New census data from Statcan confirms what community advocates have been saying for years: there is a burgeoning gender-diverse population throughout Newfoundland and Labrador (NL). For the first time ever, the 2021 census collected data on trans and non-binary identities, and Canada is the first country to publish national-level data on the subject (other countries have followed suit with similar surveys).

The newly released data reveals a vibrant transgender and non-binary presence in the province. And it’s a population in need of services, funding, and support. 

According to the report, Newfoundland and Labrador has the second-highest proportion of transgender women aged 15-34 in the country, and the third-highest proportion of transgender men in the same age group. The province has the fourth highest overall ranking for gender diversity among respondents aged 15-34 in the country. 

Proportionally, St. John’s is the tenth most gender diverse of large urban centres in Canada, beating out other centres like Vancouver and Toronto.

Atlantic Canada punches above its demographic weight in many of the categories. While large cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have the largest population of trans and non-binary people in terms of sheer numbers, in terms of proportions the Atlantic provinces really shine. Nova Scotia has the highest gender diversity of any province among respondents aged 15-34, and Halifax and Fredericton were the second- and third-most gender diverse of urban centres in the country, respectively. 

“Following the previous 2016 census we heard from a lot of respondents that they were not able to see themselves in the two response categories to the question about sex,” explained Statcan’s Elena Prokopenko. While there are ongoing debates about the best way to revamp the census, she hopes the new data they’ve collected will become the basis for further research, and help inform policies, programming and service provision going forward. 

“Public decision-makers at all levels of government could really benefit from this data,” she said. “Trans and non-binary people exist in every community and now there will be evidence of their age and geographic characteristics… to help determine service needs, whether these are for education, healthcare, employment services.” 

“We need more support”

The province has a mixed record when it comes to support for sexual and gender diversity. Legislative action has often lagged behind public displays of support. NL was the third-last province to add sexual orientation protections to its human rights code in 1997. Gender identity and expression protections were only added in 2013. Yet in 2013 the City of St. John’s became the first city in Canada to fly the trans pride flag. And it was NL activist Gemma Hickey who was one of the first Canadians to receive a gender-neutral birth certificate and passport, after spearheading a fight for those advances.

Charlie Murphy is Executive Director with Quadrangle NL. The group was formed in 2015 with the goal of creating a community centre for the province’s 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the last provinces without any such centre, despite decades of work by multiple community organizations that have sought to make it happen. He feels the data vindicates the arguments that groups like his have been making for years. 

“I want to say that I’m shocked but I’m not, because I feel like this is what the community has been telling everyone—the province, the government—over and over again,” Murphy said. “That this community exists, and that we need more support to make sure that they’re getting the support that they need.”

“This shows the need for more healthcare providers being aware of trans healthcare. It also shows the fact that we need more support for organizations doing trans work, whether that be training, whether that be workshops, whether that be peer support, whether that be counselling,” he continued. 

It shows the fact that we need to be investing in transgender individuals and non-binary individuals in our province.”

Trans Support NL—a provincial organization supporting the Two Spirit, non-binary, trans and gender diverse communities of NL—echoed those views.

“The census shows higher numbers of younger people identifying as trans and non-binary,” said Julie Temple, a co-founder of the group. “This shows how important recent efforts to raise awareness of gender diversity have been. More and more people are able to find the language to understand themselves and live fuller, happier lives.” 

“We need the support of government to further raise awareness that gender diversity is a normal and healthy part of human life. Trans, Two Spirit, and non-binary people deserve to not only be counted, but to be welcomed, loved, and celebrated.”

In March of this year, Quadrangle and the Community-Based Research Centre—a national charity that promotes the health of people of diverse genders and sexualities—put off a virtual community panel featuring representatives from across the island and Labrador. From this, a set of twenty-five recommendations were developed and submitted to the provincial government. The recommendations ranged from health care to community infrastructure, and underscored the need for the province to improve services for 2SLGBTQIA+ residents.

“The [Statcan] numbers show a clear case for funding,” said Murphy. “I see this as an opportunity for [the provincial government] to acknowledge what many organizations have been saying for decades, that the community is here and it’s thriving. But it needs the support to actually have the proper healthcare and services that it deserves, like any other population.” 

“I don’t think there’s enough supports currently,” he continued. “There’s a lot of community support—there’s a lot of community volunteers doing hours and hours and hours of work, and there’s a lot of doctors really wanting to do more work and really wanting to support the community—but I don’t see that being followed up on in ways that allow for it to happen.”

