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People walk on a Pride flag crosswalk in Calgary on Aug. 18, 2019.

Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Calgary’s city council voted overwhelmingly on Monday to ban conversion therapy, becoming the latest jurisdiction in Canada to prohibit the practice as Parliament considers national legislation.

The city defined conversion therapy as any attempt to modify a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

The ban was passed as part of the city’s Prohibited Businesses Bylaw, making it illegal for businesses to advertise or provide conversion therapy to anyone. Violations carry a fine of up to $10,000 or up to a year in jail. The vote was 14-1

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Experts have condemned conversion therapy as a pseudo-scientific practice that inflicts psychological harm on LGBTQ communities and say Calgary’s ban is among the most wide-reaching in both Canada and around the world.

“Many people consider conversion therapy to be a form of psychological torture,” said Kristopher Wells, who teaches at MacEwan University in Edmonton and studies sexual and gender minority youth.

Dr. Wells praised the strength of Calgary’s bylaw.

“It doesn’t allow for any exception,” said Dr. Wells. “This is the kind of legislation that can save people’s lives.”

Dr. Wells said that the best approach is to have conversion therapy prohibition legislation at each level of government, noting that provincial laws in place elsewhere only address minors. The municipal-level legislation applies to people of any age.

Several proposed amendments, including one that would allow consenting adults to seek conversion therapy if they desired, were voted down. Counc. Joe Magliocca initially supported the bylaw but changed his vote on subsequent readings after an amendment to align the definition of conversion therapy with the federal legislation failed.

The federal Liberals promised to ban conversion therapy during last fall’s federal election and tabled legislation in March.

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Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba have passed legislation banning conversion therapies.

In Alberta, local governments have been passing bylaws that ban the practice over the past year. It was banned in Strathcona County, Edmonton and St. Albert in 2019. This year, Fort McMurray, Rocky Mountain House and Spruce Grove followed suit.

The Alberta government has rejected calls to implement its own ban, arguing that the practice is already effectively banned by the province’s medical regulators. Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer has condemned conversion therapy and said his government would be open to a federal ban.

The Calgary bylaw noted the practice of conversion therapy was opposed by the Canadian Psychological Association and the College of Alberta Psychologists. Historically, conversion attempts have included subjecting victims to electric shock. Modern practices can include extreme fasting, exorcism, talk therapy and aversion therapy.

Roughly 20 per cent of Canadian men who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited or queer have experienced conversion therapy, according to interim survey results from Vancouver’s Community-Based Research Centre.

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said that ensuring that people who are LGBTQ are able to live lives of dignity is the biggest civil rights challenge of our time.

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“There are forces out there of anger and hatred that our gender and sexually diverse brothers and sisters have to deal with every single day,” said Mr. Nenshi. The mayor said that by passing this bylaw, the city was standing up for human dignity. “In this job, sometimes, we get to just do what’s right.”

Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra said he hoped the city bylaw would serve as an example for the federal government.

“What we’ve done is we’ve defined conversion therapy in a way that we can act on it within the context of our regulatory reach, which is business licensing,” he said.

The Opposition NDP, which has been calling for the provincial United Conservative government to implement a ban, welcomed the news out of Calgary.

“Today’s decision by Calgary City Council recognizes the advice of community organizations, experts, and advocates, but most importantly, the brave and often heartbreaking testimonies of survivors,” Janis Irwin, Alberta NDP critic for women and LGBTQ2S+ issues, said in a statement.

Edmonton’s management director of complaints and investigations, Keith Scott, said the city had not received any complaints or conducted any formal investigations into potential cases of conversion therapy since city council there introduced a ban last December.

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Mr. Scott said, “with the infrequency of this type of complaint it would obviously be prioritized.”

Some religious leaders have argued that such bans infringe on their religious freedoms.

In Calgary, 44 faith leaders released a letter last week that told council any assertion that the proposed bylaw attacks religious freedom is “hyperbolic and false.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the bylaw passed unanimously. In fact, it passed 14-1 after a councillor who initially supported the motion voted against it on final reading.

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