Time for widespread gender-neutral language in federal policy, legislation, say advocates

Of note:

The very act of not being included in government policy is discriminatory, says Estefan Cortes-Vargas, former Alberta MLA, diversity consultant, and one of the first openly non-binary people elected in Canada, referring to the sparse use of gender-neutral language. It’s an issue the federal government says it’s trying to fix, piece by piece.

This area has recently been a focus for the B.C. government, with sweeping changes made to more than 70 laws and regulations in March, replacing 600 clauses with gender-neutral terms.

According to Ravi Kahlon, B.C.’s minister of jobs, economic recovery, and innovation, these changes were made in an effort to increase accessibility.

Sherwin Modeste, executive director of Pride Toronto, praised the changes as very progressive but said it’s something that still needs to be done federally, “because federal legislation carries weight through all the provinces and territories.”

However, the federal justice department told The Hill Times in an email statement that it has been implementing gender-neutral language, albeit in a “piecemeal” fashion.

“Over the years, the practice has evolved with the use of ‘they’ and its other grammatical forms and other drafting techniques in the English version of Acts. New acts are drafted using these techniques. When existing Acts are amended the drafters will, whenever possible, update the wording of the provisions that are being changed to reflect existing drafting conventions,” Justice Canada spokesperson Ian McLeod wrote.

In French, a gendered language, there are grammatical rules that could affect legislative language, he said. The department is studying this area, with the review being undertaken by departmental “jurilinguists.”

“The use of inclusive language acknowledges and values human diversity, and recognizes that individuals have differing experiences, values, beliefs, and lifestyles,” Women and Gender Equality Canada spokesperson Maja Stefanovska said in an email.

While she didn’t specify if they’re being followed, Ms. Stefanovska said the Translation Bureau has linguistic recommendations on inclusive correspondence in French.

While the English side of things generally has gender neutral replacements, like “spouse” for husband and wife, and “they” for he or she, French’s analogues are gendered, said Lee Airton, assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies in education at Queen’s University.

“It is an entirely different process to create gender neutral law and policy in French … it would be much more difficult, but no less necessary,” they said.

Practically speaking, Hélène Frohard-Dourlent, a bilingual senior strategist at gender consulting firm TransFocus, said one possible strategy is adding a dot before the final “e” in a word to indicate both masculine and feminine forms as well as the possibility of other grammatical genders. Another method is to rephrase sentences, they said, like switching “Alex is happy” to “Alex is a happy person” thus preventing happy from being tied to the person’s gender.

“And then, inevitably, if you are committed to neutral or inclusive French, you have to invent some new words and some new endings that are themselves going to be more inclusive,” they said.

The problem with this, Dr. Frohard-Dourlent noted, is that these words have to be socialized to the point where readers will actually understand them.

As for what these terms might look like, Joel Harnest, co-executive director of QMUNITY, an LGBTQ+ resource centre, said that cues should be taken from French-speaking trans folk, who can share the emerging language and phrases.

He also noted that not everything should be gender neutral. While it makes sense for certain words like husband or wife, he said that there is still a need for gender-based language when “you need to specifically call attention to or talk about a certain gender experience.” As an example, he pointed towards policy around gender-based violence.

“If we move too fast to this utopian ideal of a genderless future, we’re not really acknowledging the reality that those people have to live,” Mr. Harnest said.

Overall though, Liana Cusmano, who is interim president of the Green Party and uses they/them pronouns, says they’re receptive to the current approach for changing terminology.

“I think that’s definitely a good place to start, which is to slowly do revisions and then, when drafting new material, to apply the agenda … I don’t think that it would be a good idea to rush,” they said, adding that relying on people practiced in those legislative areas along with consultation with inclusive experts would be the best approach.

Their own party is in the process of implementing gender-neutral language in both English and French. The Liberal Party, according to spokesperson Braeden Caley, also uses gender-inclusive language, with regular policy and document review. The NDP and Conservative Party did not respond to requests for comment on their parties’ approach.

