The Trudeau government has reintroduced legislation that would make it a crime to inflict conversion therapy on LGBTQ youth. The bill is flawed. Parliament should pass it anyway.
Conversion therapy is a grift. You can’t cure someone of being gay any more than you can cure someone of being straight. Telling a young person that their sexuality or gender identity is a sin or flaw from which they can be redeemed can cause great mental or physical harm. We need legislation to protect the vulnerable from those who would prey on those vulnerabilities.
Bill C-6 makes it a crime to force conversion therapy upon someone against their will; to inflict the bogus therapy on a child; to remove a child from Canada in order to subject them to the practice, or to advertise or make money off it.
Both the Conservatives and the NDP support the legislation in principle, but both have problems with the bill as written.
“Conversion therapy is wrong,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told the House of Commons. “In my view, it should be banned.” But, as Justice critic Rob Moore explained, the Conservatives have free-speech concerns.
“This legislation, depending on how it’s interpreted, could have an impact on religious freedoms, on parental rights,” he said in an interview. “They’ve crafted the legislation very poorly.”
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is also concerned. “EFC is seeking assurances that religious instruction, parental guidance and supportive services for individuals wishing to order their sexual lives in accordance with their religious conscience, faith identity and personal convictions will not be captured," it said in a statement.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects religious freedom. But that freedom does not extend to offering false therapies that can do great harm.
Where do you draw the line? It may be possible to improve the legislation at the justice committee by better defining its limits.
The NDP is sympathetic to those who argue that offering conversion therapy should be a crime, period.
Kristopher Wells, who researches sexuality and gender issues at MacEwan University in Edmonton, has produced a report on conversion therapy to be released next week. He shared a copy of it with me in advance.
The legislation “falls short of protecting all Canadians from the harms and dangers of conversion therapy,” the report argues. Prof. Wells wants to see all forms of conversion therapy banned outright.
Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters that should an adult, of their own free will, choose to submit to conversion therapy, “we have preserved that space and not made that activity illegal.” Those who believe individuals should be free to live their lives as they choose, while being responsible for those choices, will concur.
The biggest problem with the bill concerns the possible criminalization of good-faith therapy. A psychiatrist or psychologist may conclude that “watchful waiting” is the best therapy for a child who identifies differently from their biological gender.
“We have every reason to expect extremists to declare that anything and everything other than immediate affirmation counts as conversion therapy,” James Cantor, a psychologist who is director of the Toronto Sexuality Centre, said in an e-mail exchange. “One would reasonably predict a chill effect across licensed mental health providers, making the service essentially unavailable.”
Florence Ashley, a doctoral student at University of Toronto who specializes in trans law and bioethics, disagrees. (Florence Ashley uses the pronouns they/them.)
“If you’re genuinely not trying to discourage someone from being trans, that’s going to be fine,” they said in an interview. But too often, they added, people hide their efforts to perform conversion therapy on a minor under the cloak of “watchful waiting.”
No qualified therapist should be deterred from good-faith treatment of a troubled child for fear of being criminally charged with practising conversion therapy. But that should not prevent legislation that seeks to protect children from zealots and fraudsters. There has to be a reasonable middle ground.
Perhaps the justice committee, as it studies the bill, will find that middle ground. Perhaps it will end up being decided by the courts. But the legislation is too important to be scuttled over this one concern.
All parties should work together to get the best possible version of this bill through the House.
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