Policy makers are constantly playing a catchup game, where things that were once thought to be equitable and well-suited quickly become outdated. This is particularly true of policies that impact trans people. Woman-first policy proposals implemented from the 20th- to the early 21st-century, which addressed very clear inequities between men and women, are now criticized for reinforcing the gender binary.

The government has acknowledged problems with the gender binary in recent years, and has paid significant lip service to its commitment to modernizing gender and sex data collection practices. For example, StatCan has revised its census to be more inclusive of trans people, and Canadians now have a gender neutral option on passports and other government-issued pieces of ID.

However, one of many issues that remains largely unaddressed is the use of the gender binary in determining pensions for Canadians. Trans-inclusive pension policy has remained a fairly under-discussed topic, likely because of the complexity and its novel nature. I spent almost two years working in pensions, and have witnessed the issues with the current system firsthand. It does a great deal of harm to trans people, impacting their ability to have a secure retirement.

I want to explain why pensions are critical for the well-being of Canadians into their retirement, what the issues with the current system are for trans, non-binary and intersex people, and how they can be fixed.

What Are Pensions And Why Are They Important?

The Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is a social security benefit provided by the federal government. A product of the welfare state, the CPP ensures a secured income for retirees that fulfill the eligible age criteria and have contributed to the program throughout their employment history.

As Taylor Scollon wrote in Passage, the CPP Investment Board manages the funds received by Canadians (for example, through deductions on their paycheques), and, “Their job is to pool those contributions and invest in assets around the world which then grow in value and generate returns, some of which are reinvested and some of which are paid out to CPP recipients.”

Scollon adds, “Canadians get real benefits from these ownership stakes. Thanks in part to returns generated by the Fund, workers retiring in 2050 with 40 years of CPP contributions will enjoy an extra $2,500 each year in retirement benefits. That will jump to an extra $4,000 per year for workers retiring in 2065.”

The CPP can be shaky, with increasing onus being placed on individuals to supplement their pension. Still, in a time of increasing wealth gaps and financial insecurity, the promise of a secure income upon retirement can be both godsent and a survival tool. The majority of Canadians weren’t able to contribute to a registered retirement savings plan in 2020, due in part to pandemic-related financial concerns. Even in pre-pandemic times, nearly one third of Canadians reported having no retirement savings, across all age brackets. The situation is even worse for trans people in Canada, with half earning less than $15,000 per year as of 2011.

As such, it’s no surprise that pensions and benefit packages (for example, where employers match CPP contributions), continue to remain a major sway factor among Canadians on the job hunt. However, the way pensions currently work pose some serious issues for trans people.

The Issues With Pensions For Trans People

Pensions in Canada are a complicated affair. The numbers on pension cheques aren’t arbitrary, nor are they solely tied to how much you may have contributed to your pension plan, contrary to popular belief. On top of salary-related calculations, pensions are the result of meticulous actuarial calculations.

For example, pensions rely on mortality calculations that are divided between binary genders. In other words, pensions rely on comparisons of the lifespans of (presumably cisgender) women vs. the lifespans of (presumably cisgender) men. In Canada, women — a term commonly left undefined in pension literature — are expected to live about four years longer than men (a term facing similar issues of ambiguity). As such, the pension duration allotted for women is longer than that of men. However, lifespan data and its correlation to gender remains shaky.

Medical doctors, public health scholars, sociologists and behavioural psychologists have attributed this difference in lifespan between genders to a wide-reaching set of factors, none of which seem to be separate from one another. For example, hard scientists often point to the significantly higher likelihood of (cisgender) men to die of heart-related troubles as a simple and tragic biological fact. Social scientists, however, attribute it to the greater likelihood of men to eat higher cholesterol foods because of activities often attributed to performing masculinity. Similarly, men are far more likely to die because of violent accidents due to reckless behaviour, and the reason why this is the case remains up for debate.

Gendered actuarial data and its use in policy has triggered more than one controversy over the years. Car insurance, for example, often uses gendered actuarial data to determine its rates: Young men are more likely to drive recklessly, so they’re often charged higher premiums. In 2012, the European Union’s Court of Justice re-assessed this practice, and determined it was “incompatible with the principle of unisex pricing included in EU gender equality legislation.” This practice has also been criticized in Canada, and in 2018 a cisgender man changed his gender in protest of the higher insurance rates he’d been paying. While comical to some, it’s a good example of the serious issues with methodologies that centre sex, and sex only.

The accuracy of pension calculations is especially questionable for trans and non-binary people, as they rely on a person being socialized as the same gender they were assigned at birth and continuing to identify as such throughout their life. Consider this: If a transgender man were to be socialized as a woman throughout the initial three decades of his life, he’d likely experience less of the environmental factors partially responsible for the shorter lifespan of men. That being said, he is a man, and if his documents reflect his gender, he’d receive a pension calculation based on data that simply doesn’t entirely reflect the mortality characteristics relevant to him.

There’s also a binary sex assumption: that one must be assigned either strictly female or male at birth. This ignores the reality that about 1.7 per cent of the population is intersex (Égale, an “organization for 2SLGBTQI people and issues,” makes the poignant note that this is similar to the number of redheads in Canada). Intersex people aren’t born with binary sex characteristics, and despite a common violent practice of non-consensual surgery and/or pharmaceutical therapies to force them into the margins of the gender binary, it’s a mischaracterization to represent them as either exclusively male or female.

Pathways For Future Consideration

The system that was once designed to be able to accurately provide for all elderly people in Canada must reinvent itself in order to meet this goal. There are several different ways this can be done, all of which have their own challenges.

In a February 2020 article, employees of the law firm Gowling WLG make the point that employers should be aware a pension recipient may not have spent their entire pensionable service under one gender and name. They call on employers to not only account for this without error, but also to ensure confidentiality. A trans-specific pension, however, is not the right move. Calculating a pension based on a lifespan that is lower than a cisgender one is practically asking for existing gaps between the financial health of trans and cis communities to widen.

That being said, having a gender-inclusive mortality data collection framework, which doesn’t categorize gender as a binary concept nor as one tied intrinsically and exclusively to sex, would allow for statisticians to collect real and valuable data on the violent outcomes of institutional transphobia in Canada.

Another method would be to use a one catch-all lifespan calculation for Canadians. The difficulty with this option is that cisgender women in Canada do in fact live longer than cisgender men. If a blended calculation were to be used, the lifespan data would come up short when accounting for the lifespans of women, contributing to already-existing gender inequalities in Canadian social security.

An alternative could be using the highest common denominator — the cisgender woman’s average lifespan — as the pension benchmark. It’s easy to anticipate the rebuttal to this option: That’s too much money! But as lifespans continue to increase and gender binaries blur, this option should remain viable. If running out of money is the concern, perhaps a reprioritization exercise on the part of our federal government’s budget is needed.

There isn’t a definite way forward here, but there’s a clear need for a reinvigoration of pensions in Canada that looks beyond the gender and sex binary, and both acknowledges and meaningfully includes trans and intersex people in the methodology. Holding onto methodologies that rely on gender and/or sex binaries will only harm Canada, and, eventually, pensioners.