Skip to content

A Public Servant Stood Up for Sex-Based Rights at a Gender Workshop—And Paid the Price

In a recorded DEI session on ‘Trans Inclusion,‘ activist Adrienne Smith told the dissenting staff member, ‘I’m past the point of seeking a respectful debate.’

· 12 min read
A Public Servant Stood Up for Sex-Based Rights at a Gender Workshop—And Paid the Price
Photo by Alexander Grey / Unsplash

If you’re a white-collar Canadian, chances are good that you’ve received workplace lectures on the subject of “decolonization”—a vaguely defined project aimed at “deconstructing colonial ideologies of the superiority and privilege of Western thought.” It’s a decidedly cultish pedagogical genre that I’ve come to know well, because exasperated workers often send me screenshots and recordings from their training sessions. Since raising complaints about these materials internally would risk career-threatening accusations of “white fragility” and such, leaking them to journalists is seen by many employees as the only viable option.

One notable specimen I received last year was a 136-page module titled Introduction to Decolonization, which had been presented earlier that year by the Hummingbirds Rising consultancy to staff at British Columbia’s Office of the Ombudsperson (an entity self-described as “B.C.’s independent voice for fairness and accountability, [working] to make sure public sector organizations are treating people fairly and following the rules”). The roughly 100 attendees were told by the trainers that this would be a “brave space,” in which those who had concerns about decolonization could “be bold and brave [with their] questions and comments.” (According to a Deputy Ombudsperson, attendance at the organization’s all-staff Diversity & Inclusion events is typically listed as optional. In practice, staff told me, almost everyone feels that they are expected to attend.)  

Much of the historical material presented in that session was perfectly accurate—including descriptions of the injustices associated with Canada’s system of Indigenous reserves. But as the presentation wore on, the content began to raise eyebrows. A section on economics declared flatly that capitalism is a “virus” composed of “systems that oppress.” A capsule lesson on spirituality presented Western values as inherently narcissistic, in contradistinction to Indigenous peoples’ quest for universal harmony. An array of listed terms that the presenters evidently associate with “white supremacy” included “being on time,” “manners,” and “perfectionism.” Most scandalously (as it would turn out), one slide indicated that the Nazi slaughter of six million European Jews had been directly inspired by the Canadian Constitution. Even more bizarrely, the slide was illustrated with a screen grab from an episode of Mr. Bean, a madcap 1990s-era British comedy show.

(When asked about the presentation, the Office of the Ombudsperson’s Communications Lead told Quillette that Hummingbirds Rising had been listed on the BC Public Service’s public pre-qualified supply list, and that prior vetting of the presentation had not been conducted by office staff. The Communications Lead added that the training was part of the Office’s “commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous people. Staff knowledge of cultural safety and the impacts of colonization on Indigenous people is an important component of the office’s Indigenous Communities Services Plan. We recognize that there may be some people who find some of the content of the Hummingbirds presentation controversial. We want to underscore, however, the value for our staff to fully understand the plurality of Indigenous perspectives in our province.”)

Slides from Introduction to Decolonization

After sharing these images on Twitter, I was contacted by the Vancouver office of a prominent Jewish organization, whose leadership (understandably) found the Mr. Bean/Holocaust slide to be in extremely poor taste. Thanks to their efforts, the issue was reportedly taken up internally by BC’s provincial government. And in the months that followed, I later learned, managers at the Office of the Ombudsperson took pains to find out who’d leaked the materials.  

If the goal was to prevent more leaks, it didn’t work: Earlier this year, I received more documents pertaining to the Office of the Ombudsperson, the most interesting of which involved another over-the-top all-staff Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) workshop—this one on the topic of “challenges facing transgender and gender non-conforming people.” The presenter, Vancouver lawyer Adrienne Smith, is a well-known activist in this area, having helped lead the campaign to strip public funding from a local women’s shelter on the basis of its refusal to let biological males work as rape-crisis counsellors.

Smith’s November 3rd, 2021 presentation to the Office of the Ombudsperson, a recording of which was made available to Quillette, contained the expected admonitions about respecting pronoun preferences. A brief section on asexuality included a tip not to say things like “that celebrity is hot,” since such a comment “implies that you would like to have sex with that celebrity—you have suddenly just alienated all your ace [i.e., asexual] staff.” This being Canada, there were also references to the “Two-Spirit” component of what our governments now refer to as the 2SLGBTQI+ community; as well as the related (and highly dubious) claim that human sexual dimorphism is an “imaginary” artifact of the West’s “colonized binary.”

Much of the presented material was autobiographical, with Smith variously self-describing as queer; AFAB [assigned female at birth]; trans; non-binary; a woman (for purposes of accessing female-specific community programming); “masculine-centered” in regard to both gender expression and “romantic orientation”; and an “aunticle” to several “niblings” (a non-binary neologism indicating nieces and nephews).

