Bill C-279: Who killed the transgender rights bill?

The Canadian Senate chamber. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Canadian Senate chamber. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“We should send Senator Don Plett a thank-you card.”

That sentiment was expressed by Amanda Ryan, a member of an Ontario transgender social and support group called Gender Mosaic that  had some input on Bill C-279 as it made its way through the House of Commons and into the Senate.

Indeed, a lot of transgender people are thanking Mr. Plett, albeit facetiously, in the wake of his controversial amendment to the bill, which would have modified the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to protect gender identity.

His amendment derailed the bill, many charge, and the resulting outrage by the transgender community and widespread media coverage has raised awareness about transgender issues, Ryan says.

“We have gained a great deal through this. Plett’s amendment inadvertently drew a lot of very positive attention to the trans community,” she said.

Others, no doubt, will be thanking him, too: conservative anti-LGBT organizations may see it as a small victory for their fundamentalist belief systems and traditional family values.

But who really should get the blame or credit (depending on your viewpoint) for the death of Bill C-279?

Many people point the finger at Senator Plett, with various conspiracy theories that all culminate with him delaying the bill’s passage in the Senate to the point of its death when the session broke for the summer and a federal election is called in the fall.

Some believe Senator Plett has been a good soldier acting on behalf of Conservatives in the House of Commons. Others believe he is just plain transphobic. But evidence of a plot by Senator Plett to derail Bill C-279 is circumstantial at best. Nobody can prove anything.

Senator Plett adamantly denies that he deliberately set out to derail the bill. And he just as adamantly denies that he is transphobic. Au contraire, Senator Plett says he supports transgender rights and sees the need for aforementioned protections.

Senator Plett had one concern about the parameters of who is transgender and who isn’t, and he introduced an amendment to Bill C-279 that would give some leeway and legal protection to people who run various federal institutions so that they could use their judgment on a case-by-case basis.

In all likelihood, they might never find themselves in the position of having to turn someone away because they suspected that individual was not a transgender person and was up to no good.

But legal protection would have been there for them if Bill C-279 had passed with Senator Plett’s amendment — just in case.


Senator Plett says he was never trying to stop transwomen from using women’s facilities or transmen from using men’s facilities, despite media  reports to the contrary and the bathroom protest movement — dubbed #plettputmehere — started by Brae Carnes of Victoria, British Columbia.

Brae Carnes of Victoria, B.C., is seen in a men's washroom demonstrating against Senator Don Plett's amendment to Bill C-279. (Photo: Brae Carnes/Facebook)
Brae Carnes of Victoria, B.C., is seen in a men’s washroom demonstrating against Senator Don Plett’s amendment to Bill C-279. (Photo: Brae Carnes/Facebook)

He said on more than one occasion that after passage of Bill C-279 with his amendment, transwomen would continue to use the women’s facilities in federal institutions that they currently use.

In other words, he was echoing Toby’s Act of Ontario, which is guided by the “lived gender experience” principle: If you live as a woman 24/7, you use women’s facilities. Vice versa for a transmale.

The problem for Senator Plett was, in his words, about “…a large biological male with no intention of physically transitioning. That person has every right to identify as a female, but this individual’s presence would clearly cause more concern in a women’s-only space than someone like (Liberal) Senator Mitchell described (an attractive transwoman like Brae Carnes).”

The issue was about passing, and quite possibly in his mind, about weekend cross-dressers who present as males the rest of the time.

Should they have the right to be using women’s facilities some of the time, and men’s facilities the rest of the time? How could you define their lived gender experience?

The parameters of transgenderism and the current wave of gender fluidity were just too vague for Senator Plett, and the people he was speaking for — including women’s groups and individuals.

No doubt, Senator Plett heard from a lot of women who supported his amendment to Bill C-279, and a lot of women who didn’t want to see Bill C-279 passed at all. As I wrote about some of the Bill C-279 issues for my Gazette blog, I heard from some of them as well.

