Federal Liberals introduce bill aimed at cracking down on conversion therapy
OTTAWA — Justice Minister David Lametti has added another bill to the government’s agenda, tabling new amendments to the Criminal Code, to crack down on the practice of conversion therapy in Canada.
The legislation — a campaign promise and evolution on the government’s position last parliament — is proposing to prohibit unwanted religious counselling seeking to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual; gender identity to cisgender; or reduce non-heterosexual behaviour, nationwide.
The 11-page bill proposes five new Criminal Code offences, but leaves the door open to allowing adults who willingly want to pursue what has also been called reparative therapy, to seek that assistance. But that remains possible only under limited circumstances.
What the government is looking to make a crime:
- causing a minor to undergo conversion therapy;
- removing a minor from Canada to undergo conversion therapy abroad;
- causing a person to undergo conversion therapy against their will;
- profiting from providing conversion therapy; and
- advertising an offer to provide conversion therapy.
Bill C-8, as it’s been titled, would also allow courts to seize conversion therapy promotional material and order it removed from the internet, though it also presents the same restrictions on matters “alleged to be obscene, child pornography, a voyeuristic recording, an intimate image, an advertisement of sexual services.”
Based on the proposed changes the government has put forward, the maximum punishment would be five years in prison for some offences, and up to two years in prison for others.
The practice has been widely discredited and disparaged by several health and human rights groups, but these therapies are believed to still be offered in Canada.
Lametti and Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger made an announcement about the bill on Monday afternoon.
In announcing the bill, backed by several LGBTQ community members and MPs, Lametti called the proposed legislated ban the “most progressive and comprehensive in the world,” and referenced how the discriminatory practice has led to life-long trauma for Canadians.
“Conversion therapy is premised on a lie, that being homosexual, lesbian, bisexual or trans is wrong and in need of fixing. Not only is that false, it sends a demeaning and a degrading message that undermines the dignity of individuals,” Lametti said.
Though, the government is specifying that the new offences “would not apply to those who provide support to persons questioning their sexual orientation, sexual feelings or gender identity,” such as teachers or school counsellors, pastoral or faith leaders, doctors or mental health professionals, and friends or family members.”
As well, the bill clarifies that the new measures are not meant to “include a practice, treatment or service that relates to a person’s gender transition; or to a person’s exploration of their identity or to its development.”
When asked about these exclusions, Lametti said that a “legitimate conversation with an open end in helping someone to explore their sexuality” is not covered by this legislation, saying that “those kinds conversations are absolutely necessary as people move forward in life.”
Asked about why the legislation allows for adults to still willingly pursue this activity, Lametti said that the government “felt that a competent adult could conceivably defend the right in a court to consent to this kind of activity and we felt that we couldn’t move ahead with that, in that case scenario, simply because the Charter of Rights.”
The pair of ministers were mandated to move forward with a ban on conversion therapy, after Trudeau promised action on eradicating the “harmful and scientifically disproven practice,” during the 2019 fall federal election campaign.
In addition to the bill, the government will be taking additional steps in line with the provinces and municipalities given the span of jurisdictions and potential enforcement requirements, such as bylaw changes.
Some provinces and municipalities in Canada already have measures in place, such as specifying that conversion therapy is not an insured health service, and indicating that they expect health professionals to ensure that conversion therapy is not practiced in their jurisdiction.
Before coming out with the promised ban during the campaign, the Liberal’s position had been that health regulations are a provincial and territorial responsibility and implored the provinces to take this initiative on.
Currently, some offences like kidnapping, forcible confinement, assault or even fraud may apply to those conducting conversion sessions, but the government has indicated that the Criminal Code as it stands could go further to explicitly deter and punish those who engage in this practice.
LGBTQ community reaction
Appearing alongside Lametti and Chagger, conversion therapy survivor Erika Muse delivered an emotional reaction to the legislation, saying that she lives with the damage of conversion therapy daily. She questioned whether the bill as drafted will help people in all circumstances.
“I can’t say that this is a ban that would make me safe,” she said, encouraging parliamentarians to make changes to the bill.
Asked about her comments, in an interview on CTV’s Power Play, Chagger said that the conversation is just beginning, and that there’s time to “work on” the legislation.
In a statement ahead of the details of the bill being known, The Trevor Project — a U.S.-based suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth — said it’s proud of the Canadian government for moving to end the practice.
The organization is advancing an initiative aimed at ending conversion therapy in the United States, while similar initiatives to stop the practice are underway in Germany, Mexico and Chile.
“This legislation will save countless LGBTQ young lives,” said The Trevor Project’s Troy Stevenson. Based on a national survey the organization conducted in 2019 in the U.S., LGBTQ youth who experienced conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide.
“Countries across the world are taking active steps to address the devastating harms caused by conversion therapy,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in a statement.
‘No doubt’ conversion therapy happens
A now-retired Senator, Serge Joyal has already introduced a bill in this Parliament, aimed at cracking down on the practice. His proposal, in Bill S-202 was to make it an offence to advertise conversion therapy services and to obtain financial or other material benefits from providing conversion therapy to anyone under the age of 18.
In a previous interview with CTVNews.ca Joyal said that he wanted to get the ball rolling and push the government to “stand by their electoral platform commitment,” and would be happy to have his proposal — now being spearheaded by Independent Sen. Rene Cormier — to be superseded by a government bill.
“There is no doubt that the practice is still in existence in Canada. It’s not visible, it’s like a submarine. It’s below the water level. But everyone knows that it’s there,” Joyal said.
According to a report published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, in Canada more than 20,000 LGBTQ and two-spirit Canadians have been exposed to conversion therapy treatments or other efforts aimed at repressing or changing their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
Conversion therapy is opposed by several health and human rights groups including the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization, which in 2012 said that these conversion programs “lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.”
The Canadian Psychological Association also opposes conversion therapy as it is “based on the assumption that LGBTQ identities indicate a mental disorder,” and “can result in negative outcomes, such as distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction.”