The access to justice needs of 2SLGBTQ+ communities are significant and the services available to meet those needs vary across the province. This article explores those needs and the ways in which two community leaders and their organizations are working to meet them.
Transforming Justice, a report on the legal needs of trans people in Ontario, found that 71% of survey respondents “experienced at least one justiciable legal problem within a three-year timeframe compared to 48.4% of the adult population in Canada.”[i]
Legal Aid Ontario funds a network of legal clinics that together serve people across the province. Most clinics serve a dedicated geographic area, while some specialize in providing services to populations with unique legal needs. The Niagara Community Legal Clinic (NCLC) serves poverty-affected people in Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort Erie, St. Catharines, Thorold, Welland, Port Colborne, Pelham, Lincoln, West Lincoln, Grimsby, and Wainfleet. The clinic provides a range of services, including legal advice and representation, to support poverty-affected individuals, families, and the community within its region.
The need for accessible and affordable housing permeates every aspect of the clinic’s work and is one of the most significant challenges facing the region. Aidan Johnson, executive director of NCLC, explains: “It has become painfully clear to me that trans and queer tenants are vulnerable to transphobic and homophobic landlords.” Johnson advocates for more subsidized housing, more funding for tenant legal supports, and a better-funded approach to psychiatric healthcare, including preventative mental healthcare - all of which prevent homelessness.
The clinic system’s ability to support individual clients while also advocating for systemic change is a strength. “The clinic system has been advocating for housing solutions in an energetic way, and the need for our advocacy is urgent,” says Johnson.
Housing shortages and rising costs in urban areas, coupled with discrimination, create challenges for urban dwellers as well. A recent City of Toronto report found that Indigenous groups, racialized individuals (particularly those who identify as Black), people with foster care experience, and people who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ are overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness in Toronto.[ii] It found that “approximately 12% of people experiencing homelessness in Toronto identify as 2SLGBTQ+ and 3% identify as trans, non-binary, and/or Two-Spirit.”[iii]
Housing discrimination, especially when it contributes to homelessness, has cascading consequences for 2SLGBTQ+communities, families, and individuals, particularly those who also experience racism. Transforming Justice found that 22% of survey respondents experienced justiciable housing problems as compared to just 3% of the adult Canadian population. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports that, “[b]y some estimates, 2SLGBTQIA+ youth make up between 25% and 40% of homeless youth in Canada”.[iv] Seniors experiencing discrimination in their search for long-term seniors housing may “go back into the closet” to avoid discrimination at the hands of service providers.[v]
Poverty – created and compounded by discrimination
Discriminatory barriers to employment, as well as discrimination in education, are commonplace for 2SLGBTQ+ communities. “Trans and queer people often face discriminatory barriers in the job market such that social assistance is the only way to survive,” says Aidan Johnson. “Trans and queer people disproportionately experience poverty and the clinic system is therefore disproportionately relevant to us.”
Studies suggest that poverty, for some members of LGBT2SQI+ communities, is linked to family rejection.[vi] Without support from family, educational opportunities are lost and homelessness is more likely. This has long term consequences for an individual’s ability to achieve financial stability. StatsCan reports that “in 2018, two-fifths of LGBTQ2+ Canadians (41%) had a total personal income of less than $20,000 per year, compared with one-quarter of their non-LGBTQ2+ counterparts (26%). The average personal incomes of LGBTQ2+ income earners were also significantly lower ($39,000) than those of non-LGBTQ2+ people ($54,000) in Canada.”[vii]
StatsCan also called attention to the disproportionate impact COVID likely had on community members: “Given that many LGBTQ2+ Canadians had lower incomes, were having difficulties meeting their financial obligations, and would have difficulties handling unexpected expenses prior to the pandemic, they may be particularly vulnerable financially if they lost employment because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”[viii] Sebastian Commock, manager of legal initiatives at The 519, emphasized the impacts he saw working at The 519; “On a personal level, I saw how minority groups were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and associated measures taken to keep the public safe.”
Unique legal needs
Organizations like The 519 and the Niagara Community Legal Clinic are also focused on the more specific legal needs experienced by 2SLGBTQ+ communities.