Most didn’t seem to have a problem with gender-transitioned women using women’s facilities. But they had visions of “big, hairy guys in grandma’s old dress and a cheap wig” accessing their spaces, perhaps on a  lark. They wanted some level of protection — though, the irony of all this is that Bill C-279 and the contentious amendment only applied to federal institutions, not places like the local gym.

Many women were afraid, and they felt their concerns were being shouted down and drowned out by trans activists. I’ve seen this fear repeatedly expressed in articles and have heard it from some of my female readers over the years.

Did the transgender community address their issues properly? Did the transgender community reach out to these women? (I don’t know the answer to those questions.)


So, what exactly was the problem with the amendment for the Bill C-279 stakeholders, as the Senate Liberals referred to them? How would it affect transgender people in Canada if it had been passed with Senator Plett’s amendment?

Says Amanda Ryan: “This bill will have far less practical impact than Ontario’s law, for instance, because it only affects federal jurisdictions. Those being federal buildings, airports, prisons and I suppose military bases. It will not affect mom and pop shops, schools or any other provincial or municipal buildings. So its scope is far more restricted than the provincial laws.

“The big problem, though, as I see it, is the message that this bathroom amendment sends to Canadians everywhere. Because it is a Canadian law, it will carry more weight in the minds of Canadian citizens. And that weight will say that it is OK to discriminate against trans people.

“In Ontario, there have been some human rights cases fought at the Tribunal. There have been a lot more cases that were settled long before they got to the Tribunal because employees and people looking for housing could point to a law that said you cannot discriminate. Many companies started policies because the law was in place.

“But if a company starts a policy based on the federal law, they will have restrictions on employees using bathrooms. This just sends the message that there is something wrong with us. That we are dangerous and to be feared. Not true, but the law will reinforce that perception.”


Were Amanda’s concerns realistic? Well, the stakeholders thought so, and there was no way they were going to support the amended bill — even if it meant that transgender people would lose out on other protections they would have received.

The fear that some people outside of federal institutions might discriminate against some transgender people — specifically, as Senator Plett put it, “large biological male(s) with no intention of physically transitioning” — was enough to reject his amendment.


What about the Senate Liberals, who were sponsoring the bill in the Senate? In media reports, they pointed the finger at Senator Plett for holding up the bill, who in turn pointed the finger back at them, saying they were holding it up by not agreeing to his amendment and by introducing an amendment of their own seeking to overturn his.

Meanwhile, Liberal senators were handcuffed by a Conservative-dominated Senate and by the Senate system itself that rendered them impotent.

Did they ever think about accepting Senator Plett’s amendment in the spirit of compromise, with the belief that the passage of Bill C-279 would benefit trans people across the country while maybe — just maybe — negatively affecting a few?

No. They took their marching orders from their stakeholders, which included members of Gender Mosaic, the transgender social and support group, as well as organizations like Egale, the CJA, Amnesty International, legal council and, of course, Randall Garrison, the NDP MP who introduced the bill in the House of Commons.

Could the Senate Liberals have done more? Well, off the record, one member of the Liberal camp told me that in hindsight, they could have been more proactive, though I am not sure what they could have done given the Senate system.


So, who is to blame for the failure of Bill C-279 in the Senate?

The majority of trans people will point to Senator Don Plett. It’s his fault, as far as they are concerned — and the prime minister’s fault if Senator Plett was taking his orders from him.

But some trans activists who did not participate in the process wonder if Gender Mosaic and some of the others involved should have been representing Canadian transgender people in this process.

They feel the federal rights of the vast majority of trans people were sacrificed because of the fears of “stakeholders” who didn’t really have much of a personal stake in Bill C-279.

And why wasn’t Bill C-279 clear enough in the first place, like Toby’s Act in Ontario?


