I took some time to review Ontario Bill 89 that amends and expands the guidelines for children in need of protection to include gender identity and expression. The Bill, which received Royal Assent, has caused some controversy over the last few weeks – especially in media.
News outlets from across Canada and the U.S. reported on the Bill, some claiming that children will be removed if you disagree with a child over their gender identity or preferred expression.
To address Bill 89, and what it means for Ontarians, I spoke with Andrea Mrozek, program director of Cardus Family.
Here’s a look at our discussion:
Q: Ontario Bill 89 has caused contention by adding the ‘gender expression and identity’ to factors that are considered when looking at the best interests of the child. With roughly 0.5% of the Canadian population identifying as transgendered, how likely is it that Bill 89 will affect the average Ontarian?
A: That sounds like a simple question, but I think it’s somewhat complex. The reason this was introduced for consideration is because parts of the Ontario Human Rights Code were transplanted into Bill 89. As part of that, you have consideration for a whole list of factors, many of which are entirely reasonable, and others that are not reasonable. So it’s really the changing of the outlook on the part of what constitutes best interest of the child that will, I think, affect – we are all governed by these laws – it will affect all of Ontario. It used to be there were principles that social workers, child welfare authorities, Children’s Aid Society were looking at. Those principles included identity, diversity, region, race, religion; but they were more like principles and it was under an ethos, now the Ontario Human Rights Code is a longer list of things to consider, and there is overlap between what they used to consider and what they consider today, but I think it introduces a different mentality into child welfare and I am concerned about that because it’s a bit of a checklist mentality when you bring in a list that long, rather than the principles that used to undergird best interest of the child. So, the percentage of children who are this or that, transgender or not, is sort of a side issue from my perspective, instead this changes the way that people look upon the best interests of the child and it creates a little bit of a checklist mentality.
Q: What does adding this provision really mean for Ontario parents in practice?
A: What it means for most Ontario parents is absolutely nothing and that’s where the media reports, while the kernel of truth is there, there is the possibility and I kind of outlined that perfect storm, worst case scenario that could indeed unfold, and probably will at some point, but in practice for Ontario parents who are not engaged with Child Welfare right now, there is really very little that is going to change for them.
Q: Bill 89 leaves a lot up for interpretation. In practice, do you think the government will immediately take a child away because a parent doesn’t agree with their child’s gender identity, as some groups are saying?
A: No, I disagree with that, but where that changes is if it is a foster parent, then I think that is actually a very real possibility. But, if we are talking about, you know, you have kids and you didn’t adopt or they’re not foster kids, then no, I don’t think that’s even a remote possibility. However, if you’re in the foster care system, and many Christian parents, in particular, are and it’s hard to get statistics, but in some areas in Ontario it’s thought that upwards of 50% of the fostering community are Christians, so if you’re already fostering, I think you have cause for concern. And I think you may seek out, not legal help, Children’s Aid is not going to come a-knocking in just any circumstance, but when you interact with social services, now they have new guidelines for how to interact and that can be something of an arbitrary – it always has been a little bit arbitrary. Children’s Aid has worked in different ways in different parts of the province, and that’s not terribly heartening for a foster parent right now.
Q: Bill 89 didn’t only add gender identity and expression protection, but it also raised the age of state protection for children in foster care from 16 to 18. What will this mean for protecting children?
A: I think it’s a common sense idea that aging out of the foster care system shouldn’t happen at 16 – I think all of us would agree that’s very young. So, the question will be whether the province allocates funding toward that. They’ve changed the law and now, ostensibly, we’re keeping children under protection until age 18, but that does take money and, you know, there has to be measures associated with that change in law that actually result in improvement for children. I read all the committee testimony for Bill 89 and there were plenty of kids there, well, they’re not kids anymore, that had been Crown wards, and they spoke of atrocious conditions in the homes that they lived and, just generally, lack lustre conditions for some of those children. So, I think it’s a good thing to raise the age to 18, but it needs to come with other changes in order for it to be effective.
Q: Now that Bill 89 is law, what can people who oppose the amendments around gender expression and identity do about it?
A: There is some possibility that some amendments could be made if the government changes in the next election in 2018; but until that point people can tuck this in their back pockets and when there is an election, and if the government changes, make sure that they raise it. Groups like the Association for Reformed Political Action will keep tabs on this and let us know when the time comes, and as always people can express their concerns to their Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP), that is never a waste of time.
Text has been edited for clarity, length, and grammar.
With files from Susan Ponting.