Commentary | Gender is not an outlier

How the census erases Canada’s trans and non-binary population

Updated January 27, 2016.

One of prime minister Justin Trudeau’s many promises during the election campaign was to reinstate the mandatory long-form census, allowing Statistics Canada to collect more accurate demographic data for policies that better reflect the needs of Canadian people. While this promise was indeed implemented, one of the census’s shortcomings is that it institutionalizes the marginalization of non-binary individuals by prescribing the intersexist and cissexist binary framework of gender, with female and male as the only possible options for people to select on the form.

Non-binary individuals – people whose gender is neither male nor female – already face social discrimination, and the format of the census ratifies their subordinate status by neglecting the importance of data in providing them specific social services.

Human rights groups and research organizations have demonstrated the socioeconomic marginalization of trans and non-binary Canadians, and specific services for them are negatively impacted if there is no federal data. Helen Kennedy, the executive director of the LGBT rights advocacy group Egale Canada, notes in an interview with Radio Canada International that, due to the limited census form, “there could be effects in terms of allocation of health funding, housing, work around education.” Greta Bauer, an associate professor in biostatistics at Western University who studies LGBT health, puts it more broadly, telling the Montreal Gazette that “we can’t accurately assess inequality for trans people if they’re not actually counted” in the census. Without official numbers, the marginalization of trans people can be swept under the rug that much more easily.

Quinn Nelson, a non-binary student at the University of Calgary, came forward to protest this exclusionary census by writing a letter to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. The chief statistician at Statistics Canada responded to Nelson requesting that they leave the question blank and give reason for omission in the comment section. However, not everyone knows how to respond effectively to inadequate options that the census gender question provides; moreover, leaving it blank is actually an offence under the Statistics Act. This is a confusing and threatening question to people who don’t conform to the gender binary or who are questioning their identities.

A solution to the exclusion of a historically subjugated population is not something for which we should have to wait until the next census, which won’t be conducted until 2021. Crucial information will be lost in these five years, which will have a direct impact on the livelihoods of non-binary and trans Canadians.

For example, LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely as other Canadian youth to be homeless. Yet, 1 in 3 trans youth will be turned away from a homeless shelter on the basis of their gender. Further, trans people, particularly trans youth, are also among the most vulnerable to mental health issues like social anxiety, depression, and suicide. Data on issues like these and other socioeconomic discrepancies largely comes from the hard work of advocacy groups. As the census fails to accurately account for non-binary and trans Canadians, it also fails to provide data that could help the government implement more meaningful, effective services to improve the situation of trans and non-binary people in Canada.

When the census is sent to 2.9 million Canadian households in May, the message that trans and non-binary individuals are outliers in a population will serve to reinforce their marginalization with respect to access to homeless shelters, jobs, and mental health services. The othering of this population serves as a reminder that its well-being is not a priority for the government.

It’s too late for us to lobby Trudeau’s government to count in non-binary and trans Canadians, so we are condemned to wait five more years to be able to most effectively seek justice for a marginalized citizenry. We are losing valuable information about how non-binary and trans people fare as a population, which is information we need in order to keep our government accountable.

Ashley Yu is a U0 Arts and Science student. To contact her, email

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