The federal government has re-introduced a bill proposing amendments to the Criminal Code, to crack down on the practice of conversion therapy in Canada.

Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (conversion therapy) proposes to prohibit unwanted religious counselling seeking to change a person's sexual orientation to heterosexual; gender identity to cisgender; or reduce non-heterosexual behaviour, nationwide.

It was first introduced on March 9, just days before COVID-19 shut down Parliament Hill, but then was killed when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August.

The Liberals' position is that the practice is damaging and discriminatory, it has led to life-long trauma for Canadians, and must come to an end.

The 11-page bill proposes five new Criminal Code offences, but leaves the door open to allow adults who willingly want to pursue what has also been called reparative therapy. But that remains possible only under limited circumstances.

"What we're trying to do is create an architecture where the young person is comfortable saying: 'No, you can't do this. We've had the conversation. Stop. Done. This is the way I am,'" Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters after introducing the bill.

"It becomes destructive when it becomes compelled," said Lametti.

What the government is looking to make a crime:

  • Causing a minor to undergo conversion therapy;
  • removing a minor from Canada to undergo conversion therapy abroad;
  • causing a person to undergo conversion therapy against their will;
  • profiting from providing conversion therapy; and
  • advertising an offer to provide conversion therapy.

Bill C-6 would also allow courts to seize conversion therapy promotional material and order it removed from the internet, though it also presents the same restrictions on matters "alleged to be obscene, child pornography, a voyeuristic recording, an intimate image, an advertisement of sexual services."

Based on the government’s proposed changes, the maximum punishment would be five years in prison for some offences, and up to two years in prison for others.

The government is specifying that the new offences "would not apply to those who provide support to persons questioning their sexual orientation, sexual feelings or gender identity," such as teachers or school counsellors, pastoral or faith leaders, doctors or mental health professionals, and friends or family members."

As well, the bill clarifies that the new measures are not meant to "include a practice, treatment or service that relates to a person’s gender transition; or to a person’s exploration of their identity or to its development."

"The bill does not put an end to conversations youth and individuals may have with supportive adults and professionals in their lives in assisting them in exploring their identity. These discussions are often critical to personal development," Lametti said. "Nor would the proposed offences criminalize conversations where personal points of view on sexual orientation or gender identity are expressed."

Currently, some offences like kidnapping, forcible confinement, assault or even fraud may apply to those conducting conversion sessions, but the government has indicated that the Criminal Code as it stands could go further to explicitly deter and punish those who engage in this practice.

The practice of conversion therapy has been widely discredited and disparaged by several health and human rights groups, but it is still offered in Canada.

"While the pandemic has made us all feel vulnerable at times, imagine living that way every day, carrying that weight with you. Telling someone they are not who they think they are, or that who they are, is wrong, abnormal, or unnatural has devastating consequences," Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger said following the bill being reintroduced in the House of Commons.

According to a report published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, in Canada more than 20,000 LGBTQ and two-spirit Canadians have been exposed to conversion therapy treatments or other efforts aimed at repressing or changing their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

Conversion therapy is opposed by several health and human rights groups including the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization, which in 2012 said that these conversion programs "lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people."

The Canadian Psychological Association also opposes conversion therapy as it is "based on the assumption that LGBTQ identities indicate a mental disorder," and "can result in negative outcomes, such as distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction."

CONSERVATIVES, NDP SEEK CHANGES

The Liberals are confident that the bill will be able to move through the House and Senate quickly, and are open to constructive amendments, which is what Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has said will be required before his caucus could support Bill C-6.

“Why do you think the Liberals have reintroduced the exact same bill they did last year, having totally ignored the well-known drafting failures from their first bill? They did this not because they want to get it right for the LGBTQ community. They did this because they want to force Conservatives to seek amendments, or possibly even vote against this bill,” O’Toole said, speaking to the bill in the House of Commons.

While he agrees that conversion therapy is wrong and should be banned, he accused the Liberals of playing politics by choosing his second day back in the House to re-table the bill, though doing so has no direct implications, nor was he directly compelled to speak to it.

During the recent leadership campaign, O’Toole won with the down-ballot support from two socially conservative candidates’ backers, including Conservative MP Derek Sloan, who has accused the Liberals of “effectively putting into law child abuse” by advancing this policy.

Also speaking to the bill on Thursday, the Bloc Quebecois and New Democrats voiced support for the Liberal proposal.

“Progress has been achieved as a result of brave advocates from our community stepping forward. Nothing has ever been given to my community in terms of protecting our rights, without a struggle,” said NDP MP Randall Garrison, noting that it was the NDP who first tried to push the issue in the House of Commons last Parliament.

Garrison said the bill will be supported by the NDP but raised concern that, as it’s drafted, some conversion therapy practices won’t be covered.

“There needs to be more attention to those practices directed at the transgender and non-binary community,” he said