeping in mind that the Canadian Human Rights Act applies only in the federal sector. This means that it applies to the federal government in its role as employer and service provider and to the federally regulated private sector, including crown corporations, interprovincial and international transportation companies, telecommunications, the postal service, and chartered banks.
To conclude, I encourage this committee to focus on the real subject matter of this bill. It is about equal opportunity for trans and gender-diverse persons in employment and in access to goods and services. It is about increasing their sense of security and freedom from the most extreme forms of hate speech, including calls for genocide and its promotion. It's about denouncing what we know are still all-too-frequent acts of violence and other crimes when they target persons out of bias, prejudice, or hatred based on an individual's gender identity or expression.
Surely we can all agree that these objectives are pressing and in urgent need of being addressed. Bill C-16 would make the amendments needed to pursue these crucial objectives.
Thank you for the opportunity. I look forward to questions.