Grounding Ourselves: On Bill C-16 and Symbolic Legislation

January 26, 2018

Written by guest blogger, Florence Ashley.


Stylized sculpture of woman's head, top seperated from mouth up to reveal text insideImage by Nelly Wat

I was presenting at the Pride Canada National Conference held in Montreal less than a year ago. My presentation centered on my paper “Don’t be so hateful: The insufficiency of anti-discrimination and hate crime laws in improving trans well-being” which was recently published by the University of Toronto Law Journal in what I believe to be the first-ever special issue on trans law in Canadian history. Without going at lengths about the content of the article—I hope you will choose to read it in its entirety—it may be characterised as highly critical of Bill C-16. More particularly, I paint the bill as largely symbolic and as promising but meagre payoff for pan-Canadian trans well-being.

In the questions period, Susan walked up to the microphone and asked me a question. I must admit that my recollection is rather fuzzy, but two bits of information stand out. Firstly, she called me the next Viviane Namaste which, in my book, is one of the highest praise to be received. And secondly, she questioned the binary labelling of laws as symbolic and substantial, highlighting how laws which are purely symbolic on the surface can be effective educational tools.

Although I continue to believe that purely symbolic laws should be criticised, the underlying critique stays with me to this day. The symbolic is one of the most characteristic traits of human societies. We lead symbolic lives, and deal in symbols every day of our lives. What does it mean, as activists who aspire to a grounded approach, to demean symbolic change?

Indeed, the very same activists who seek to radically alter the arrangement of society oftentimes spend significant amounts of time analysing the minutia of language on the grounds that linguistic changes are an integral part of social change. Nowhere is this truer than in trans activism, where critiques of language are omnipresent—I myself contributed a chapter on transantagonism in the French language to the acclaimed book Dictionnaire critique du sexisme linguistique.

Can I with one hand critique legislative focus on symbols while writing chapters on symbols and linguistic sexism with the other hand?

To quote from the great G.A. Cohen, “The present paper has no conclusion.” I do not have a satisfactory answer to this question. But as I think of how I stand vis-à-vis the issue, I also wonder if consistency and coherence is something we should ask of ourselves.

Perhaps the best we can do is be incoherent. Perhaps the value of the critique of symbolic legislation is not so much to highlight the limitations of symbols, but to recall us to the very real lives of trans people who aren’t helped by our laws. People who, like Sisi Thibert, didn’t find survival in anti-discrimination and hate crime laws. People who need us to do something else, to do more.


Florence Ashley is an LLM Candidate at McGill University in Montreal. Metaphorically, a cyborg witch with flowers in her hair. Read her article “Don’t be so hateful: The insufficiency of anti-discrimination and hate crime laws in improving trans well-being” in the latest issue of the University of Toronto Law Journal here: https://doi.org/10.3138/utlj.2017-0057

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