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FILE PHOTO: The Senate Chamber of Parliament of Canada is seen in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

A Senate committee is divided in its early consideration of a long-delayed transgender rights bill – with one Conservative senator saying the bill as written will trump the rights of others and the MP behind the bill likening the senator's opposition to xenophobia.

The latest round of committee hearings began Thursday for Bill C-279, which adds gender identity as a basis for hate crimes protection under the Criminal Code, and for protection under the Canadian Human Rights Act. The bill, proposed by NDP MP Randall Garrison, narrowly passed the House of Commons last year but has been delayed since March of 2013 in the Senate.

Senators questioned whether protections are already in place, or whether the law will be open to abuse. Conservative Senator Don Plett was the most outspoken opponent of the bill's current wording, saying it will affect the rights of others by, for instance, allowing biological males into a women's washroom.

"If my five-year-old granddaughter doesn't want to be in a bathroom with a biological male, what's her option?" Mr. Plett said during committee hearings. He later told reporters: "Whose rights do we trump by giving someone else rights?"

Mr. Garrison told Mr. Plett that denying a transgender person access to a change room is akin to refusing access to a person of Asian descent, saying "discrimination is discrimination," a comparison Mr. Plett dismissed afterward.

"It's ludicrous," Mr. Plett told reporters, stressing his granddaughter "has a right not to be in a bathroom with a biological male." Mr. Garrison said he stood by the comparison.

Mr. Plett has also said the law is open to abuse and could let predators claim transgender status to access a facility and commit an assault. Mr. Garrison replied by saying "you cannot diminish the rights of one group of people on the possibility of an offence by another group of people."

Conservative Senator Denise Batters asked Mr. Garrison whether current protections – against discrimination on basis of sex or sexual orientation, for instance – already protect the transgender community. Mr. Garrison acknowledged that he knew of no trans cases that were not able to proceed under those protections, but that having to argue a case through other channels created an unnecessary legal hurdle. The bill would remove that and also add a "public denunciation" of discrimination based on gender, he said.

Mr. Garrison is optimistic the Senate committee will support the bill. If amendments are passed in the Senate, Mr. Garrison suspects the House of Commons wouldn't accept them. "Then it would be likely to come back [to the Senate] in exactly the same form. At which point an election will have been called [next year] and the bill will die in the Senate, which I think is his strategy," he said, an apparent reference to Mr. Plett.

Amanda Ryan, the outreach committee chair at Gender Mosaic who attended Thursday's hearing, said the bill is needed to recognize the rights of the trans community. "I think there's a big pocket of population out there that just don't know who we are, have never been educated, have never met a trans person and as a result just don't know what to make of us," she said.

Another transgender community advocate who attended the hearing, Susan Gapka, said the debate dates back to 2009 when a similar transgender rights bill was first tabled but ultimately did not pass. Ms. Gapka said she found some testimony troubling to hear. "The point of human rights legislation is to protect and seek remedies for historically disadvantaged populations," she said.

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