Yukon MLAs vote to ban conversion therapy, helping students' campaign get closer to law

A new bill in Yukon seeks to protect young and vulnerable people from abuse in the form of conversion therapy. The measure comes after a campaign from young people in Whitehorse.

A second reading to ban conversion therapy passed unanimously in Yukon's legislature

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)

As a Yukon bill that looks to ban conversion therapy moves ahead, advocates and politicians are giving credit to high school students for bringing the issue forward.

In 2019, Yukon students organized a campaign including a petition which called on the territory to prohibit conversion therapy.

The students' efforts were organized in part through the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at Porter Creek Secondary School in Whitehorse.

A new bill introduced by the Yukon Liberals, the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Protection Act, would ban the practice of conversion therapy for minors or people with a court-appointed guardian.

Yukon's Minister responsible for Women's Directorate Jeanie McLean credits the student campaign for bringing the issue forward.

'It was great to have people hear our voice,' says Porter Creek Secondary graduate Taiga Troy. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"I hold my hands up to the high school students who are talking about and taking action on issues that concern them. It was their petition to ban conversion therapy that first raised this issue to our government," she wrote to CBC.

McLean said a public consultation survey on the issue saw more than 90 per cent of respondents list a ban on conversion therapy as extremely or very important.

"We heard loud and clear this is a priority for the LGBTQ2S+ community and their allies," she wrote.

On second reading, the act received unanimous vote in favour in Yukon's Legislative Assembly last week. A third and final reading is expected soon.

"It's good to know we have at least some sort of power to change something. As teenagers we don't typically have a lot of power so it's nice to know we can at least change something," said Annabelle MacLeod, in Grade 9 at Porter Creek Secondary. 

Conversion therapy is a widely-discredited practice of trying to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity through counselling, behaviour modification or medication.

Yukon is not alone in creating such legislation. There are now six provinces and territories with such legislation passed or in process. Some cities like Edmonton have also passed resolutions banning the practice.

A national bill with similar goals has also been brought forward by the federal Liberals. 

What's called the 'Rainbow Room' at Porter Creek Secondary in Whitehorse is decorated with images of inspirational or historic figures in the LGBTQ community. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Students campaigned, got 401 signatures on petition

Jason Cook, an educational assistant who leads the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at Porter Creek Secondary, says the process has been a lesson in civic engagement.

He's proud of what students achieved over two years.

"They went out into the community, they got signatures, they presented it to the legislature, they went to other schools, they protested, they stayed on top of it," he said. 

"None of us, including myself, had ever fought to get a law passed anywhere. These kids have learned about the political process, they've learned to ask questions and seek allies where necessary," he said.  

Taiga Troy was one of the original campaigners, who has now graduated from Porter Creek Secondary. 

"We were really happy. It was great to have people hear our voice," he said.

'As teenagers we don't typically have a lot of power so it's nice to know we can at least change something,' said Annabelle MacLeod, in Grade 9 at Porter Creek Secondary. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Legislation an 'important first step' says advocate

Joe Wickenhauser, who is executive director of the Yukon Pride Centre says the issue of conversion therapy is immensely important. 

He said he'd like to see even greater protection enshrined in law, such as seeing the practice banned for adults and a ban on advertisement or referral to conversion therapy. 

Nevertheless, he calls the legislation a good start. 

"I was really excited to see those young students being heard by MLAs and for that feedback to be put into action," he said. "And I think the legislation is an important first step in the right direction."

Unanimous vote in legislative assembly

Currie Dixon, leader of Yukon's official opposition, thanked high school students for getting involved.

"I think it's a wonderful example of a citizens' initiative coming forward to the legislature through a petition and ultimately making a real difference in the territory," he said.

"So I want to commend the Gender and Sexuality Alliance form Porter Creek Secondary School for the work that they did bringing forward the petition, championing it and getting support form legislators."

Cook says the students are turning their attention next to other schools. They are pushing for more inclusion and support for LGBTQ students at the school level, and want to see more spaces like the 'Rainbow Room' in Yukon schools.