Smith offered parenting advice, too. The aforementioned niblings’ evolution into “Disney-princess little girls” “hurts my heart,” Smith told the audience, while also conceding that “our commitment to gender-neutral parenting means that [this] needs to be okay.” When it comes to boys, Smith opined, a family’s “tickle trunk needs to have a tutu for everybody.”

Smith described life in Canada as treacherous for trans people, due to what was described as an omnipresent threat of misgendering, harassment, and even lethal transphobic violence. This point was dramatized by mention of the “hundreds” of trans people whom Smith described as being killed every year (this presumably being a reference to globally aggregated statistics, since no trans person is known to have been killed in Canada since 2019).  

Adirenne Smith speaking in 2021 at Simon Fraser University.

At one point, Smith argued that the “real struggle” for trans rights isn’t being waged against conservative transphobes, but rather against “middle-aged white feminists” and others who still fixate on “genitals” when arguing their policy positions (an approach that the speaker likened to asking one’s grandmother about the “shape of [her] vulva”). In these moments, when Smith was denouncing perceived political enemies, the speaker often struck an embittered tone—never more so than while excoriating self-identified “LGB” organizations that “speak to Parliament” (an apparent reference to LGB Canada). Smith described such entities as presumptive “hate groups,” insofar as “they’re intentionally excluding the T.”

Adrienne Smith, speaking on November 3, 2021, about why ‘sex is not the critical decider,‘ and the importance of self-identification.

The key to fighting such “hate,” Smith said, now adopting a more plaintive style, was “believing me … the way we should believe people who are experiencing sexualized violence … the way we believe disabled people, the way that we believe racialized people.” According to Smith, prioritizing such “belief” over biology is a fundamental moral imperative—one that must guide all rules governing male-bodied access to protected women’s spaces, with no middle ground possible. At one point, audience members got a pop quiz to ensure that they all agreed a trans woman who is sexually attracted to women is every bit a real lesbian. Smith praised them all as “rock stars” when a cascade of lesbian-affirming answers were typed into the Zoom chat window.

The Q&A that followed was a mostly timid and strained affair—which should not be surprising since Smith had pre-emptively warned audience members that expressions of disagreement would be taken as confessions of bigotry. Moreover, Smith was a lawyer speaking to a crowd consisting mostly of laypeople, a fact that one audience member I later spoke with described as intimidating.

It was only the final question, from a rank-and-file staffer identified as “Nick,” that contained anything approaching real pushback. And even Nick was careful to preface his comments by assuring Smith that “I’m taking a lot of what you’re saying to heart,” and “I can see a lot of practical changes in the way that I write things that I can implement.”

Adrienne Smith, responding to a question posed by a staff member of the B.C. Office of the Ombudsperson, on November 3, 2021.

Then he got to the heart of the matter:

I’d also like to just raise that a lot of the language we’re talking about, and the underlying assumptions are, contested. I’m thinking about the word woman and mother in particular … I think that’s important because a lot of people, including a lot of women in my life that are very important to me, think that in some situations, sex is the relevant thing to be looking at. But what really concerns me is that all the people that tell me this in private, they would never say this in public because they’re concerned that they are going to be labelled as bigots and—

At this point, Smith, who’d responded respectfully, if testily, to the previous questions, interrupted Nick, asking him pointedly, “Are your racist friends all mad that they’re not allowed to say racist things?”

This led to the following exchange—which, it’s important to remember, played out on an office-wide Zoom call attended by almost every one of Nick’s co-workers:

Nick: Well, I mean, that’s kind of—that maybe illustrates it a little bit, right? These are charged and emotional conversations, right? And I think that reasonable people can disagree on some of these things—

Smith: [Interrupting] So I’m going to stop you right there. This is not a question about a disagreement of terms or something that can be politely debated. This is a dispute between people who are seeking justice and people who would prefer that we were dead … We used to say that white women weren’t going to share the bathroom with black women because they would give us syphilis. This same argument is now mobilized by women who say trans women will be dangerous to me in the toilet. And there’s a very serious and hateful underlying narrative between some of these things that are expressed gently, often under the dog whistle of seeking a respectful debate. And I’m—I’m past the point of seeking a respectful debate about who I am when hundreds of us are murdered every year, and many of us are excluded from basic public services. And I have patience for the women in your life who want to own the word ‘woman.’ I think every woman should be able to earn the word woman. If you’re doing that in a way that excludes transwomen, then your feminism needs some work.

Nick: I think you adressed my point. Thank you.  

In a workplace where workers truly were free to “be bold and brave” with their “questions and comments,” Nick’s expression of dissent might not have brought down his bosses’ ire. This was the Ombudsperson’s Office, after all, an independent office of the B.C. Legislature that regularly assists whistleblowers. Indeed, the current Ombudsperson, Jay Chalke, has spoken proudly about his role in helping to “ensure accountability, transparency and integrity in government.” Though the Ombudsperson’s Office is not itself classified as a government agency, one might think its leaders would apply that same spirit to subordinates who speak out in good faith against what they regard as misinformation.  

