OTTAWA — New legislation introduced in the Senate proposes to change the Criminal Code to make it illegal to advertise conversion therapy to children.
Conversion therapy is a discredited counselling practice that claims to “cure” LGBTQ2+ people of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s based on pseudoscience that has been disproven worldwide, but is still offered in Canada.
Senate Liberal Serge Joyal tabled Bill S-260 Tuesday to discourage “these practices and treatments in light of their negative consequences, particularly for young people.”
It seeks to amend the Criminal Code to ban conversion therapy advertising to minors under the age of 18 and to criminalize receiving a financial or material benefit from the practice. People convicted under the two new provisions could face up to five years in prison, if the bill becomes law.
Watch: What is ‘conversion therapy’?
The move comes on the heels of an online petition from Devon Hargreaves of Lethbridge, Alta., who called on the federal government to bar conversion therapy for Canadian children. The petition, which was sponsored by NDP MP Sheri Benson, garnered more than 18,000 signatures in four months.
“I’m pleased to see the senator continuing to fight to rid our nation of this harmful practice, as it is not supported by any reputable medical or psychological association,” the Saskatoon West MP said in an email.
The bill comes after two years of advocacy work on the issue, Hargreaves told HuffPost Canada.
He called it “amazing” to see the bill move at the federal level after provinces including Ontario and Manitoba have taken measures to ban conversion therapy.
Justice Minister David Lametti responded to the petition in February, calling conversion therapies “immoral,” “painful,” and practices that “do not reflect the values of our government or those of Canadians.”
However, the federal government’s official response noted the issue falls under health professional regulation, “which is a provincial and territorial responsibility.”
Hargreaves, now an Alberta Liberal candidate in that province’s spring election, said the federal government’s response to the petition was “not satisfactory.” He called the new Senate-backed bill “a step in the right direction.”
But with a federal election on the horizon, timing is an issue. Senators and MPs have just over two months to send the bill through the legislative process to ensure its passage into law before Parliament dissolves.
Hargreaves doesn’t see the issue going away if the bill fails to move through the Senate and House of Commons. The issue has become a talker on the campaign trail, he said.
“If they don’t get it approved before the next election is called, we’ll make it a federal issue.”
Hargreaves’ petition also called for conversion therapy to be classifed in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code as a form of child abuse; and called on the government to introduce legislation to ban transporting minors outside of the country for the purpose of conversion therapy. These two provisions were not folded into in Bill S-260.
Senators are expected to debate Bill S-260 at second reading on Thursday. If the bill clears the upper chamber, an MP will then need to sponsor the proposed legislation in the House.
Provinces taking legislative steps
Conversion therapy claims to “cure” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children by treating sexual orientation as a mental health issue. The “treatments,” which include prayer and talk therapy, have been widely condemned by health professionals and politicians.
The Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) denounced the practice in 2015, warning it can result in “distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction.”
CPA is Canada’s largest psychology association and represents more than 7,000 members.
There is “no evidence” the negative effects of conversion therapy help treat “any distress caused by the social stigma and prejudice” often faced by LGBTQ2 youth, the association said in a statement.
Conversion therapy gained momentum in Canada and the United States during the late ’70s, but governments have only started to act on the discredited practice in recent years.
With no federal law in place to ban conversion therapy across the country, Manitoba introduced a bill in 2015 to outlaw the practice. Ontario followed suit by passing legislation to strike conversion therapy as a billable service under the province’s health insurance plan.
Last year, Vancouver became the first Canadian city to ban businesses from offering conversion therapy. Nova Scotia also passed legislation to ban the practice in June.