Whether you believe Senator Don Plett deliberately set out to derail Bill C-279 or, in fact, had a genuine concern about the parameters of transgenderism that he felt had to be addressed, one thing is certain: The Senate system allowed the bill to be delayed time and time again, while everyone there simply shrugged and said “That’s just the way it is, baby.”

The Senate, though composed of Liberals and Conservatives, is a single unit, and its players are one team supposedly working on behalf of all Canadians. Thus, as a team, the Senate let transgender Canadians down by not getting the job done, just as a hockey team loses together even though one player’s mistake may have cost them the game.

Such is the nature of the Canadian Senate, and it is yet another reason why it should probably be abolished. Bill C-279 would be law now if the Senate did not exist.


The biggest irony in all of this is Bill C-279 was largely irrelevant in the first place. Most transgender Canadians are protected from discrimination under provincial laws, and most federal institutions have policies in place that respect the rights of transgender people.

But the silver lining to the whole debate over Bill C-279 may very well be what Amanda pointed out at the start of this column: It raised awareness about transgender issues through media coverage across Canada.

And for that, transgender people can thank everyone involved in the process, not just Senator Plett.

No doubt, Bill C-279 will reappear in the House of Commons again in some form, and it will probably address the issues Senator Plett raised. And no doubt it will be passed by the House again, this time with no holes in it that Senator Plett and his Conservative allies can challenge.

And then there will be no excuses for the Senate not to get the job done — if the Senate still exists.

— Jillian Page, LGBT Perspectives editor


“Let harmlessness be the keynote of your life.” — Alice Bailey


22 thoughts on “Bill C-279: Who killed the transgender rights bill?”

  1. The amendment must die. I agree, it would only fan the flames of distrust of Trans people. Even though it would only apply to buildings under Federal government jurisdiction, does the average person know what is under Federal, what is under Provincial or what under Municipal jurisdiction? If the amendment passed, Transphobic people would feel they had the right complain about and harass a Trans appearing person in the washroom at the mall even though that is not Federal jurisdiction.

    But we cannot avoid Federal jurisdictions. Flying somewhere? Air travel and airports are Federal. So is train travel. Commute to work by rail? That train station? Tread carefully.


  2. Thank you Jillian for the added clarification.

    Don Plett is transphobic yet at the same time a self-proclaimed champion of transgender rights. Sounds delusional.

    I don’t believe there’s been any campaign of paranoia over the amendment. I think it received an appropriate response.

    Fortunately, the tides are turning. There’s still hope going forward, post C-279.


  3. Doubt the clause would’ve hurt transgender people? The ‘bathroom amendment’ effectively says that trans* people are to be feared and their experiences are not valid if they are not or are just not yet ‘trans enough’ or ‘passable’ enough. The amendment says it’s okay to discriminate and that the most marginalized people in society should stay that way. It says that gender needs to be policed, rather than inappropriate or criminal behaviour. It creates an environment where even cisgender females can be tossed from the women’s room because someone suspects they might be male. It puts transgender men, many of whom look more masculine than a lot of cisgender men, in women’s rooms. It sends dangerous messages with potentially devastating ripple effects.


    1. Thanks for your input, Madeleine. I’m playing devil’s advocate, as journalists need to do at times: Don Plett might respond to you this way — he is only talking about a few federal institutions, and that his amendment would not affect anyone outside of those buildings. Was it worth denying trans people all the possible other benefits of Bill C-279 over a few federal buildings that, in effect, may already be trans-friendly?

      And, do you think the Liberal camp, or its stakeholders, conducted a campaign of paranoia over the amendment in the same way that Rob Anders seems to have started one over the “bathroom issue”?

      For discussion . . . objectively speaking.


      1. I’m inclined to disagree with inference “… doubting that it would hurt trans people at all”. In a worst case scenario it would be fanning the flames of conservative transphobic fire and might only further embolden them and lead to the introduction of more ‘bathroom bills’ or unsavoury religion-based exemptions to inclusivity as they have in the US.