Jade Pichette, Pride at Work Canada’s manager of programs, said that there has been a lot of effort already made to move towards more inclusive language, such as changes to the style guides of the Public Service Alliance Canada—the federal government’s largest public-service union.

“Some of that work has already been done, it’s just being done on a subtle basis, where it isn’t a news story, where it isn’t necessarily picked up in the media, because we use they/them pronouns in our speech naturally,” they said. “We will just read through the document without even considering it.”

But even though some changes may happen without fanfare, they’re still critical according to inclusion experts.

Gender-neutral language has significant benefits, diversity experts say

“The very act of not being included in policy is discriminatory,” Mx. Cortes-Vargas said.

Mx. Pichette pointed towards the need to represent everybody who lives in Canada, including non-binary, agender, and two-spirit people “as a matter of respect but also as recognition of their lives.”

This broader representation, Mx. Airton said, not only has a symbolic impact, but also a practical one in terms of making policy and governance more accurate for the public and professionals. And, if there is no gendered language in a piece of policy, they said, then gender becomes less necessary to think about in a particular context.

“Gender, knowing if someone’s a man or woman, isn’t always relevant and can actually be a distraction because people use their common sense or folk knowledge about what men and women do or want to inform their decision making without realizing what they’re doing.’”

There may even be an impact on employers, Mx. Pichette said, with government stances influencing the polices and procedures of businesses.

According to Vandana Juneja, executive director of Catalyst, a women’s workplace advocacy group, this type of inclusion brings practical benefits to organizations, from enhanced financial performance to improved employee engagement and innovation.

On a more personal level, for Mx. Cortes-Vargas this sort of change would make it easier to navigate systems. For instance, when they go to the bank or fill out forms they have to pick gendered slots.

“They’ll say you have to pick one. And it’s like ‘no, I don’t—this is your problem, this isn’t my problem’ … I can’t go through and just fill out a form without having to negotiate existing in that space,” they said.

The benefit to changing these systems and writing things into policy would be a reduction of barriers, instead of continually having to ask if there’s room for them and having to get exceptions made, they said.

With gender-neutral language, Mx. Cusmano said they feel seen. While it’s difficult to put into words, the impact, they said, is huge and helps to build trust and effective collaboration.

“Gender identity is real to individuals and it has real impacts on their well-being,” they said.

Kai Scott, president of TransFocus, said the pervasive gendering of systems has significant impacts, with this “systemic exclusion” adversely affecting both mental and physical health and causing non-binary people to wonder if they’re important enough to be recognized in official documentation. “And the key thing is that if they have support and they’re affirmed, their social determinants go through the roof, they’re so positively impacted,” he said.

Mr. Modeste tied this to the economy. With more people comfortable and ready to get out there and work, the burden on society is reduced, he said. Respecting people’s gender identity is critical to alleviating these sorts of long-term impacts, he continued.

For him, gender-neutral language allows for authentic expression. In his case, having been married and lived part of the “straight life,” he said that if he had seen more gay men represented in the world when he was growing up his life would’ve been very different “in a positive way.”

Lawyer Raj Anand, a partner at WeirFoulds LLP with practice in constitutional law, pointed towards the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its emphasis on gender equality, noting that implementing gender-neutral language would also put into action the promise the Charter was designed to have.

“When the federal government takes [gender-neutral language] on, it sends a huge signal to others, as well as internally,” Mr. Scott said. “It’s really important for employees that work for the federal government to see this change, and if it affects them personally, they benefit from it.”

“But then also for those who it doesn’t impact, they might go, ‘oh well, why is this happening?’ And then we can have conversations about the benefits of gender-neutral language just to bring everybody along on this journey that’s so important for a variety of people.”

Source: Time for widespread gender-neutral language in federal policy, legislation, say advocates

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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