The Supreme Court of Canada today issued an important decision about hate speech directed at queers.
The background to the case concerned four documents: two flyers, one called "Keep Homosexuality out of Saskatoon's Public Schools!" and "Sodomites in our Public Schools"; and two flyers which were the reprint of a classifed ad with handwritten comments added.
Under the Saskatchewan Human Rights code, it is illegal to circulate publications which "expose a person to hatred and ridicule" on a protected ground - here, sexual orientation.
So the big question for the court was: where does prohibited hate speech end, and where does freedom of speech begin?
The Supreme Court of Canada analyzed what a publication must be like in order to contravene the hate speech provisions. It said that there must be three main elements. First, the person judging whether the publication contains hate speech must do so from an 'objective' point of view, asking themselves whether a 'reasonable person, aware of the context and circumstances, would view the expression as exposing the protected group to hatred'. (In other words, you cannot only ask queers what they think about that question). Second, it is only hateful and contrary to the protections in Saskatchewan's human rights legislation if it is really hateful...in the sense captured by the words 'detestation' and 'vilification'. It's not hate speech just because it is repugnant or offensive. And finally, the decision maker must look to see what the effect of the hate speech is: is the probably effect that it will expose the targeted person or group to hatred by others?
The complainants had argued that the section of the human rights law under which they had been convicted was a breach of their constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. True, said the Supreme Court of Canada: but, your right to freedom of speech has to be balanced against the right to be free from speech which is likely to cause hatred; and in this case, most of the human rights law is appropriate and impairs one's freedom of speech minimally.
Part of the Saskatchewan human rights legislation outlawed speech which "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of" a person. That part of the law, said the Supreme Court of Canada, is too broad. And they struck it down.
This case has been long-awaited. Queers have been holding our breath to see whether the Supreme Court of Canada would uphold our right to be free from malicious homophobic speech, or whether once again our rights would be seen as subordinate to someone else's rights to free speech, or freedom of religion.
In a recent decision, the Canadian Council on Social Development and several other groups challenged the federal government's change to Census Canada's data collection. The feds have stopped collecting data about a person's aboriginal heritage, race, ethnic or national origin, and disability.
The application to find the federal government in breach of the Charter of Rights failed. So Harper can continue his anti-scientific policies in relation to the census.
Canadian Council on Social Development, Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, Social Planning Council of
Winnipeg, Community Development Halton, Canadian ArabFederation, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants,
Council of Agencies Serving South Asians, Canadian Mental Health Association - Toronto, African, Canadian Legal Clinic,
National Aboriginal Housing Association, South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian
Legal Clinic v Attorney General of Canada, Respondent F.C.J. No. 16472012
The post below is republished with the kind permission of Christin Molloy.
We expect similar changes to the Ontario ones to happen in BC shortly.
One upon a time, a legal change of sex was available in Ontario only to those Trans* persons who could prove with documentation that they had completed "transsexual surgery." Early in 2012, that requirement was found to be discriminatory in a human rights ruling. Consequently, the Ontario Registrar General was given six months to provide a new process for legal change of sex which would be accessible to all Trans* persons, as opposed to just "post-op" individuals.
The Registrar's office released their newly revised requirements in October, less than one week before their tribunal-imposed deadline was set to expire. As I reported then, the new requirements are grossly dissatisfactory for a variety of reasons.
In addition to the points I raised at that time, anyone under 18 is outright banned from having a legal change of sex (even if their parents are cooperative). This blatant form of age discrimination, targeting already disadvantaged Trans* youth, is a fact which I unfortunately omitted in my earlier piece on the topic. Thanks go to blogger Catherine (at ex puero ad puellam) for pointing this out.
As it turns out, the problems don't end there. I've received a very disturbing report which indicates the registrar is summarily rejecting applications based on nebulous requirements that are not published anywhere. Whether they are doing this on purpose or by mistake, the effect is the same.
When my source, "Illiana," had her application rejected (after a two month wait), she wanted to know the reason why. So Illiana emailed the Deputy Registrar General and requested an explanation, and was contacted the next day by a customer service rep from the specific department of the registrar's office tasked with verifying that applications are "complete and correct."
The first problem with Illiana's registration was relatively straightforward. "I didn't provide them with the birth certificate I was issued 20 years ago... (because it was) lost 15 years ago," she says.
In defense of the registrar, the change of sex form does say "please send ... all previously issued birth certificates and certified copies of the birth registration." Illiana's impression from the form was that since her certificate was long gone, there weren't any copies left to submit. However, what is really meant by the form is "must send," and "at least one copy." Indeed, when I legally changed my name (my parents lacking the foresight to name their son Christin), I actually had to first specifically order and pay for a replacement birth certificate, in my male birth name, only to then turn around and remail it back to the registrar to be destroyed as part of the name change process. Typical government efficiency.
Now, the legal sex change form isn't really as clear about this requirement as it could be, so we can easily forgive Illiana. Nevertheless, the requirement to send in the old certificate is reasonable (chalk it up to security). To the registrar's credit, rather than requiring Illiana to fork over cash for a replacement only to remail it back for destruction, the customer service rep advised her instead that she need only include a letter explaining that she isn't in possession of a birth certificate. Fair enough, lesson learned, she can re-submit her application and move on. Right? Not so much.
Turns out there were other "problems" with Illiana's application, revealing some previously unknown and gravely troubling barriers for Trans* persons trying to access this process.
"(The) next topic was that I didn't include a physician's letter," explains Illiana. The letter Illiana did include was written not by her medical doctor, but by her psychologist. It was therefore unsuitable, explained the CSR. What? The application form clearly states "A letter (on the medical professional's letterhead) signed by a practicing physician or a psychologist (including a psychological associate) authorized to practice in Canada."
