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Duclos defends gender-neutral language amid criticism from opposition


MONTREAL — Canadian activists praised Service Canada's decision to ask its employees to adopt gender-neutral language when interacting with the public as a step toward greater inclusivity, while members of the political opposition mocked the policy mercilessly.

Families Minister Jean-Yves Duclos defended the federal institution's internal directive Wednesday, saying it was a matter of respect and an effort "to adapt to the reality of 21st-century families."

According to the directive issued to managers and team leaders in January, Service Canada employees are asked to use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language to avoid "portraying a perceived bias toward a particular sex or gender."

Workers are instructed to use a client's full name or ask how they would prefer to be addressed instead of using honorifics such as Mr., Mrs. or Ms., which "can be seen as gender specific by a client," reads the memo, which was first obtained by Radio-Canada.

They are also being asked to eschew the terms "father" and "mother" in favour of "parent."

Some members of the opposition were quick to criticize the directive, including Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who described it as "ridiculous."

Rheal Fortin, the former Bloc Quebecois MP who now sits as an Independent, concurred, saying, "it's bordering on harebrained."

"I almost want to say I'm glad they don't have any bigger problems than that at Service Canada," he joked.

But Duclos told reporters that Service Canada's policies are a matter of respect.

He specified in a tweet the government department is not eliminating the use of Mr. or Ms.

"Let us be clear, @ServiceCanada_E will continue to use Mr/Ms when interacting with Canadians," he wrote on social media. 

"We are only confirming how people want to be addressed as a matter of respect."

Two prominent activists praised the initiative, describing it as a positive step toward inclusivity.

Helen Kennedy, executive director of national LGBTQ human rights organization Egale Canada, praised the directive as "a good first step" but said it needs to be accompanied with more awareness training and education around non-binary and gender-neutral language.

"Some people may be very well-intentioned but they may not have the understanding or knowledge that they need in order to ask the right question in a manner that's not going to be offensive," she said in a phone interview.

The backlash from the opposition is a sign of how far Canadian society still has to come when it comes to inclusion, she said.

"Issues around gender-neutral language are extremely important, and they may not be important to the opposition but I can tell you they're very important to members of our community," Kennedy said.

Gabrielle Bouchard, the first transgender president of Quebec's main women's federation, called the move a step toward "making sure all Canadians can start an interaction with civil servants in the right way."

In a phone interview, she said neither she nor the policy were advocating for an end to the use of gendered pronouns, noting that some transgender people prefer to use "Mr." or "Ms." as a way of reaffirming their gender.

"What we want isn't the elimination of choice, what we want is to add more choice," she said. 

Duclos' press secretary, Emilie Gauduchon-Campbell, said the directive was issued in response to requests from members of the public who criticized Service Canada for a lack of inclusivity, including same-sex parents who complained about the mother/father designation.

She added Duclos did not see the internal directive before it was circulated Jan. 18.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to respond Wednesday morning to the initial Radio-Canada report, saying he needed more time to look into the matter.

-- With files from Melanie Marquis in Ottawa

Morgan Lowrie , The Canadian Press

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