  4. I find the use of the term “weekend crossdresser” derogatory and deeply offensive. It implies that anyone who does not live full-time as their target gender, for whatever reason, (work/career. family, etc.) is not Trans enough. Or perhaps not Trans at all. Also, to imply that only those who “pass” are valid Trans people is extremely hurtful. If a person defines themselves as Trans, then they are Trans.

    What are those Trans people who do not, or cannot, live full-time supposed to do? Never go out as their true selves? (Senator Plett must think so.) Or if they do go out, are they supposed to use the washroom that conforms to the gender to which they were assigned at birth? Or the one that matches the way they are dressed?

    This all confirms that Senator Plett and those who think as he does are clueless about the Trans community, and all the variations found there in, including, but not limited to, those who define themselves as bi-gender, gender neutral, gender blending or gender queer. ( I cannot possibly make and exhaustive list. If you define yourself as Trans but use some other term, please feel included.) People who are clueless about what it is like to be Trans should not be making decisions that potentially have a profound impact on Trans people. Nor should they be trying to define who is a valid Trans person and who is not.


    1. Victoria, for the sake of discussion and objectivity: What is so offensive about the phrase “weekend crossdresser”? There are thousands of people around the world who consider themselves to be crossdressers but not transgender. There are websites and groups devoted exclusively to crossdressing. Google the term “crossdressers” and you will get more than 8 million links. I personally know people who consider themselves to be “crossdressers” but don’t consider themselves to be transgender.

      The question is: should they have the same access to women-only public facilities that transgender people should have? Does the mere act of putting on a dress on Saturday afternoon give somebody that right?

      As for the term “trans,” many people who have gender-transitioned do not consider themselves to be transgender. They swapped gender designations within the gender binary (male to female, for example). They felt from a young age that they were girls even though they were born with male bits — and vice versa for FtM people.

      I agree with you: People who are clueless should not be making decisions for trans people. How many of the stakeholders were people who have never had gender identity issues?

      This is for discussion purposes, not criticism in any way.


      1. My objection is with those who choose to view anyone who does not live full-time as not being Trans enough, or even refusing to recognized them as Trans at all, and referring to them as “weekend crossdressers” is a put down. As I said, there are many who due to work, family or whatever, cannot live full time.

        I define myself as bi-gender, having a masculine and a feminine side, and therefore view myself as Trans. I see myself as being neither a man nor a woman and at the same time both a man and a woman. For work, I present as male. (I doubt that I would have obtained my present position if I had applied as a woman, but that is a different issue.) But when I go out for an evening, whenever possible, I present as a woman. My feminine side DEMANDS that I do! Even though some might see me as a “weekend crossdresser”, I don’t.

        So, if I am out as my feminine self, which washroom am I supposed to use? For me, the issue is exactly the same as for anyone who lives full-time.

        As an aside, in any discussion of “women-only” spaces, is that not potentially reinforcing the notion of the binary, and therefore invalidating anyone who defines themselves as non-binary, myself included?

        As an additional aside, I would respectfully suggest that anyone who defines themselves as a crossdresser and not a being Trans should sit down and try to find an answer to the question of why do they dress. They might be surprised to the answer they might find.


  5. I very much agree with Jill, one of her main points is that we need to introduce ourselves to the larger community.

    I’ve had the good fortune of meeting most of the members of both Gender Mosaic and Xpressions and I’ve found some of the kindest, most caring and interesting people I’ve ever met in my life.

    The reason why you won’t find many of the younger generation in these groups is simply because they/we don’t need them, we blend in with our society and after a year or two we disappear. Some of us stop by, some drop by every once in a while and some go “stealth” for good.

    The message we need to get across is that we all feel and think the same, it’s just the exterior that looks different.


  6. Jillian,

    Just to respond to some of your points:

    I don’t really see why a woman should be concerned about a “hairy guy in grandma’s dress” using the women’s washroom *providing* that guy goes into the stall, respects everyone’s privacy, acts considerately and leaves. I just don’t understand why we sexualize everything.