In Nick’s case, alas, all of these high-flown statements of principle were of little avail. Following his presentation, Nick was summoned to a meeting with several superiors—including a Deputy Ombudsperson, who evidently had received an earful from Smith about Nick’s supposed bigotry.

And gender thoughtcrime wasn’t the only entry on the charge sheet. A co-worker had suddenly come forward with memories of Nick once expressing skepticism about the value of land acknowledgements. Another said that an email Nick had once sent, describing a reformed criminal he’d known as a child, contained descriptions of crimes that were too “graphic.”

The Deputy Ombudsperson told Nick that his comments about sex and gender had “triggered and offended” Smith, and so ran afoul of the office’s “trauma-informed” conduct policies. He also endorsed Smith’s comparison of Nick to a racist white woman who regards black women as being afflicted with venereal disease; as well as the allegation that Smith had been “undermined” when Nick mentioned women he knew who endorsed a sex-based approach to protecting female spaces.

By way of punishment, Nick was ordered to take sensitivity training, which turned out to comprise a 16-hour course called Building Respectful Workplaces. The Deputy Ombudsperson then provided an unintentionally comic addendum, assuring Nick, with an air of cheerful magnanimity, “we are supportive of people wanting to learn and develop, so those courses are available. We’ll support them. And don’t hesitate to ask even beyond doing one [course]. If you want to make it two…” (In an ironic twist, Nick would go on to discover that one of the principles communicated in Building Respectful Workplaces is the need to protect workers’ psychological safety by ensuring they can share thoughts without risk of retaliation.)

Even before speaking up during Smith’s presentation, I learned, Nick hadn’t exactly made a secret of his disdain for the meddling of the Office’s increasingly assertive D&I committee, which he saw as a distraction from the real work that everyone was supposed to be doing. In one case, Nick’s team, which was tasked with investigating complaints from inmates in provincial jails, was lectured by committee members not to use the word “inmates,” because it wasn’t “person first” language. (The latest fashion, apparently, is to call them “incarcerated people” or “people convicted of crimes.”) Being a self-confessed former juvenile delinquent who’d once done time in a Yukon prison (not to mention an investigator who spoke daily with inmates as part of his job), Nick knew that no real inmate actually uses this kind of jargon, and said so bluntly to his D&I colleagues. Following other such frustrating workplace run-ins, Nick finally quit his job last November, shortly after learning that another investigation of his behaviour was in the works.  

Earlier this month, I contacted the BC Office of the Ombudsperson to ask whether there were any plans to reform the ideologically driven approach to training and workplace discipline that recent events have served to expose. By way of response, the Communications Lead for the Ombudsperson told Quillette, “our D&I working group…has always been, and will continue to be, open to all staff from every part of the office in order to include a broad range of views. Having said this, as issues of diversity and inclusion continue to evolve in our province, so too will we.”

In regard to Smith, the Communications Lead defended the speaker as “a lawyer who is highly regarded as a strong advocate for the rights of trans people, [whose] perspective…is critically important as we continue to serve non-binary and trans people who may bring complaints to us about public services…Our focus was on Adrienne sharing a high-level overview of trans identity with us, and that is exactly what they provided.”

Smith, on the other hand, declined to offer comment for this story. However, I did manage to track down information about Smith’s official response to a misconduct complaint that Nick filed with the Law Society of British Columbia in late 2021. (In that matter, the Society’s Complainant Review Committee described Smith’s behaviour as “inappropriate and rude,” but ultimately ruled in Smith’s favour nevertheless, on the basis that Smith had spoken to staff at the Ombudsperson’s Office not as a lawyer, but rather as a trainer.)

According to a summary document assembled by a lawyer engaged by the Law Society, and subsequently made available to Quillette, Smith claimed that Nick had spoken in a “dangerous and dehumanizing” manner; had made comments that implied “trans people are not valid” and “trans people are wilfully committing fraud by cheating at sports, accessing public spaces for the purpose of committing sexual assault, or are mentally ill”; had “fram[ed] questions politely which are in substance efforts to have trans people engage in a debate about whether trans people have a right to exist in the world”; and had been engaged in “a search for authorization to discriminate against people who identify with a gender that is not their assigned sex, which is profoundly transphobic.” Smith also claimed that Nick was one of those “opponents to trans inclusion [who] intentionally attend workshops … to make use of the question period to derail the concept of transgender inclusion.”

I will invite readers to listen to the entire November 3rd, 2021 exchange between Smith and Nick (a link to which appears above), and decide for themselves whether any part of this is true.  

The good news is that, even to such extent that Smith really was sincerely “offended” and “triggered” by Nick, the evidence suggests that Smith staged an almost immediate emotional recovery: Just moments after addressing Nick’s question, as the workshop was wrapping up, Smith expressed a wish to return to the Office of the Ombudsperson in future years, so as to teach everyone even more advanced techniques for safeguarding trans rights.

“I’m also happy to come back and offer my services in looking at your style guide or considering your internal policies … and give you some best practices,” Smith told the audience. “Often, it’s not a question of having the [D&I Committee] make solution[s]—but rather talking about how to implement them.”

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette