Census data released Wednesday offers an unprecedented snapshot of Canada’s transgender population, showing 0.33 per cent of residents identify as a gender that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
The data collected during last year’s national household survey shows about 100,815 people are transgender or non-binary, including 31,555 who are transgender women, 27,905 who are transgender men and 41,355 who are non-binary.
It’s the first time Statistics Canada has differentiated between “sex at birth” and “gender” in the census, a change advocates say will offer crucial insight into a marginalized population and the systemic barriers it faces.
Fae Johnstone, a transgender advocate, said population-level data backing up trans people’s lived experience has thus far been slim, so this new information is important both symbolically and practically.
“It says something when our government is recognizing the existence of trans folks who have historically been kept out of these conversations and uncounted,” Johnstone said. “But it also is useful to us to better understand how we can focus interventions and address health inequities experienced by trans folks across this country.”
While previous censuses asked only about sex, the 2021 edition asked about both “sex at birth,” which it said is “determined by a person’s biological characteristics,” and “gender,” which it said could differ from what’s indicated on legal documents.
Under “gender,” respondents were able to choose either male or female, or write in a third option.
Government demographers said they will use “sex at birth” to compare to historical data on sex.
In some cases, Statistics Canada said, it will be necessary to narrow gender down into two categories “to protect the confidentiality of responses provided.” Those categories will be “men+” and “women+”, and each will encompass some people who are non-binary.
The inclusion of transgender people in the census is part of a broader move by the Liberal government to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community.
In 2017, the government added gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and amended the Criminal Code to include those same groups in the list of “identifiable groups” that could be targets of genocides and hate crimes.
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The following year, the federal budget noted Statistics Canada’s efforts to reflect gender diversity in the census and allocated funds to the agency to create a new Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics.
Its mandate, Statistics Canada said, is to develop “a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) data hub to support evidence-based policy development and decision making, both within the federal government and beyond.”
Johnstone said this government has been good in some ways on LGBTQ issues, but it hasn’t been perfect.
“I think my biggest critique of this government on LGBTQ issues is that they put all of their words in the right place, they say all of the right words. But it’s the delivery, the implementation that I really want to see happen,” she said.
For example, the government’s recent announcement of $100 million toward its federal LGBTQ2 action plan was historic, Johnstone said, but it came late and the amount is still disproportionately low.
“Holding all of that as true, I still think that this says something about our current government in the best of ways, that we’re recognizing trans people exist and that trans people need to be captured,” she said.
Gemma Hickey, a transmasculine non-binary author and activist, said it’s “about time.”
“As an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights for over 20 years, I’ve been a part of and witnessed many changes. But these types of changes, especially when it comes to the census, are long overdue.”
Nearly five years ago, Hickey became one of the first Canadians to receive a gender-neutral birth certificate.
Hickey said they hope the census will spark a broader conversation by acknowledging that the sex a person was assigned at birth is not necessarily the same as gender.
“That visibility, that recognition, is very important for people because we are here. We have been here as long as you’ve been here,” they said.