OTTAWA - Stephen Harper's Conservatives have declared themselves strong advocates for gay rights worldwide, but the prime minister's caucus is divided over a bill that would recognize some of those rights at home.
MPs are studying a private member's bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against transgendered Canadians and to disseminate hate on the basis of someone's gender identity or expression. Not all transgendered people are homosexual, but their issues are often represented within the gay and lesbian community.
Conservatives on the Commons committee handling the bill are split. At least two — Manitoba's Shelly Glover and B.C.'s Kerry-Lynne Findlay — have suggested they will vote in favour of the bill with some amendments.
With the support of the NDP and the Liberals, that means it will head back to the Commons, where it must pass two more key votes.
Glover, a former Winnipeg police officer, gave an emotional explanation Tuesday for why she wants explicit protection for the transgendered, describing how she saw cases of extreme brutality against some in the community.
"It is important that we embrace the notion that we invite other Canadians to feel that sense of belonging that this bill will give them," Glover said.
"When people say it's symbolic only, I disagree wholeheartedly. I want to see transgendered individuals feel they can go to a police service or a court, knowing that gender identity is in the Criminal Code and the human rights act."
The Canadian Human Rights Commission told the committee that the Canadian Human Rights Act should be expanded to include the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity.
"This would promote acceptance and send the message that everyone in Canada should be treated with equality, dignity and respect," said Ian Fine, senior general counsel at the commission.
A bill that passed a minority Parliament in February 2011 did so without the support of most Conservatives. It died on the order paper when an election was called.
This time around it's gotten as far as the Commons committee, with the support of 15 Conservatives including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, Glover and Findlay. Nine other Tories abstained from a vote in June.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird raises the rights of gays and lesbians repeatedly during his speeches, and has been an outspoken critic of discrimination. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney sent an email to some Canadians earlier this year explaining how his government was fighting for the rights of gay Iranian refugees. The subject line included the term "LGBT refugees," the 'T' standing for transsexual or transgendered.
But the transgender bill is for the first time testing the appetite of the Conservative caucus to support legislation directly involving the LGBT community. Because the proposed legislation is a private member's bill, MPs are able to vote on it as they wish, without having to toe any party line.
Some Conservatives have expressed concern that the bill might inadvertently shield pedophiles who lurk in bathrooms. Conservative MP Rob Anders posted a petition on his website warning against allowing transgendered men to use women's bathrooms.
Diane Watts, a spokeswoman for the socially conservative group REAL Women Canada, repeated the argument at committee Tuesday.
"This places females and children at a strong disadvantage and at risk since child predators can use the legislation as a pretence," said Watts.
Federal employers might be forced to pay the medical bills for hormone therapy and surgeries, and then have to reintegrate the employees into the workforce with some "social difficulty," she added.
NDP MP and bill sponsor Randall Garrison told Watts her comments were "offensive."
But even after she'd used up her allotted time, Conservative MP Robert Goguen asked Watts to continue reading a long description of how the bill could inadvertently extend protections for pedophiles.
Other Tories suggest the term "gender expression" is much too vague, something Garrison offered to delete from the bill. There are also MPs, such as committee member Brent Rathgeber, who argue that Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has already effectively extended protections to the transgendered under the provisions for gender and disability, making the bill redundant.
His caucus colleague Findlay disagreed, raising her experience as a former member of the tribunal.
"I know myself that just because a tribunal has already applied a case to a certain ground does not make it definitive," Findlay said.
The commission's Fine said it would still be important to clarify the issues under the law.
"The reality is that even though the courts have accepted that and we accept that, parties go before the tribunals and courts and raise arguments about whether they're included," Fine said.
"There are some Canadians who are not in agreement with that notion and are still fighting about it, and believe the protection is not explicit and shouldn't be covered by the other grounds."
Several members of the transgendered community attended Tuesday's Commons committee, and groaned or muttered quietly while Watts delivered her testimony.
Linda Slater, who was born as a man but spends two days a week dressed as a woman, said she's had the experience of being thrown out of a store because of the way she looks.
"After this I will have a recourse, and if it passes this will open the eyes of shopping centres and smaller stores that it's to their advantage not to make this an issue," she said.