A Conservative senator is considering proposing changes to a transgender rights bill that narrowly passed the House of Commons last year, raising the prospect it will meet further delays and perhaps stall before the next election.
Senator Don Plett, a former Conservative Party president, told The Globe and Mail he "absolutely [does] not" support the current version of Bill C-279, which is aimed at adding new legal protections based on gender. He said he believes it is open to abuse and could allow biological males, for instance, into women's change rooms – which Mr. Plett believes would violate the rights of women and girls – or for predators to claim transgender status, access a facility, then commit an assault.
"But I think there may be a way of putting some amendments in that I might be amenable to, and that's something we're going to talk about," Mr. Plett said.
He declined to say what the changes might be. The bill has been before the Senate since March, 2013, but it is scheduled to begin committee hearings Thursday, a key step in its progress.
Any changes to C-279 would come after the Conservatives voted against adding further protections based on gender to the Criminal Code as part of a cyberbullying bull, C-13, currently before Parliament.
Mr. Plett spoke on behalf of his party in the Senate's earlier consideration of C-279, and he sits on the Conservative-dominated committee considering it, suggesting any amendments he proposes to it are likely to pass.
Bill C-279, if passed, would add gender identity as a basis for protection under both the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, in the latter's protections against hate crimes. C-279 was proposed by NDP MP Randall Garrison and passed the House by 12 votes, with the support of 18 Conservative MPs.
It has, however, wallowed in the Senate due in part to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who voted against the bill, proroguing last fall and senators dragging their heels. Mr. Plett blames delays on the Senate Liberals, who blame the Conservatives. The NDP has no senators.
The Senate has full power to change bills passed by the House, in which case they're sent back to the House, though the Senate most often rubber stamps laws passed by elected MPs.
"I am very hesitant, always, whether I oppose legislation or not, to kill legislation in our place [the Senate]. That's not to say it can't be done," Mr. Plett said regarding C-279. "That's not what I like to do, and if there's a way of bringing something in [as an amendment] that would be acceptable, I would prefer to do that."
Conservative MPs who backed the bill, including several cabinet ministers, were mixed in their reaction when told the bill may be changed in the Senate.
"I'm one of the MPs who actually believes that a Senate has the right to look at bills and put their own recommendations in there, and if they believe it has to be sent back to the House, send it back. Having said that, I think that would be a step in the wrong direction. The country's moved on ... and I don't think anyone is ready to have this debate again," said Conservative MP Gerald Keddy, who voted for the bill.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, who also voted for the bill, said that generally "bills we pass here [in the House], we want to see pass" in the Senate.
Heritage Minister Shelly Glover also voted for the bill and said she'd wait to see details of any proposed changes. "I think it's important that all Canadians feel they are protected equally. That's why I voted for the bill in the House of Commons," she said.
Mr. Plett hopes the Senate can be done with the bill before the new year. Changing it could leave Mr. Garrison hard-pressed to win support and see it passed before the election scheduled for next fall. Mr. Garrison is scheduled to testify to the Senate committee Thursday.
Mr. Plett said he supports laws that prevent bullying but he's concerned transgender rights would, under the bill, be exploited by predators and trump the rights of others.
"I believe in protecting women and children, and I have seen too many cases where people abuse it. Listen, I don't believe any legitimate, if you will, transgender person, transsexual person, is a danger. But we have seen over and over again where people take advantage of laws. And this law is wide open for perverts, pedophiles, to take advantage of.
"And I want to be careful when I say that, because it seems every time I say that, I get misinterpreted where Don Plett says that these people are pedophiles. I'm not saying that in the least. I don't believe pedophiles are transgendered," he said.
C-279 faces another complication – it opens the same section of the Criminal Code being opened in C-13, expected to pass the House this fall. Mr. Plett acknowledged C-279 would need to be reworded if C-13 passed first, which could lead to further delays. C-13 is already adding five groups as eligible for hate crime protection under the Criminal Code, but Conservatives voted against including gender identity to that list of additions.
Mr. Plett declined to say whether the House would have enough time to pass the bill again if amended by the Senate.
"The fact of the matter is I believe 279 will be through the Senate in the next month or month-and-a-half, either defeated, amended or passed," he said. Asked if amendments were most likely, he replied: "I don't want to speculate."'