Illiana explains, "(the CSR) said this had to be on letterhead of a physician certified by the college of physicians and surgeons Ontario." Unfortunately, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario does not certify psychologists; that would be a job for the similarly named, but distinct, College of Psychologists of Ontario.
This issue may have been simply due to miscommunication. However, best case, the rep is just confused, but is incompetently providing misinformation to Trans* clients. Worst case, the application form is actually erroneous, and a psych letter won't get your application through the process.
Admirably keeping her wits about her, Illiana pointed out the discrepancy to the CSR. "Nowhere is that criteria stated on the Service Ontario website... and the application form clearly states... psychologist (is acceptable)." Of the CSR's reaction, Illiana had this to say: "She seemed to relent, and I'm not sure whether she was trying to purposely mislead me, or she had no idea what the form read, or what psychology is."
Based on my own experiences with government bureaucracy, I find it most likely that the rep was simply in error... however, Illiana's reaction underscores the fundamental truth: Trans* people have little motivation to trust agencies of federal and provincial governments which - have - consistently - failed - them - at - almost - every - turn.
But wait, there's more.
That was not the only problem with Illiana's letter, the rep told her. In addition to the misunderstanding as to whether or not a psychologist's letter qualifies as a letter written by a "doctor or psychologist," apparently the registrar also disapproved of the particular phrasing in Illiana's letter. She explains, the rep told her "the letter isn't accepted without an explicit statement that the birth certificate change is 'male to female.' The Registrar rejected (my psychologist's) letter... because it only said that the birth certificate sex designation is incorrect as it is, and should be changed."
Really? The published guidelines given to Trans* people on the Registrar website, and on the application form itself, state that the text of the doctor or psychologist letter "c. confirms that the applicant's gender identity does not accord with the sex designation on the applicant's birth registration; and d. is of the opinion that the change of sex designation on the birth registration is appropriate." Illiana says her psychologist wrote "...the birth certificate sex designation is incorrect as it is, and should be changed." And the registrar's office canned it because it didn't use the magic words "male to female," a requirement which is not published anywhere.
Infuriatingly, Illiana further reports "(the CSR) also said that several other applications such as mine have been similarly rejected."
Are you kidding me, Registrar General? Since the Ontario registrar does not recognize non-binary identities, one wonders what could possibly be the source of confusion here. Especially given that the separate Statutory Declaration form, which must also be submitted in the same package, is explicitly filled out by the applicant with a request to change sex designation "from (fill in blank) to (fill in blank)". Illiana's read "male" to "female," and her existing birth record read "male," so it's not as if there was any potential for misunderstanding.
Regarding the entire debacle, Illiana suggests "I have doubts that the current published criteria are understood by the Registrar's office staff, and since they reject complete applications based on unpublished criteria, (they) are not honoring the ruling of the tribunal in good faith." Hear, hear.
Some clarity, and a post-nonsense happy ending for Illiana? Illiana is to be commended for challenging the transphobic discrimination she experienced at the hands of the Registrar's office. Whether it was caused by wilfully disruptive anti-trans staff, or perhaps just institutional ignorance, it is unacceptable regardless. Because Illiana had the courage to follow-up with a challenge, she was contacted soon afterward by the Deputy Registrar, Sandra Leonetti.
"She was very nice and explained that they are in a learning mode with regard to the new requirements, and I should resubmit the package with a letter stating that I don't have the long form birth certificate, and with the psychologist's letter that accompanied the original application."
That is a bit of good news for Illiana... As for anyone else who has had their application rejected under murky circumstances, you might want to get in touch with the Office of the Registrar General.
"After talking with Ms. Leonetti, I feel that she is sincere about providing fair service, including Changes of Sex Designation applications. I feel that not all people in the Registrar's office are up to speed on everything to do with the new process. I expect that things will improve with regard to application processing as the people in that office get better acquainted with what is really required."
It is a shame that the "learning process" at the Registrar's office has come at the expense of Ontario Trans* people. Let us hope that they get their staff training issue under control.
Have you had a similar problem? Anyone who would like my help, or who has a story they'd like to share, please contact me.
What does it mean that Obama has endorsed same sex marriage?
- a political calculation that he will gain more votes than he will lose by taking this position
- one of the only progressive things he can do since he doesn't control the Senate or Congress
- made necessary because Joe Biden said it first
- a genuine stand for the civil rights of same sex partners
- all of the above?
I expect that it is all of the above, and more reasons we don't know.
And does it matter?
Before the same sex marriage fight in Canada, people thought that same sex marriage was just a matter of opinion. After we won the marriage cases, forcing the federal government to amend the Marriage Act to permit same sex marriage, Canadians understand that marriage is a Charter-protected civil right. And that has made a huge difference to the general acceptance of queers in this country.
The right is right: gay marriage does change the nature of marriage, because marriage is not exclusive any more. And that is a good thing. It moves us closer to the day when everyone - whether married, common law, or "single" - can have the social benefits which started out available only to married heterosexuals. Such benefits include everything from pension benefits to preferential tax treatment to 'family' discounts. Fully a quarter of the laws of BC affect one's rights as a member of a couple or a family.
I spoke to some queers in the U.S. yesterday about Obama's announcement, and they said that it has had a galvanizing effect on queers there, who are feeling energized and proud about Obama's statement. All the best to our US queer friends and allies in this fight!
Whatcott went to the University of Calgary to distribute anti-gay leaflets. The University charged him with trespassing. Whatcott argued successfully that the university cannot charge him with trespassing in those circumstances, because his right to distribute anti-gay leaflets is protected by the guarantee of freedom of expression in the Charter of Rights.
For the complete decision: R v Whatcott