Canadian Lawyer by Karen Busby 16 May 2016

What if the Canadian census form required participants to choose either English or French in answer to the question, “Which language do you speak most often at home?” Many Canadians — one in five, according to the 2011 census — would be perplexed about how to answer this question, since neither is correct.

The 2011 census found that almost 200 distinct languages are spoken in Canadian homes because it gave participants the option to specify a language other than English or French. We also know how many people use which languages and the regions where they use them. This information has important implications. Statistics Canada, for example, provides the 2016 census online in 24 languages it knows are commonly used.

So why is it that census fillers must still describe each member of their household as either “male” or “female” in answer to the question “what is the person’s sex?” There is no option to specify an “other” gender. For people who are inter-sexed, trans, or gender fluid, the choice is not straightforward.

Other questions in the long-form census also require binary classifications. For example, the question “Where was each of this person’s parents born?” requires an answer for a “mother” and a “father.” What is the answer if that person has two mothers or a parent wishes to simply be described as a “parent?”

When a group is invisible, it is hard to make the argument that its members have particular needs or they are treated differently. We ask census questions about matters such as age, language, marital status, disability, religion, and income because we want to understand if the country is meeting the needs of its citizens. While we now have some data on people living in “same-sex relationships” (a category that is under-inclusive of all queer people), we do not have any census data on those who do not fit comfortably into the male or female binary.

Researchers estimate that between 0.5 per cent and two per cent of Americans have strong feelings of being transgender and that 0.1 per cent to 0.5 per cent of Americans take steps towards transition from one gender to another. If 0.5 per cent of Canadians are transgender, there might be 78,000 transgender people in Canada. Leaving trans and intersex people out of the census may be akin to failing to survey a city the size of Saint John or Victoria.

How else can we know much about the needs of trans or intersex people? Qualitative research — which is often based on interviews with 20 to 40 people — is expensive and time consuming. There is no way to know if trans or inter-sexed people who answer calls to be interviewed are representative of the community, since such studies may not include the homeless or deeply closeted.

It is only through large-scale, population-based surveys, such as the census, that we can know with any degree of certainty answers to questions such as: How do employment rates and incomes for trans and inter-sex people compare to other Canadians? How stable is their housing? Do they experience higher rates of disabilities or have problems accessing health care?

Quinn Nelson, a University of Calgary student who does not identify as exclusively male or female, wrote a thoughtful e-mail last November to Navdeep Singh Bains, the minister responsible for the census.

Statistics Canada politely responded that since the forms had already been printed, it was too late to make changes for the 2016 census round. However, census officials suggested two options: non-binary individuals should either check off the box with which they most “strongly identify” or leave this question blank and provide “the reasons for which you find the current construction of the question inadequate” in the comment section.

Statistics Canada will study these comments and produce an analytical document that highlights its findings. It will also consult Canadians on what changes should be made to the 2021 questionnaire. These developments are welcome; we are moving in the right direction.

Karen Busby likes to write about sex, politics and religion. She is a law professor and director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba as well as author of Manitoba Queen’s Bench Rules. She can be reached at Karen_Busby@umanitoba.ca.