Ottawa looking at Criminal Code reforms to deter 'shameful' conversion therapy

The federal government is calling on all provincial governments to stop conversion therapy while it considers changes to the Criminal Code to block the practice.

Liberal government says it's 'committed to doing everything within its jurisdiction' to stop the practice

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a Pride flag-raising ceremony alongside MP Randy Boissonnault on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 20, 2018. The federal government is reviewing possible reforms to the Criminal Code to address conversion therapy. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

The federal government is calling on all provincial governments to stop conversion therapy while it considers changes to the Criminal Code to block the practice.

"The federal government is committed to doing everything within its jurisdiction to combat conversion therapy," reads a letter from two Liberal cabinet members and an Alberta MP to Alberta's Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer.

"The provincial, territorial, municipal and federal governments all have roles to play to protect Canadians from the harms associated with this practice."

The June letter, recently obtained by CBC News, asks Schweitzer to take immediate action to "end the shameful practice." It's signed by federal Justice Minister David Lametti, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor and Edmonton Centre MP Randy Boissonnault, special adviser on LGBT issues to the prime minister.

Conversion therapy — a practice the Canadian Psychological Association opposes — tries to change people's sexual orientation, gender identity or expression through counselling, medication or religious observances.

Activists say conversion therapy often happens informally in churches and on a one-on-one basis rather than through more organized groups. It's not clear how prevalent it is in Canada.

Alberta has been embroiled in a heated debate about the controversial practice.

On Monday, the Alberta city of St. Albert moved toward banning conversion therapy. City staff can now begin drafting amendments to land-use and business licensing bylaws to effectively ban the practice. The amendments would block businesses from obtaining a licence if they perform conversion therapy, while those caught advertising or offering those services to minors could be fined $10,000.

St. Albert's actions come a month after Alberta's United Conservative government disbanded a working group set up by the former NDP government to find a provincial response to the issue.

Some provinces already have restrictions

The federal letter says existing Criminal Code offences — such as kidnapping, forcible confinement and assault — may apply in cases where a person is forced to undergo conversion therapy; fraud law could apply if fees are charged for the service, since conversion therapy has been discredited by medical and psychological associations.

But the federal government is now looking at Criminal Code reforms to "better prevent, punish, and deter this discredited and dangerous practice."

The move to tweak Canadian law comes after the federal government rejected a petition calling for a national ban. In March, the government said "conversion therapies are immoral, painful and do not reflect the values of our government or those of Canadians."

Ottawa also stated that the governance of conversion therapy is largely a provincial and territorial issue, since it's sometimes carried out by members of the health profession.

Canada doesn't have a national ban on conversion therapy, but Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island all have restrictions on the practice.

British Columbia has introduced legislation to prohibit conversion therapy.

In 2012, the World Health Organization issued a statement saying conversion therapy poses a "severe threat to the health and human rights of the affected persons."

With files from the CBC's Catharine Tunney


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