11/07/2016 12:15 EST | Updated 11/07/2016 12:26 EST

Federal Government Offers First Gender-Neutral Travel Document

The federal government has begun accepting gender-neutral travel documents for people planning to fly into, or through, Canada.

Canada's new Electronic Travel Authorizations, or eTAs, which become mandatory for visitors to Canada starting Thursday, for the first time allow travellers a third choice on the online application form under gender: other.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in Montreal Pride parade on Aug. 14, 2016. (Photo: Graham Hughes/CP)

Until now, applicants had to choose between male or female, which prevented some potential visitors from completing the form — an issue that was noted in an internal report obtained under the Access to Information Act.

"The system cannot finalize applications when the client indicates that they are of a third-sex designation," says the May 2 troubleshooting document from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.

A spokeswoman for the department confirmed the application has since been altered to allow foreign visitors who have a third-sex designation on their passports to enter "other" as their gender.

At least seven countries — Australia, Bangladesh, Germany, India, Nepal, New Zealand and Pakistan — permit citizens to choose an option other than male or female on their passports.

Canada's move is another small step in a complex process promised by the Liberal government to ensure identification documents reflect "gender inclusiveness" — that is, accommodating people who identify as neither male nor female.

Reviewing its forms

A further step: Canadian citizens who have transitioned to a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth will soon be able to change their designation on some official government documents.

"The department has already taken steps to facilitate changing the sex designation, from female to male and vice-versa, on passports and travel documents, citizenship certificates and documentation for temporary and permanent residents," spokeswoman Sonia Lesage told CBC News.

The government "is also currently reviewing its forms and products to better reflect gender inclusiveness."

The issue dates from at least 2015, when the department grappled with how to complete standard immigration documents for people arriving in Canada with a third-sex designation on their passports.

And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in early July that his government was exploring the use of gender-neutral options on federal identity cards — a human rights issue raised repeatedly by transgender and other Canadians, especially with regard to passports.

Starting Nov. 10, eTAs will become compulsory for travellers flying to or transiting through Canada who are from countries for which no Canadian visa is required. U.S. citizens are exempt from both the eTA and visa requirements.

The new requirement does not apply to Canadian citizens, Canadian dual citizens and permanent residents.

ETAs can be processed on a self-serve website, and cost $7 each. Most are issued electronically within a few minutes, once the application is complete. About two million have been produced to date.

The 2016 requirement for an eTA in advance of travel has been essentially voluntary, after the department announced a leniency period from March 15 to Sept. 29 this year to spread the word to travellers and to work out kinks in the system.

On Sept. 20, the leniency period was again extended, up to and including Nov. 9.

The additional time also allowed Citizenship and Immigration to fix other problems plaguing the eTA website.

Other glitches

The troubleshooting document from May noted "that the application form continues to time out quickly for many clients, that some language in the application form is not clear for some clients and that the system is erroneously not issuing eTAs to some eligible clients."

Lesage said there have been other unusual bugs in the system, launched with the help of Shared Services Canada in 2012-2013 with a $77-million, four-year budget.

"For a period of time, visa-exempt Israeli nationals were experiencing difficulties when applying for an eTA," she said. "This issue has now been resolved."

The initial time limit of 20 minutes to complete the web form has been changed, allowing applicants to request an additional 20 minutes.

The recent change to a gender-neutral format on the federal form follows the Ontario government's decision in June to issue health cards with no reference to the gender of the holder.

And next year, Ontario driver's licences will permit holders to select X as their gender, rather than M or F.

The decision on genderless health cards, apparently made without consulting the federal government, created problems for some Ontarians who could not use them to apply for a passport because of the missing information.

A London, Ont., lawyer with expertise in sex- and gender-related issues questions why any government needs to collect such information in the first place.

"In the old days, it was important to know if somebody was a man or a woman because only one class of those people could vote, inherit property, be senators," Nicole Nussbaum said in an interview.

But in modern societies that purport to value equality, Nussbaum said, the onus should be on governments to produce bona fide reasons for the collection or display of information about the sex or gender of individuals.

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