    It’s already illegal for anyone (man or woman) to harrass or assault someone else. Letting people pick the washroom corresponding to their gender presentation doesn’t change that.

    And ‘hairy guys in grandma’s dress” going to a women’s washroom on a lark? Are you kidding? The sort of idiotic guy who might think something like that up is typically the same sort of idiotic guy who freaks out if anyone questions his gender identity or sexual orientation. Straight cis guys do NOT crossdress “on a lark”. They might do it if goaded by their SOs, but they usually skulk around looking extremely uncomfortable.

    Finally, a bill with a built-in sabotage clause is worse than no bill at all. Had the sabotaged bill passed, it would be difficult to amend it because Parliamentary and public opinion would be “we’ve dealt with this issue; time to move on.”




    1. Hi, Dianne,
      I agree with you that some of the fears are unrealistic and overblown. I’m just reporting some of the things I’ve heard as I reported on this. I actually heard much worse from some women, but I didn’t quote them here. As you might imagine, there is resistance from some women when it comes to trans people in their spaces. Some see it as an invasion of the “patriarchy.” I do think the trans community needs to reach out to some of these women, perhaps hold townhall meetings or something in major metropolitan areas. Their fears may unfounded, but they are fears nevertheless. Some compassion would go a long way.

      I’ve tried to be objective with this piece, and I deliberately understated some things. Make not mistake: I support trans people.




      1. Hi, Jill,

        Yes, I’ve read enough of your pieces to know you support trans people. Thank you!

        I also realize that it’s a tough sell to convince a woman who has been harrassed or assaulted by a man that it’s OK to let crossdressers into the washroom. But I honestly believe most people are kind and decent and that part of healing after an assault is to regain one’s trust in humanity. I know I will never comprehend the difficulty of that for an assault victim, but if someone changes your outlook to be fearful of half of humanity, then that is a second assault.




      1. Hi, Jill,

        I call Plett’s amendment a sabotage clause because it makes an exception for “any service, facility, accommodation or premises that is restricted to one sex only”. It goes on to give examples (correctional facility, crisis counselling facility, shelter for victims of abuse, washroom facility, shower facility or clothing changing room) but those are just *examples* and the clause could presumably permit discrimination for *any* single-sex-designated facility which could be just about anything.

        A guest piece? 🙂 Hmm, I’m not sure I’m sufficiently familiar with the legislative process and all the issues, but if you have some guidelines I can take a shot at it and if you don’t like it, feel free to reject it.




        1. The thing with the clause is that it only applied to some federal buildings — many of which are trans friendly, anyway. It seemed to me that he was just trying to placate the right-wingers by throwing in the clause — but I am doubting it would have actually hurt trans people at all.

          Then again, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt — in an effort to be objective.

          As for the guest piece: I don’t think you need to be all that familiar with the legislative process, such as it is. In my view, the Liberal senators were powerless from the outset because the Conservatives have a majority. I don’t even know why we taxpayers are paying the Liberal senators, because they don’t appear to have any real function there.

          I’m more interested in how the amendment would have hurt trans people, realistically, not hypothetically. Not one person I interviewed was able to give me concrete reasons — everything was speculation on what could happen.

          Thing is, transgenderism is not on the radar screens of most Canadians, who are a pretty accepting bunch, a la “live and let live.” Sure, there are some transphobes and bigots in Canada and there is some resistance in some schools to allowing trans kids to use the facilities that match their gender presentation, but overall, Canadians don’t discriminate as much as people might do in other countries — on a per-capita basis.

          So, I am not convinced that employers would even know about Plett’s amendment, let alone use it to discriminate.

          All that said, I am not sure the bill would have passed even if the Liberals had accepted the amendment. But it would have been interesting to see how that would have turned out. As it is, the Liberals played into the Conservatives hand, and basically gave them an excuse to delay things. Not very good strategy in my view, but I suppose they felt they had no choice.

