Symbols matter when it comes to diversity

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In 1946, Viola Desmond was wrongfully convicted simply because she was a black woman determined to exercise her right to full equality. Transgendered people are still denied full equality, and their cause suffered a setback last week as a result of the mean-spirited Progressive Conservative resolution.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 26, 2018.

OTTAWA—Last week was the best of times and the worst of times when it comes to moving the needle on equality.

Symbols matter when it comes to diversity. That is why the face of Viola Desmond on Canada’s new $10 note is much more than simply an image on plastic.

It underscores Desmond’s groundbreaking battle for inclusion, as a black woman who had the audacity to sit in the whites-only section at the cinema.

For her troubles, Desmond was convicted of a tax violation based on the price difference in the seat she purchased and where she sat at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., in 1946.

Desmond became the first person to be pardoned posthumously for the conviction but it took the government 64 years to get around to it.

The launch of the new $10 bill makes her the first Canadian non-regal woman to appear alone on Canadian currency.

The Famous Five, and Quebec suffragette Therese Casgrain were the first non-monarch women to appear as a group, in a $50 series that was launched in 2001.

Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Moore Edwards were responsible for securing the right for women to sit alongside men in the Senate.

The Canadian Supreme Court turned down their initial application but the Famous Five ultimately got justice by appealing successfully to the British Privy Council.

That ruling back in 1929 became known as the Person’s Case and cleared the way for women to serve in the Red Chamber.

The $50 commemorative bill remained in circulation for a decade but the women’s images were replaced by an icebreaker during the government of Stephen Harper in 2012.

The announcement of another female face on our currency is long overdue.

The Desmond decision came on the heels of another symbolic gesture that egregiously turned back the clock.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario convention moved forward with a process to endorse a resolution that labelled gender identity as “a highly controversial, unscientific ‘liberal ideology.’”

The proposal by former provincial leadership candidate Tanya Granic Allen calls for the termination of gender theory education in Ontario schools.

Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet were quick to distance themselves from the move, saying they will not implement the proposal.

But Granic Allen plans to pursue her resolution at the party’s policy convention a year from now and claims that she is “just following Doug’s lead on the issue.”

When Ford was running for the Tory leadership, he promised to remove gender theory teaching from the curriculum. In return, Granic Allen’s socially conservative backers moved to Ford when she was knocked off the ballot early.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost. Ford may distance himself from Granic Allen but the majority of members in the party he leads are happy to send the message that transgender identity does not exist.

The victims in this narrative are the transgendered people still struggling for equality in society.

The majority of trans youth are alienated from their families. Some of them end up on the street. Two-thirds of transgendered adolescents report that they have self-harmed in the last year.

The sex education curriculum that explores their issues is simply an attempt to create a platform for learning and understanding.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.