How teens made Yukon one of the few places in Canada to ban conversion therapy

Two years of hard work by a group of high school students in Yukon paid off this week when the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Protection Act received assent and is now in force after a unanimous vote in support of the bill.

High schoolers lobbied, protested for 2 years against practice that aims to change sexual orientation

Taiga Troy, a recent graduate of Porter Creek Secondary School in Whitehorse, was one of several students who worked to have conversion therapy banned in Yukon. Troy says the push by students to ban the practice wasn't for their own benefit but to protect future generations of children in the LGBTQ+ community. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

Two years ago, Whitehorse resident Aidan Falkenberg was in Grade 11 when they found out conversion therapy was still legal in Canada.

They were with a friend, Mercedes Bacon-Traplin, when the two decided to Google what year the practice was banned in Canada. 

The discredited practice aims to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity through counselling, behaviour modification or medication. It has been declared scientifically unsound and harmful to those subjected to it by a number of professional medical associations.

"We kind of went into shock a little bit," said Falkenberg. "It had only been protected against in a couple of cities, a couple provinces, and the Yukon wasn't one of them. Which really broke our hearts."

The pair went straight down to the Gender Sexuality Alliance at F.H. Collins Secondary School and got to work. They researched the topic, spoke with the media and reached out to local politicians.

Aidan Falkenberg was one of two students from F.H. Collins Secondary School who first took the issue on and started lobbying politicians. The other was Mercedes Bacon-Traplin, who says while there is still work to be done, the recent passing of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Protection Act shows government will be on their side as they push for further changes. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

Lobbying, raising awareness, petitioning

Falkenberg and Bacon-Traplin met with students from another high school in town, Porter Creek Secondary, and joined forces.

The students wrote up a petition that highlighted how widely denounced the practice is, including by organizations such as the Canadian Psychological Association, the World Health Organization and others.

Students, teachers and NDP Leader Kate White carry petition forms at Porter Creek Secondary's Rainbow Room in March 2019. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The petition asked for the Yukon government to ban conversion therapy for youth in the territory. 

The students handed it out to community members and local businesses — eventually getting 401 signatures.

'Politics don't move quickly'

But it still took months for the students to see any action from the territorial government.

The issue was first added to a public survey from the Yukon government, in which 75 per cent of all respondents indicated the legislation was "extremely or very important."

"It got really frustrating because we realized just how long of a process it could be. Because politics don't move quickly, apparently. At all," said Falkenberg.

White, front, worked closely with the students over the past year to help make their dreams of banning conversion therapy in the territory a reality. (Submitted by Jason Cook)

Another barrier the students faced was not always being taken seriously by politicians, said Grade 12 student Rylee Reed. 

NDP Leader Kate White was one of the exceptions, said Reed, and helped see them through the process from the very beginning.

"It felt like I was talking to somebody who would tell me things, as opposed to beating around the bush and just assuming that I don't know anything," said Reed.

White said it has been incredible to see a "100 per cent young-person-driven" process over the years. The issue wasn't even on the government's radar before the students brought it to them, she said.

"Young people are out there and they're driving these kinds of changes. I think if politicians nationally don't realize that then they should probably wake up," said White.

Jason Cook is one of the educators who supported the students in their journey, and says they had full support from the school and principal Peter Giangrande, who helped them establish their Rainbow Room. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

'A group of kids did something super powerful'

On the first day of the fall sitting in 2019, the students rallied outside of the legislature with signs that said "178" — marking the number of days it had been since they dropped off their petitions.

That day, during the speech from the throne, Yukon's Liberal government announced that conversion therapy would eventually be banned.

That goal came to fruition last week — the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Protection Act (Bill No. 9) passed with a unanimous vote, and is now in force after receiving assent.

Yukon follows Ontario, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. in enacting similar legislation banning health-care professionals from providing the so-called treatment to minors, unless they are capable of consenting. 

Jason Cook, the Gender and Sexuality Alliance leader at Porter Creek Secondary school, took a group of students to see history being made at the legislature last Monday. 

"It was emotional." 

"To know that this is something that a group of kids accomplished. You never hear that happening. A group of kids did something super powerful. It was a really special moment."

Cook said as an LGBTQ+ educator it has been heartwarming to see the students work to pass this legislation to protect future generations of youth in the community.

Students pose with flags outside of Porter Creek Secondary in Whitehorse. A campaign against conversion therapy was organized in part through the school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Taiga Troy graduated this summer from Porter Creek, and said before this they hadn't heard of young people making such a big change in the territory.

"It only takes like a grain of sand to make a huge ripple. Just being young, as students, it was great to see that we actually had an impact on our community."

Troy hopes this opens up more lines of communication between adults and teenagers.

"Most of the time we're going through a lot of things and we're not acknowledged as much. So it's great to know that we have people that are here and around us to support us now."

Molly Hobbis is in Grade 10 at Porter Creek Secondary School. She wants to help get conversion therapy banned on a national level. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

The first step of many

But many students say this is only the first step of many that need to be taken, on territorial and national levels.

Conversion therapy is still legal in Canada. Last month, the federal Liberals reintroduced a bill that would nationally ban the practice on minors.

Molly Hobbis is in Grade 10 at Porter Creek and has been backing the movement since her first year in high school. She wants to keep the ball rolling.

"I want to help make the change that should have happened a very long time ago. I want to help with the rest of Canada banning conversion therapy, maybe the rest of the world. 

"I don't know if I can do that. But I'll try."

Troy jumps for joy as Molly Hobbis points to the bisexual flag. NDP Leader Kate White said in the legislature Monday that she has seen the students grow their 'rainbow wings' over the past two years. (Danielle d'Entremont/ CBC )