Provinces that have had bans on conversion therapy for several years have yet to prosecute any cases under those laws, which experts say underscores the difficulty in targeting a practice that often happens in secret.
In Alberta, which does not have a provincial ban, several municipalities including Edmonton and Calgary recently passed their own bans on conversion therapy, which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation through counselling and other methods. Parliament is currently considering legislation to prohibit the practice across the country.
Officials in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba say they have yet to conduct any investigations or prosecutions related to the practice. Prince Edward Island also has a ban but did not respond to requests for information about enforcement.
Kristopher Wells, a professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton who has frequently spoken in favour of conversion therapy bans, said the lack of enforcement does not mean such legislation is ineffective or unneeded.
“We can’t say that hate crime laws are not working,” said Dr. Wells, who holds a Canada Research Chair and studies sexual and gender minority youth. “It’s a lot deeper than that.”
Dr. Wells said that conversion therapy is difficult to prosecute because of the secretive nature of many of the groups providing it, and often goes unreported. Survivors aren’t always aware of the laws surrounding these practices or the mechanisms to report it.
In order to effectively prosecute, Dr. Wells said that it is crucial to have legislation at all levels of government. “There will be a powerful reckoning that occurs as more people become aware, as more levels of government take action,” he said.
Dr. Wells said that legislation serves as a powerful deterrent mechanism to potential conversion therapy providers, as well as an affirmative support to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. “It speaks to the kinds of communities that you want to create [that are] are free from harmful and abusive practices.”
Ontario passed legislation in 2015 that banned minors from being subjected to conversion therapy in health care settings and disqualified the practice from the list of provincially insured services. Nova Scotia and PEI also prohibited conversion therapy from being administered to minors and disqualified it from provincial insurance in 2018 and 2019.
Manitoba does not have any legislation against conversion therapy, but declared that “conversion therapy can have no place in the province’s public health care system” in 2015. In a statement, the province said it expects regional health authorities and regulatory colleges to enforce that principle.
Ontario’s Ministry of Health said it had not received any complaints under its legislation.
"The ministry is not aware of any reports alleging the provision of conversion therapy by health care providers,” ministry spokesperson Christian Hasse said.
Corporal Jennifer Clarke, Public Information Officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, said they are not aware of any reports or charges related to conversion therapy in the province to date.
The Registrar of the Manitoba Psychological Association, Dr. Alan Slusky, said he could find no evidence of it being practised in Manitoba.
“I researched whether it had ever been practised either in private practice or in an institutional setting, and, thankfully, came up empty-handed.”
The federal government tabled legislation to ban conversion therapy earlier this year – an election promise for the governing Liberals. The legislation would update the Criminal Code to make it illegal to provide or advertise conversion therapy.
Calgary is the latest local government to pass a conversion therapy ban. City council passed a bylaw last month that would prohibit any business in the city limits from providing conversion therapy to anyone, regardless of age. Violations carry a fine of up to $10,000 or up to a year in jail.
Edmonton passed a ban earlier late last year, and a number of smaller communities in the province, including Fort McMurray and Spruce Grove, have done the same.
Advocates have also urged the Alberta government to introduce a ban for the province, but the United Conservative Party government has rejected that idea. Instead, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer argued it is already effectively banned by the province’s medical regulators, though he has also said his government would be open to a federal ban.
Peter Gajdics, a Vancouver author and survivor of conversion therapy, said that many Canadians are not aware that conversion therapy still occurs.
“It’s hidden unless you’re one of these people who is struggling," he said.
Mr. Gajdics said that the practice has been able to persist by adapting to circumvent legislation.
“These practices do not occur because regulators allow them, they occur despite the regulations that oppose them,” he said. “This practice might occur under the guise or the label of something else.”
He said that he believes the proposed federal legislation needs to be more comprehensive to combat conversion therapy. Mr. Gadjics said that the current draft would allow c onsenting adults to receive conversion therapy, which is problematic.
“You can’t consent to something that has ultimately been proven and shown to be this harmful.”
He said that Calgary’s recent ban on conversion therapy was effective because it included adults and provided a comprehensive and strong definition of conversion therapy. Mr. Gadjics said that while Calgary’s definition prohibits attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender orientation, it does not preclude therapy that helps with self-acceptance. “It’s really a leading example of where the legislation should go for every type of jurisdiction.”
Many people who have been subjected to conversion therapy have lasting trauma, Mr. Gadjics said, but cannot seek therapy.
“They feel shame about even admitting that they went through this, and so they struggle with it on their own.”
He said that he hopes as legislation is enacted and societal awareness increases, counselling and other mental health support services become more available to survivors.
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of Peter Gadjics' name.