Transgender inmates in Ontario will now be dealt with based on their own gender identity, not their physical sexual traits, a policy Ontario's corrections minister is calling the most progressive of its kind in North America.
Previously, inmates were put in institutions based on a person's "primary sexual characteristics." Now, they will be housed according to their self-identified gender and referred to by their chosen name rather than their legal name and their preferred pronoun.
"This is the most progressive policy on the treatment of trans inmates in North America," Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi said Monday. "No other jurisdiction in Canada has such policy. In fact one of the things that I'll be doing is sending a copy of our policy to all other my colleagues across the country."
Last year there were 25 inmates that self-identified as transgender in provincial correctional facilities, according to the ministry.
The policy builds on interim guidelines that were put in place last April, Naqvi said.
The case of a trans woman from England who was detained by the Canada Border Services Agency last February pushed the issue to the forefront as she tweeted her experiences before being detained in a men's facility, despite travelling on a passport identifying her as female.
Avery Edison was eventually transferred to a women's facility, but filed a human rights complaint about her treatment. She said Monday she couldn't comment on Ontario's new policy because her human rights case is ongoing.
Trans advocate Susan Gapka said the new policy is significant because it is "incredibly dehumanizing" for trans people to be treated as anything other than their self-identified gender.
"For the trans community ... it has a tremendous negative impact, not only during that moment in time but in our experience with authority, our experience with institutions," she said. "When we try to patch our lives back together that can really be a barrier to accepting the sources of support that will help us to get through to the next level."
Trans inmates were previously often put in segregation, but now they will be integrated into the general population whenever possible, Naqvi said.
"Today is about human rights," he said. "It is about ensuring that trans inmates are given the same protections, the same dignity and the same treatment. It is about respect and dignity for gender identity and gender expression."
Ontario Human Rights commissioner Barbara Hall said the policy helps protect the rights of trans people, who face a higher risk of harassment and violence behind bars from other inmates and sometimes corrections staff.
"This innovative policy is a major step towards removing that risk and providing a safe, supportive environment for people of all gender identities," she said.
"It was not so long ago that we — in fact society was not aware of the severe challenges many trans people face but that has changed because the community has educated all of us and continues to do so."
The policy will also allow inmates to keep "personal items, including prosthetics, necessary to express their gender," Naqvi said.
When Boyd Kodak was arrested in December 2012 he was sent to a women's facility despite being a trans man with male identification who transitioned 20 years ago, he said. His prostheses were removed and confiscated, he said. When he was released after appearing in court days later his male clothes were not returned so he found himself in a potentially dangerous situation, walking the streets of Toronto in female clothing with three days worth of facial hair growth, he said.
"It was outrageous," Kodak said. "My life has never been the same since."
Kodak has filed a human rights complaint.
He said any worries that inmates have about trans people in their midst are misplaced.
"It's the same sort of thing that gay people faced 20 years ago when they said ... in a gay area don't go into a bathroom because somebody might come on to you," he said.
"It's the same thing. It's a total misconception. Just because you identify as a particular gender doesn't mean you're going to ... act out in any kind of way. It's your gender."