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Revisiting Bill C-16 and Gender Pronouns

By I Lam Ko

Gender pronouns matter nowadays. From the invention of neo-pronouns, such as xe/xem/xyr and ne/nym/nis, to guidelines in universities and public institutions to share and ask for one’s preferred pronouns, pronoun usage is trending.

Many perceive using special or preferred pronouns as a move to create an inclusive and non-heteronormative environment, whereas others see these extra efforts on creating new pronouns and clarifying each other’s preferred pronouns as ridiculous and restrictive to freedom of expression. Those who object using neo-pronouns or the person’s preferred pronouns are thought to be Conservative or a rightist

Gender pronouns seem to mirror one’s political ideologies.

Debate on Bill C-16

In 2017, Bill C-16 was passed to add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to protect gender-diverse people. This ignited the fiercest discussion of gender pronouns. Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, considered the bill as a product of Marxism to restrict freedom of expression due to its potential criminalization of pronoun misuse.

Brenda Cossman, a professor of Law at University of Toronto, refuted Peterson’s argument by explaining that the bill was not about gender pronouns but the protection of trans rights and that it was constitutional and would not punish pronoun misuse. She suspected that Peterson’s fear of compelled speech was a pretext for expressing rightist transphobic sentiments in Canada.

Bill C-16 protects gender-diversity

Peterson’s fear of freedom of expression perishing with the legislation of Bill C-16 in 2017, did not, or has not, come true in Canada. Cossman was right – the bill was not about gender pronouns but it is about the protection of gender-diverse people.

In 2016 Ontario, 20% of transgender people have been physically or sexually assaulted and 34% have been verbally threatened or harassed. Therefore, there is a need for the federal government to implement reasonable restrictions on treating vulnerable individuals who have been suffering from discrimination and harassment due to their non-conformity to social norms.

However, I was disturbed by how gender pronouns were characterized in the debate and how both arguments were about digging out and denunciating the opponent’s hidden “radical leftist” or “rightist” political agenda.

Are “gender pronouns” totally irrelevant or meaningless, and do they only operate as a political weapon in our discussion of Bill C-16?

Asking the right questions

While it is problematic to equalize the bill to a leftist scheme to enforce compelled speech and to restrict freedom of expression, I think that it is equally naïve to deem the discussion of gender pronouns as a rightist move to impede the bill. Such a split helps nothing but produces a simplified, polarized version of today’s political spectrum.

The discussion of gender pronouns needs not be a thorn in one’s political stance. We should not treat “gender pronouns” as merely a rhetorical weapon but as a key part of our process of defining “gender,” “gender expression” and “gender identity” as well as the boundary between respecting one’s “gender expression” and executing one’s “freedom of expression.”

In an opinion piece on Unherd, Andrew Doyle wrote that asking for one’s preferred pronouns and stating one’s preferred pronouns assumed that “we each have an inherent gender that has nothing to do with our bodies.” Meanwhile, Judith Butler, the gender theorist and the author of Gender Trouble, has questioned the clear-cut dichotomy between sex and gender.

As the definition of gender remains ambiguous and contested, shouldn’t we ask questions that help us define and/or refine the meaning of gender and gender expression that truly benefit trans or gender-diverse people?

Gender pronouns are indeed worthy of discussion and legislation. But we can create a far more fruitful discourse if we are willing to go beyond the limitations of reductive political labels.

Addressing Climate Change

In 1991, Brain Mulroney and George Bush signed the acid rain accord, putting into place policies that to this day ensure that acid rain is no longer a major problem in Canada or the United States. Today, Canadians seldom even consider the issue of acid rain, seeing it as largely resolved.

Addressing environmental issues, like acid rain, typically follow a similar pattern as first observed by Tony Downs, in 1972. First, no one is paying attention to an environmental issue. Then something happens to put it on the public’s radar. This leads to widespread support for action, which is when the public realizes the costs associated with interventions. This leads to debate and eventually for public interest to decline. Finally, the public moves on to other concerns.

Recognizing this pattern, the key to addressing environmental problems is putting actions in place when the public is supportive. Those actions will then continue to work after the public has lost interest in the issue. The restrictions on pollution in the acid rain accord are a perfect example, as they continue to apply today despite the public’s lack of interest in acid rain.

Research in the latest issue of the Canadian Political Science Review, published by myself and my former Conestoga College students (Natalie Pikulski, Pranol Kunjamon Mathan, Suhani Singh, and Sarah Strickland), demonstrates that Canada missed an opportunity to act on climate change in 2007.

Our study used an algorithm to combine 29 different surveys from five Canadian polling firms between 2007 and 2021 to create a Belief in Climate Change Index. Individual polling firms estimate belief in climate change was as low as 52% to as high as 91%. Since polling firms ask different questions in different ways with different response options the index is best used as a trend line and not as an indication of the percentage of the population that believes in climate change at any moment in time.

Belief In Climate Change Index

When examining the trend line, belief in climate change starts at a peak in 2007, then dropped to the lowest point in 2011, before steadily rising back to a peak today in 2021. In 2007, there was a clear opportunity to address climate change with high public interest in the topic.

