Skip to main content

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole speaks at a press conference in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2021.David Kawai/The Canadian Press

June is Pride Month, and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is celebrating with a video and a renewed pledge to end the ban on blood donations by gay men if he becomes elected prime minister. There’s only one problem.

Citing religious freedom and parental rights, a rump of Tory MPs is stalling passage of C-6, the legislation that would largely ban conversion therapy. Unless they end their filibuster and allow the bill to pass before Parliament rises June 23, the Conservatives will take the blame for killing legislation that would protect LGBTQ Canadians from zealots, crooks and cranks.

Mr. O’Toole must make them stand down.

The need for protection from conversion therapy is real. A new study released Friday by Vancouver’s Community-Based Research Centre and published in the journal PLOS One said that 10 per cent of 9,214 sexual- and gender-minority men surveyed had been exposed to conversion therapy, with non-binary, transgender, teenage, immigrant and racialized respondents most at risk. Two-thirds of them experienced conversion therapy in a religious setting. Seven in 10 experienced the abusive practice when they were 19 years old or younger.

There are legitimate concerns that the conversion-therapy legislation could be abused to punish therapists who advise against aggressive measures for prepubescent youth who identify as transgender. But against that low risk is the much greater risk of teenagers being forced into receiving damaging pseudo-therapy by misguided faith leaders or charlatan therapists.

In trying to kill this bill, the backbench Tory MPs are causing real harm.

In less than 10 months as leader, Mr. O’Toole has made enormous progress in bringing the Conservative Party into the 21st century. He has put forward a credible plan for fighting climate change, despite opposition from within his own party.

He has advanced a queer-positive agenda, despite opposition from within his own party.

He has guaranteed to protect abortion rights despite ... you guessed it. Last week, 81 Conservative MPs, though not Mr. O’Toole, voted in favour of a private member’s bill that would have banned sex-selective abortions.

Writing more in glee than in anger, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the Conservatives for bringing forward and supporting the bill. “It is completely unacceptable that they will not support, protect or defend a woman’s right to choose,” he tweeted. The Liberals will pound the abortion issue in the election that will almost certainly arrive this fall.

In some ways, the diversity of views within the Conservative coalition is commendable. Under Mr. Trudeau, who is a far more dictatorial leader than former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper ever was, the Liberal Party has become intolerant of any opinion other than the leader’s.

There used to be a broad range of views within the Liberal caucus – right-to-choose MPs and right-to- life; pro-free trade and anti-free trade; fiscal hawks and spending doves. Under this leader, dissent is silenced, or at least suppressed.

In that sense, Mr. O’Toole deserves praise for supporting diverse views and the right of MPs to vote their conscience. But there are limits.

The millions of suburban voters who decide elections don’t cast ballots based on a party’s stand on conversion therapy, or even how it approaches abortion rights. They worry about health care and jobs and taxes and debt. They worry about the impact of the pandemic on their families and on the economy.

They look for leaders who can lead. That’s why the unofficial opposition within the Official Opposition is such a dire problem for Mr. O’Toole. They would rather do their thing than his bidding. They make him look less credible as a leader.

On Friday, Tory filibustering of Bill C-10 – highly contentious legislation that would bring changes to both broadcasting and streaming – managed to short-circuit debate on C-6. When the conversion therapy bill next comes before the House, one of two things will happen: Either the dissident MPs will continue to talk and talk, preventing a vote on the bill, or they will stay seated, debate will collapse and the bill will pass third reading. Then C-6 will head to the Senate, which may or may not pass it before Parliament rises for the summer, and then dissolves.

Mr. O’Toole needs to have a talk with those MPs. They must stay in their seats. C-6 must pass. Erin O’Toole, Conservative leader, needs to lead.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.