The Trudeau government is set to introduce legislation Monday amending the Criminal Code to ban conversion therapy, a controversial practice that aims to change the sexual orientation, gender identity or expression of LGBTQ people.
“Evidence demonstrates that this is a practice that does not work,” said Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger. “It’s destructive, it’s harmful and it should not exist.”
During the 2019 federal election, the Liberal Party committed to bringing forward the changes in its platform, noting that the practice is “scientifically discredited.”
The party promised during the campaign to work with Canada’s provinces and territories to ban the practice and highlighted that proposed amendments would specifically benefit minors.
“When you are younger, you are often dependent on your surroundings, on your family, on whoever’s around you. You cannot always make your individual choices,” Chagger said Wednesday.
A pledge to ban the practice across all jurisdictions was listed in Chagger’s mandate letter, and was also included in the letter for Justice Minister David Lametti.
So far, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., Manitoba and Ontario have adopted measures to bar the practice from their province’s health care systems. Cities including Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton have also blocked the therapy.
Practice condemned by experts
The Liberal government’s move comes almost one year after Ottawa rejected a public plea to end conversion therapy, which is typically administered through spiritual, psychological or counselling-related interventions.
In response to a petition that garnered more than 18,000 signatures urging Canada to outlaw the therapy, the federal government acknowledged the practice’s harms but said governing it fell to provinces and territories.
In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared conversion therapy posed a “serious threat to the health and well-being” of those affected.
The Canadian Psychological Association has said it “opposes any therapy with the goal of repairing or converting an individual’s sexual orientation, regardless of age.”
Divisions between advocacy, religious groups
Taking steps to amend Canada’s Criminal Code is seen as a welcome sign of progress for LGBTQ advocacy groups.
In a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from late last year, Egale Canada — one of Canada’s leading LGBTQ rights organizations — said it was eagerly awaiting “this long overdue correction” to the code.
“We intend to diligently monitor this legislative development to ensure that the legislation will be accompanied by appropriate recommendations regarding implementation,” the organization wrote.
“It is critical that this legislation will meet its intended effect to protect vulnerable members of our community.”
But some religious groups are wary of the proposed reform.
If the law is passed, Campagne Québec-Vie, an anti-abortion organization, said it would challenge the changes in court in the name of religious freedom.
“If a person feels uncomfortable with their sexual orientation, who is the government to tell them…[they] have no right to change their orientation?” organization president Georges Buscemi told Radio-Canada in French.
Hanna Kepka, a lobbyist with the Campaign Life Coalition, added that the legislation would mark an “unprecedented move” by the government to interfere in discussions between health-care providers and patients.
“We have to be mindful that there is freedom of speech, that there is freedom for religious rights,” Chagger said. “I think it’s also important that we advance legislation that works to ensure that every individual can be who they are.”
The main federal opposition parties appear open to the initiative, though they are waiting to learn more about the Liberal bill.
A Conservative Party spokesperson said in a statement that the party would consider the proposed changes, adding that the party opposes any form of “pseudo-therapy” aimed at altering a person’s sexual orientation.
The NDP is supportive of amending the Criminal Code and has previously called for a nationwide plan to end the practice.
The Bloc Québécois said it is also in favour, as long as provincial jurisdiction is respected.