Commock notes that, “by virtue of being a member of the 2SLGBTQ community, there are various compounding and intersecting legal issues, especially at a time like now where there is constant hate and vitriol being spewed from various entities.” He notes the prevalence of hate crimes, “In 2016, the LGBTQ2S community was amongst the top three most targeted groups for hate crimes — a 25% increase since the previous year.”
Johnson at NCLC works to expand access to gender-affirming legal services. “The process for changing gender markers on government identification and for changing names is onerous for trans people,” they say. Their clinic offers a monthly satellite clinic at Quest Community Health Centre, a grassroots health care agency providing inclusive service to LGBTQ2S+ communities in their region, with a particular specialty in trans medicine. The satellite clinic is supported by the staff at Quest who are acutely aware of how essential gender marker and name change work is to clients. Johnson explains that a lawyer is required to notarize the documents required for the name and gender marker change processes. “That’s the very least involvement a lawyer need to have, given the current rules”. However, “the process is time-intensive, legalistic, and complicated in various ways, particularly for people affected by poverty or mental health disability factors.”
Working to support clients facing legal needs that are unique to our communities frequently leads to the identification of further needs. Aidan explains: “I often find that once we get into the story of what’s going on, we identify needs beyond gender marker and name change. Often clients are also facing human rights, disability, and tenant law issues.”
Inclusive services are part of the answer
Johnson says that NCLC’s trans legal services clinic at Quest has been particularly valuable in terms of “communicating to trans community members that their local legal clinic is there for them and can support them, in whatever their legal needs are”. Partnering with a knowledgeable, community-based agency expands reach and builds trust with community members who may have struggled to connect with service providers who can competently and compassionately assist them.
The need to “go beyond putting a rainbow or trans flag in the reception area” is urgent and essential, says Johnson. Reports like Transforming Justice and training like that provided by The 519 to its volunteer lawyers promotes greater awareness and understanding of the issues and helps lawyers, paralegals, and students offer services in an inclusive manner. Johnson explains that “the legal profession needs to invest more in very basic education about LGBTQ+ reality and the experiences of Two-Spirit people. This is the only way forward.” The profession’s ability to advocate for increased research into legal needs, funding for services like The 519 and legal clinics across Ontario, and improvements to decrease wait times at tribunals, is important. Aidan Johnson explains that “regularly, I have to inform people seeking help that they are a few thousand dollars over our financial eligibility cut-off, and it’s always a terrible feeling because these are people who need help.”
Commock and Johnson, two leaders in access to justice, share advice on how the profession can help meet the access to justice needs of our communities. Johnson advises legal professionals to “Come out: young people need your example. Give back to our communities: they need you. Stay strong: our profession is still on a journey with these questions.” Commock exhorts legal professionals to use their voice as respected professionals “to amplify the voices of those in need.”
Commock also emphasizes the need for creativity: “There is, in legal services, always an ongoing and constant need for access to advice, representation and support through legal processes. There is also a need for discovery and consideration of alternative modes of justice outside the formal justice system, and a constant pressure to protect, preserve and advance the human rights of 2SLGBTQI+ communities.” The 519 is one of a few organizations that use mock hearings to help prepare refugee claimants for hearings with the Immigration and Refugee Board. “In response to funding cuts to legal aid, we started our refugee mock hearing program – an initiative dedicated to supporting LGBTQ refugee claimants by providing support and guidance as claimants prepare for their hearing with the Immigration and refugee board.”
An intersectional approach is needed. Commock emphasizes that: “BIPOC and trans 2SLGBTQI+ community members face drastically higher levels of marginalization and violence. We see the direct links between housing insecurity, criminalization, and unequal access to healthcare services. These are not only breaches of human rights, they cause devastating health consequences on a community level.” Commock continues, “addressing societal inequities that are disproportionately affecting BIPOC and trans 2SLGBTQI+ is the core challenge and opportunity. We must raise awareness and hold accountable individuals and systems that are causing harm, breaching human rights, and affecting the health and wellbeing of our communities.” Johnson concludes; “The values of the Charter are the medicine that we need.”
To learn more about how you can contribute to access to justice, contact The 519 or your local community legal clinic.
[iv] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 2SLGBTQIA+ housing needs and challenges” https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/blog/2022/2slgbtqia-housing-needs-challenges (online: accessed February 1, 2023).
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