He said it also underscores the need for improved supports in the education system.

A generation gap, or a reporting gap?

The survey results show an interesting spread by age. Over two-thirds of people identifying as trans or non-binary across the country were under the age of 35, while nearly one out of every 100 Canadians between the ages of 20-24 identified as trans or non-binary. And while Newfoundland and Labrador’s population has slightly less than the national average for overall proportions of trans and non-binary identities, for the age group 15-34 the province has the fourth highest proportion in the country.

But that shouldn’t lead us to assume that older trans and non-binary people are fewer in number, warns Dr. Mari-Lynn Sinnott, a physician in St. John’s who specializes in gender-affirming healthcare. 

“This data demonstrates the social progress that has allowed trans and gender diverse people to recognize, disclose, and live their gender identities more fully than ever before,” she said. “I would caution the interpretation of a generation gap in transgender and gender diverse identities as… we know that not all trans and gender diverse people would feel safe or ready to identify or disclose this on Census form or other surveys.”

Dr. Sinnott has seen the rising numbers every day in her St. John’s practice. When she opened her first practice in 2015, she had about a dozen trans patients. Now she has well over 600.

“Trans and gender diverse identities have existed historically and across cultures and ethnicities,” she said. “Gender diverse identities are not new. What this data suggests to me is that younger generations are being supported in understanding the concepts and language around gender identity, gender expression, and gender diversity, and are likely better positioned to be able to explore their identities outside of the cisgender and to live openly.”

“I would like to think that this data illustrates social progress in building safe and inclusive communities, with the understanding and acknowledgement that there is still much progress to be made.”

Time for action

Murphy said it’s a frustration of groups like his that when they meet with government seeking funding and support, they are always asked to provide statistical data proving the numbers of people that will be impacted by their services. While front-line community workers see the urgent need every day, they’ve been hard-pressed to provide the statistical data government wants.

He said it’s frustrating when governments—who have more resources to do data collection than underfunded community groups—expect the community groups to also do the data collection to justify their existence. Having Statcan doing this kind of data collection helps, he says.

“I’m hoping that this will show that more information needs to be collected around the community, and not make the community feel like they need to do the searching of the information to prove that they’re hurting or prove that we deserve space. I feel that this is the responsibility of our governments, to start asking these questions and support community groups trying to do that work.”

Local data is important, Murphy says. He points out that NL in particular is usually just lumped in with Atlantic Canada when it comes to demographic research. NL has Canada’s oldest and fastest ageing population, yet a 2021 research report on senior care and housing produced by Quadrangle flagged the lack of provincial data on NL’s 2SLGBTQIA+ older adult population. He’s pleased to see Statcan provide the sort of provincial breakdowns that provincial governments are always asking for. 

“I feel like this is just the starting point of collecting data around the 2SLGBTQIA population as a whole to show that we need to be invested in and we deserve to have that space,” Murphy concluded. “We deserve to have programming dedicated to us and supports dedicated to us. Because if not, there’s that chance of community members leaving. And when you leave, you’re taking history, knowledge, expertise, and you’re going to another province that has these services. I think that just tells us we need to be investing in our community to keep them here.” 

Sinnott agrees. 

“With regard to Newfoundland having some of the highest proportions of trans men and trans women—this is important information for our government and institutions to understand,” she said. “Although there has been an expansion in transition related services in the province, there are still many accessibility issues and inequity across government services and health care institutions.”

“Progress, by definition, must continue over time. Our government has an obligation to continue to augment and improve services and access, notably around access to transition related surgery and medical transition health care, and address the ongoing discrimination and safety issues faced by trans and gender diverse youth in our schools. This data demonstrates definitively that we have a growing population of trans and gender diverse people across this province who deserve culturally safe and equitable access to services.”

Did you enjoy this article? Fund more like it, and support the future of journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Rhea Rollmann is an award-winning journalist, writer and radio producer/podcaster based in St. John’s, NL. She’s a founding editor of TheIndependent.ca, and a contributing editor with PopMatters.com. Her writing has appeared in a range of popular and academic publications, including Briarpatch, CCPA Monitor, rabble.ca, Canadian Theatre Review, Journal of Gender Studies, and more. She was the recipient of an Atlantic Journalism Gold Award in 2017, and finalist for a Canadian Association of Journalism Award in 2018. She also has a background in labour organizing, and queer and trans activism. She is presently Program Director at CHMR-FM, a community radio station in St. John’s, NL.