Politics

Proposal to ban conversion therapy in jeopardy after bill hits a roadblock in the Senate

Legislation that would make conversion therapy illegal in Canada has stalled in the Senate as the chamber begins a months-long summer break.

Bill C-6 would, among other things, make it illegal to subject children to conversion therapy

Ben Rodgers says he was referred for conversion therapy by his church when he was 19 years old. "I was a kid. I was hurting and I wanted to be valued," he said. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

Legislation that would make conversion therapy illegal in Canada has stalled in the Senate as the chamber begins a months-long summer break.

The delay means the legislation is at risk of being wiped out entirely should Parliament be dissolved ahead of a widely anticipated fall election.

"We've been communicating with senators, stressing that this is an issue of life and death," said Nicholas Schiavo, founder of the advocacy group No Conversion Canada.

"Conversion therapy is a confirmed form of torture. And so there's no time to waste when it comes to protecting Canadians."

The legislation, Bill C-6, proposes changes to the Criminal Code that would effectively outlaw conversion therapy — the widely discredited practice of attempting to change an individual's sexual orientation to heterosexual or their gender identity to cisgender (which means identifying with the sex assigned to them at birth).

It employs various approaches, from talk therapy and medication to aversion therapy — which attempts to condition a person's behaviour by causing them discomfort through things like electric shocks when they're exposed to specific stimuli.

An expert at the United Nation Human Rights Council said in 2020 that conversion therapy can amount to torture in some instances. The UN report notes that the practice can inflict severe pain and suffering and has no scientific basis.

Bill C-6 would make it illegal in Canada to subject a person to conversion therapy without their consent and make it illegal to subject children to the practice, regardless of consent.

WATCH: Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc called on the Senate to quickly adopt Bill C-6

Frustration rises now that Bill C-6 may not receive royal assent before the Senate breaks for summer

3 months ago
1:29
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominique Leblanc says he and the Liberal Party will support pushing the bill into law before the Senate breaks for summer holidays. The legislation would criminalize conversion therapy. 1:29

"If you are a young person and you see this become law, it sends a very clear message that who you are, who you love or how you express yourself is valid and it is protected under law," Schiavo said.

The Trudeau government tabled the bill in the House of Commons in October 2020. It was adopted on third reading earlier this month, despite strong resistance from some Conservative MPs.

It reached second reading in the Senate on Monday before being referred to the committee on legal and constitutional affairs. The Senate is not scheduled to return until September 20 at the earliest.

'I wanted to do what I thought was right'

Survivors of conversion therapy say an updated law could help protect young people from being subjected to a harmful and traumatic experience.

"If this legislation would have come out back then, I would have thought there was hope," said Ben Rodgers of Belleville, Ont., who was recommended for conversion therapy by his church around 2003, when he was 19 years old.

Rodgers said the attempts to re-program his sexuality included a pastor and counsellors "screaming and yelling" at him in tongues and three days of fasting.

Nicholas Schiavo of No Conversion Canada has lobbied the Senate to adopt the bill. (CBC)

"I wanted to do what I thought was right," Rodgers told CBC News.

He said he was told by his church that the therapy would rid him of "demons of lust and homosexuality," which were said to have taken hold of him after he was sexually abused as a child.

"It was the teachings of a hateful people, of a hateful church, that was just simply telling me I had to do it," Rodgers said.

Some Conservatives say bill is too vague

Of the 63 MPs who voted against the bill at the House of Commons, 62 are Conservatives. The other, MP Derek Sloan, was elected as a Conservative before party leader Erin O'Toole expelled him from caucus in January.

Fifty-one Conservative MPs, including O'Toole, voted in favour of the bill.

Those opposed to the legislation have said the bill does not adequately define conversion therapy, meaning it risks banning "voluntary conversations" about sexuality.

The Liberal government has accused the Conservatives of delaying what they describe as a crucial piece of legislation to protect LGBTQ Canadians.

O'Toole, meanwhile, describes the timing of the bill's reintroduction as a cynical political ploy by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Bill C-6, first announced in March 2020, has had a slow path through Parliament in part because of the Liberals' decision to prorogue in August 2020, which erased the bill from the House of Commons agenda.

"Mr. Trudeau preferred to try to play politics with this. That's why it's in the dying days of this session," O'Toole said.

"Mr. Trudeau will have to answer for whether the bill gets through the Senate or not before he chooses to call an election."

On Tuesday, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc urged the Senate to speedily approve the bill so it can receive royal assent.

"We certainly hope the Conservatives in the Senate aren't going to frustrate the clear will of the majority of elected representatives in the House of Commons," he said.

With files from Travis Dhanraj and The Canadian Press

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