          If you want to do an article, focus on how it would have hurt trans people, in concrete terms, if possible. That is really what trans people need to know.




  7. Very well written article Jillian. I’d like to clarify one point. When C-279 was introduced in early 2011 there were zero Provinces with Gender Identity protections in their Human Rights laws. Ontario became the first in June of 2012 followed by Manitoba the next day. Nova Scotia passed theirs in December of 2012. PEI, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Alberta followed during 2013 and 2014. Canada was in a position to lead the way like it has in many other Human Rights issues. But here we are four years later with no vote. I am concerned about our government’s position on Human Rights. Particularly as I see the United Nations drop us from our usual first place standing in the world to 23rd. What has changed in Canada’s attitude toward Human Rights?


  8. Honestly I think we really need to consider who this law was supposed to protect and who needed protection. Those that are in a position to transition early in life and are fairly “passable” don’t really need much protection since very few would even think about sending them to the wrong facilities.

    Like with most laws the people who really need this law are those among us who are less fortunate.
    At this point it’s been scientifically proven that gender develops at a different time than sex and the presence of external sex hormones can alter how the brain develops.
    Being transgender just means that your brain gender does not match your sex or body.

    Late transitioners and those that choose not to transition more often than not delay/make this decision because of things like family situation, religion, social rejection and employment possibilities.

    Are we really going to tell these brave people that once they make a leap of faith and come out of the “closet” that they can expect to be treated as second class citizens and legally discriminated against?


    1. I am one of those who made that bold step to transition at 40. I am transitioning and living my life every day as a woman…even before I begin hormones. I deal with a lot of crap on a daily basis. I’ve been denied entrance into “women’s only” activities that I paid for. I’ve lost job opportunities, family and friends.

      I am glad that I found a supportive community to come out with. It was certainly very helpful initially. But, I also quickly learned that the Trans community is full of sub-group with all kinds of different names that supposedly fit along some ambiguous spectrum. That’s fine as an intellectual exercise, but it doesn’t work for trying to make laws to protect Trangender people.

      We seem to only be allowed to speak of it in whispers, so as not to offend, but among most people I know who are transitioning, or who have transitioned, it is always a part of any honest conversation; these are, as the author points out, “the weekend crossdresser.” Certainly, the majority of those on the “fetish” end of the spectrum are respectful and kind. Some, however, are not. They dress inappropriately in garish sexualized attire, and also speak and behave inappropriately in public gatherings. Some even turn our community event int opportunities to find sexual partners. They do not know my experiences as a person transitioning and they often don’t even care to know how their antics make some of us feel. The reality is that by parading around in pigs tails and sexually suggestive clothing and claiming to be “Trans,” they make life more difficult for the transitioning community.

      People who are transitioning need better support from groups like Gender Mosaic. While those who just want to wear women’s clothing occassionaly, or as fetish also deserve respect and support and a place to feel safe, I wish they would also have the courtesy to not claim the same experience as people who identify as women full time and are trying to transition courteously and with dignity.


      1. Dear Erin, your comments are very divisive and judgemental. I have been a member of Gender Mosaic for more than 14 years and have attented many meetings and worked with many volounteeers in this great organization. I do know that an organization where everything is about volounteers, love and support that they certainly don’t need your negative comments.
        I would invite to focus your energy on helping and volounteering for a try. It is very easy to criticize and judge, join in and check how hard it is to make a difference through honest hard work and love and support and then maybe you can start knowing what you are talking about.
        Sophia Cassivi
        Proud member and former president of Gender Mosaic


        1. Of course that would be your response Sophia. That’s why I don’t come any more and I won’t be back. GM is not a “Transgender Support Group,” in my opinion. It’s a “Cross Dresser Support Group. You never spoke to me when I was there. Not one single word. Most of the information I got when I was there was outdated and bad. Almost no one there is under the age of 40. You all might want to ask why.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s