Senate rises for summer with conversion therapy ban, broadcasting reforms left in limbo

Canada's Senate rose for its summer break late Tuesday after members of the upper house pushed through two key pieces of government legislation but left two other bills behind — including the proposed ban on so-called conversion therapy and a controversial plan to overhaul the Broadcasting Act.

Tories say conversion therapy bill 'overly broad and ambiguous,' broadcasting reforms a threat to free speech

Rows of chairs and desks are shown in Canada's Senate chamber.
Canada's Senate rose for its summer break on Tuesday, but two key pieces of government legislation failed to make it through in time. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's Senate rose for its summer break late Tuesday after members of the upper house pushed through two key pieces of government legislation but left two other bills behind — including the proposed ban on so-called conversion therapy and a controversial plan to overhaul the Broadcasting Act.

Senators passed C-12, the government's "climate accountability" legislation, which would force current and future federal governments to set binding climate targets to get Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The upper house passed it on a vote of 60-19, with two abstentions. All Conservative senators voted against the bill.

Senators also gave the green light to the multi-billion-dollar federal budget that Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled in April, clearing the way for some pandemic-related programs to continue until the fall as the pandemic drags on.

But the government wanted at least four of its "priority" bills passed before Parliament wrapped up the last sitting ahead of what many predict will be a fall election campaign. It fell short on the conversion therapy ban and C-10, a bill designed to make online streamers contribute more to Canada's cultural landscape — which has been attacked by Conservatives as an attack on free speech.

If an election is called, these bills would die on the order paper. A future government would need to table them again in another parliamentary session to restart the legislative process.

"I am absolutely thrilled, euphoric, delighted and I will even say relieved that the budget bill has now been passed. There are measures that are just essential for our country to finish the fight against COVID-19 and to have a strong and fast and robust economic recovery," Freeland said at a press conference today.

'I am disappointed'

She said most of the COVID-19 support programs will continue in some form until the fall — they can be extended up until November, if necessary. Freeland said work is underway now on standing up the signature item of the 2021 budget — a plan to introduce a low-cost national child care program by the middle of this decade.

"We are extremely, extremely focused on this," she said.

But Freeland said she was sorry to see the conversion therapy ban bill stall in the Senate.

"That's the one thing I've been thinking a lot about. I am disappointed — that may be too weak a word — that the Senate didn't see fit to get this one done," she said. "This is just something that would really help Canadians and not doing it really hurts a lot of people."

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

C-6, the conversion therapy ban bill, which would criminalize the dangerous practice of trying to forcibly "convert" LGBTQ people to heterosexuality, passed the Commons last week despite entrenched opposition from some social conservatives.

More than half the Conservative caucus voted against the bill in the Commons; some Conservative MPs said they were worried the legislation would outlaw conversations between adolescents and religious leaders and therapists, despite government assurances that that was not the intent.

The Liberals maintain any practice designed to forcibly "convert" LGBTQ people is barbarous and must be banned.

Senators said they shouldn't be expected to pass a bill like this so quickly after receiving it from the Commons, as it left members of the upper house little time to do their due diligence.

'It needs to be banned'

Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett said he was "very supportive of a well-defined ban on coercive conversion therapy," saying the practice is "unconditionally wrong, and it needs to be banned."

But he said many of the provinces already have banned this sort of pseudoscience and the federal bill is just an attempt at "crass political manoeuvring" to "make it a wedge issue." He said the language in the bill was "overly broad and ambiguous."

A man wearing glasses is shown in a shirt and tie.
Conservative Sen. Don Plett of Manitoba said the language in Bill C-6, which seeks to ban so-called gay conversion therapy, is 'overly broad and ambiguous.' (Chris Rands/CBC)

"The bill before us today may be well-intentioned, and Conservatives support it in principle. Abusive or coercive conversion therapy should be banned, but the bill has significant problems that must be addressed," Plett said before voting to send the legislation to the legal affairs committee for further study sometime later this year.

The conversion therapy debate is bound to be an issue in the next election campaign. The Liberals are already signalling they're intent on painting the Conservatives as backwards and out of step on social issues.

Shortly after senators finished Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a fundraising letter to party supporters accusing the Tories of trying to "delay or block with every tool at their disposal" this "progressive" legislation to protect some members of the LGBTQ community.

The Tories also are fiercely opposed to Bill C-10, legislation the government says is meant to make digital streaming services pay for the creation, production and promotion of Canadian content.

Bill C-10 would make online streaming platforms that operate in Canada — like Netflix, Spotify, Crave and Amazon Prime — subject to the Broadcasting Act, allowing the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to impose regulations on them.

'It needs a stake through the heart'

The Conservatives maintain the legislation is too heavy-handed and threatens Canadians' rights and freedoms, because it would also give the CRTC the power to regulate posts that millions of Canadians upload every day to social media platforms.

Sen. David Richards, a Canadian novelist who was appointed as an Independent senator by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017 and now sits as a member of the conservative-leaning Canadian Senators Group (CSG), told the Senate Tuesday that C-10 raises serious freedom-of-speech concerns.

"I will always and forever stand against any bill that subjects freedom of expression to the doldrums of governmental oversight," he said. "And I implore others to do the same. Because I don't think this bill needs amendment. I think, however, it needs a stake through the heart."

Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos said Monday the Red Chamber would not rush its study despite the government's pleas to pass it quickly. While the legislation, on its face, may seem like a reasonable attempt to modernize decades-old regulations and an outdated Broadcasting Act, Housakos said, there are other "consequences" to giving the CRTC control over some aspects of the internet.

"The core problem with this bill is that it takes the regulatory tools designated for a small, fixed number of licensed TV and radio stations in the 1990s and attempts to apply it to the vast universe of the internet in the 2020s," Housakos said.

"In doing so, it gives the CRTC an unprecedented delegation of power with no clear framework or definitions as to how it will be used," he said. "We have a government which, by its own admission in December, wants to go after individual websites, podcasts, audiobooks, sports streaming services, PlayStation games, home workout apps and even adult websites.

"This lack of clear limits on what can be regulated is a fundamental problem with this bill."

If there isn't an election in the interim, the Senate and its committees are expected to return sometime during the week of Sept. 21.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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