'This practice is evil': Edmonton to ban conversion therapy

The city of Edmonton plans to take steps to ban conversion therapy — the widely discredited practice that tries to change a person's sexual orientation through counselling or religious teaching.    

City councillors agreed to prohibit licensing and promotion of the religious-based practice

Trying to force someone to change their gender or sexual identity is a form of psychological abuse, Edmonton city councillors said Wednesday. (Robert Short/CBC)

Edmonton will soon take steps to ban conversion therapy — the widely discredited practice that tries to change a person's sexual orientation through counselling or religious teaching.   

Council's community and public services committee agreed Wednesday to draft a bylaw to "prohibit licensing, practice and promotion of conversion therapy." 

Mayor Don Iveson said he considers the practice a form of psychological abuse because it's based on the idea that being a LGBTQ2S person is wrong.

"I think there is a fundamental right for Edmontonians and for Canadians to not be subjected to any form of psychological abuse," he said. "It's a violence." 

The motion calls for a $10,000 fine for groups or therapists found using conversion therapy. 

Iveson proposed the motion after several hours of emotionally charged presentations from scholars, therapists, Christian leaders, politicians and citizens. 

Two politicians spoke first at the committee meeting, urging councillors to help ban the practice.

Janis Irwin, MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, also a member of the provincial working group for conversion therapy, said all levels of government have a role in preventing the practice from continuing.

"We know that conversion therapy is wrong, we know that it's abusive," Irwin said.

She said many young people have approached her with stories of forced attempts at conversion that resulted in shaming and psychological damage.

Randy Boissonnault, Liberal MP for Edmonton-Centre, is gay and is pushing the federal government to make the practice a criminal offence.

"It's akin to torture," Boissonnault told the committee. "There's nothing about me that needs to be changed — full stop." 

Not everyone supports the proposed ban. 

Jojo Ruba, who works in various Christian ministries as a youth pastor, said banning conversion therapy is tantamount to attacking religious beliefs about heterosexuality.

He told the committee the debate is a "simple disagreement about whether or not sexual practices should be reserved between husband and wife in marriage."

Ruba argued that banning the practice would interfere with the potential to counsel people.

"I've talked to Christian counsellors who have this chilled effect — they no longer want to talk about these kinds of issues," Ruba said. "They can no longer provide a holistic approach."

Council's community and public services committee listens to speakers support and oppose a ban on conversion therapy at a meeting Wednesday. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Glynnis Lieb, executive director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta, said conversion therapy is not conducted by certified counsellors trying to help someone work through issues and questions. 

"Conversion therapy is trying to change somebody's sexuality or gender identity or orientation through any means possible," Lieb said. "To do that means that you are telling them that how they identify is wrong, flawed in some way." 

Lieb said that can include punishment and forced prayer.

Kris Wells, Canada Research Chair for the public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth, was pleased with council's decision to create a bylaw. 

Earlier in the meeting, he told the committee that the Canadian Psychological Association has debunked the therapy. 

"It's junk science, it's immoral, it's repugnant," Wells said.

He said it's important for the city to take a stand against the practice and be a leader on the issue.

Dr. Kris Wells, front, and Glynnis Lieb, both working in sexual minority studies in Edmonton, told the committee that conversion therapy is a discredited practice. (Peter Evans/CBC)

"It was an emotional day for many to have to sit through who want to deny and hate your very existence under the guise of love," Wells said.

LGBTQ people are not broken, he said.

"They're whole, they're welcome and god loves them for who they are."

Coun. Michael Walters agreed with other councillors and experts that the practice is abusive.

"It is my view that this practice is evil — full stop." 

"It's advanced by a subversion of Christian values, misappropriation by the otherwise good spirit of the Christian heart." 

Council must pass the bylaw for it to go into effect. The next council meeting is Aug. 27. 



Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.