The federal government tabled a new, tougher bill Monday to ban conversion therapy in Canada, comparing the practice to “torture.”
The legislation, if passed, would make practices designed to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity illegal.
It beefs up a previous bill which only banned conversion therapy for children and unconsenting adults.
This latest government attempt to clamp down on the practices would outlaw conversion therapy for adults and children alike, and make it illegal to take children outside Canada to undergo such interventions.
Conversion therapy procedures aim to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or to change their gender expression to match the sex they were assigned at birth.
At a press conference Monday, Justice Minister David Lametti said the practices were “horrific” and tantamount to “torture.” After studying new evidence of the effect of conversion therapy and hearing from people who have experienced it, ministers decided to strengthen the bill.
“The bill would ban conversion therapy because it is dangerous for everyone,” Lametti said. “These dangerous practices must end.”
Lametti urged around 60 Conservative MPs who opposed a previous version of the bill to support the new one so it could move through Parliament “as quickly as possible.”
He called on Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who supports a ban on conversion therapy, to “show leadership” and help speed it through the legislative process.
Said Conservative spokeswoman Josie Sabatino: “Canada’s Conservatives agree that conversion therapy is wrong and should be banned. No Canadian should be forced to change who they are.”
The Bloc Quebecois, NDP and Greens also support the measure.
Lametti reassured critics the bill would not ban conversations about gender expression or gender identity.
It proposes four new Criminal Code offences, including “causing another person to undergo conversion therapy” and “removing a minor from Canada to subject them to conversion therapy abroad” carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The offences of “profiting from providing conversion therapy” or “advertising or promoting conversion therapy” would carry a penalty of up to two years in prison.
Lametti said the “so-called therapies may amount to torture” and that the suicide rates of those subjected to conversion therapy were particularly high. He cited a UN special report that said conversion therapy should be banned worldwide.
Gender Equality and Youth Minister Marci Ien said conversion therapy was “a long discredited and horrific act” that “could take many forms.”
Research shows that people subjected to conversion therapy have a heightened risk of self harm, suicide and low self esteem, she said, adding that most of those taking part were under age 25.
She said it was the government’s duty to respond to calls for action from people like Gemma Hickey, an LGBTQ activist who attempted suicide after undergoing conversion therapy as a teenager.
Speaking at the press conference, Hickey said it was a “pseudo-medical practice” that had placed “countless vulnerable youth in harm’s way.”
Hickey said they were “proud to be transgender” adding that conversion therapy was “homophobic and transphobic and did not belong in Canada.”
Randy Boissonnault, minister of tourism and former adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on LGBTQ2 issues, said about 20,000 gay men in Canada had been subjected to conversion therapy. He said the ban had been tabled to “protect our communities.”
But he warned that opponents of the bill would work hard to stop it becoming law, saying Tories had used “dark tactics” in debates about a previous version of the bill and “would try to scare Canadians again.”
“They will say this bill harms religious freedoms — it does not. They will say this bill harms freedom of expression — it will not,” Boissonnault said. “Our bill does not criminalize a personal value or belief.”
The last bill fell short of becoming law, failing to get through the Senate before the federal election in September. It died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved ahead of the vote.
Like the last bill, this version authorizes courts to order the seizure of conversion therapy advertisements or to order their removal from computer systems or the Internet.
The government says active interventions aimed at conversion, not loose discussions with no intent in mind, would come within the scope of the bill.
Florence Ashley of the University of Toronto’s law faculty said the bill set a high bar when it came to proving what conversion therapy is, and that it would not lead to bans on conversations about sexual orientation or preaching in church.
They said to fall within the scope of the ban a practice would have to be intentionally designed to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The critical part is the intentional element. It has to be designed for that purpose, which is far from having a conversation or being generally homophobic or transphobic,” they said. “There is a threshold that it has to be …. a practice, treatment or service.”
But Ashley, who has written a book about the legal aspects of conversion therapy, predicted that proving conversion therapy has happened would be hard.
The RCMP would be able to gather private communications, such as emails, to help prove that it had happened, the government said.
—Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press