In the 2000s, some action was taken in response to public support, most notably the closing of coal-fired plants in Ontario. Closing coal plants combined with the financial crisis led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Canada from 2007 to 2009. Yet, rates then began to rise again.

Today, public belief in climate change is once again at its highest level since 2007 suggesting an opportunity for action once again exists. The most recent poll on this topic, done by Forum Research during the federal election, echoes this finding as it showed that 85% of respondents who had an opinion believed that climate change is caused by human activity. This is the highest level reported in a Forum Poll asking this question.

With a minority parliament, the breakdown of who believes in climate change is particularly relevant, as it shows which parties may be most likely to support action. The Forum Poll shows that 97% of Liberal Party and New Democratic Party supporters and over 87% of Green Party and Bloc voters also believe in climate change. Indicating that the Liberals have multiple potential partners to pass legislation related to climate change. (Belief amongst Conservative Party supporters is 75% but only 49% amongst People’s Party of Canada supporters).

A window of opportunity has opened for actions on climate change in Canada. Any actions taken should be designed in a way that they will continue to operate after the public has shifted attention to other issues. Policies should therefore be locked in and predictable. Policies developed today should make clear where they will be in ten years. This can look like a carbon tax with phased-in annual increases, industry energy efficiency standards phased in over a decade, and timelines for when vehicles with fossil fuels will be banned. Failure to act effectively will only lead to climate change returning to the public radar in a few years. Unfortunately, given the risk to the planet by then, it may be too late to prevent serious harm to the planet.

Canadian Drug Strategies

By Mykayla McGowan

Are Canadian Drug Strategies Out of Commission?

Substance use is the fuel that keeps the dumpster fire of Canada’s criminal justice complex and health care system ablaze. With 1 in 5 Canadians experiencing a substance use disorder in their lifetime, it is no wonder that the country we call home harbours the fastest-growing rate of overdose mortality globally.

The current Drugs and Substances strategy is failing Canadians and requires immediate modification.

Canada’s Current Situation

Approximately 6 million Canadians meet the criteria for a substance use disorder during their lifetime. Potential harms from such use have heightened amid Canada’s opioid crisis, as supplies have become increasingly contaminated with synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Canada’s Drugs and Substances Strategy emphasizes four key pillars to prevent and treat problematic substance use. The pillars are:

  • Prevention: educate the public about the risks of substance use
  • Treatment: support treatment and rehabilitation services
  • Harm reduction: reduce the negative effects of substance use on individuals and communities
  • Enforcement: address production, trafficking and diversion of drugs

What’s Not Clicking in Canada?

National Inconsistency

The current Canadian system unloads enforcement and harm reduction responsibilities onto provinces and territories to deal with individually. The lack of a cohesive, national strategy focused on reducing problematic drug use and overdose has set Canada and its citizens up for failure.

Research, Evidence, and Evaluation Issues

The government fails to ground its substance use policy in evidence. The country does not have a central organization for data collection and analysis on substance use issues, as exists elsewhere, such as in Australia and the United States.

If things do not change, Canadians will start to feel the consequences of the inaction taken by our federal government.

Is Anyone Doing it Right?

Although it is easy to critic drug strategies across the globe for one reason or another, some countries are doing it right.

Take Portugal, for example. As of 2001, the Portuguese federal government decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs as a part of a push to treat substance use as an issue of public health rather than public order in response to high rates of HIV linked to injection drug use.

Portugal’s strategy acts as a cohesive, nationwide plan that enforces policies on a case-by-case basis. Problematic drug use is addressed by dissuasion committees rather than the criminal justice system, where sanctions, charges, or voluntary treatment referrals are imposed instead of jail time.

As a result, Portugal has enjoyed various benefits, including:

  • Reduced problematic drug use and incidences of HIV/AIDS
  • Increased number of citizens utilizing treatment facilities
  • Fewer drug-induced deaths
  • Overall social costs of drug misuse declined

Why it Works for Portugal

The Portuguese drug strategy is informed by evidence and research conducted within the country. Portugal identified the issues they wanted to address and approached them in a culturally and socially informed manner.

So What?

This blog has two purposes:

  • Criticize the Canadian federal government’s approach to drug use (which is well deserved)
  • Identify a need for change

Imagine that the Canadian federal government wants to adopt an effective strategy to reduce problematic substance use. They would need to:

  • Accept contextual factors facing Canadians
  • Be open to innovation
  • Situate any intervention within an evidence-informed continuum of prevention, harm reduction, and treatment
    • An evidence-informed continuum supports the collection and monitoring of data and is required to evaluate the success of any policy-based approach to substance use. This continuum allows for corrections to be made easily, as they are grounded in evidence and account for changes in external factors, such as trends in drug consumption or overdose rates

A great place to start would be forming a national organization for data collection and analysis on substance use issues.

Creating such an organization will allow the government to self-reflect and identify the most pressing problems that require immediate attention, such as the opioid crisis. Only once the key issues are pinpointed, the organization could conduct research to find the most effective solutions for our countries problems.

Perhaps this imaginary organization could take notes on the drug policy of Portugal as a starting point.