Sarah Leamon: Now is time for the federal government to ban unwanted conversion therapy

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      The federal government has introduced a long overdue and pivotal amendment to the Criminal Code.

      Bill C-6 seeks to prohibit certain activities that relate to conversion therapy. This is a controversial form of so-called therapy generally used by religious organizations. 

      Conversation therapy is defined as a set of practices, treatments or services designed to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. More specifically, it aims to change the participant to heterosexual or cisgender and reduce non-heterosexual sexual attraction or behaviour. Conversion therapy is performed on adults and children alike. It is rooted in the erroneous belief that diverse sexual orientations and gender identities are sinful deviations that need to be “cured”. This is false.

      It is also damaging.

      It's well accepted that conversion therapy is not a legitimate form of therapy. It is not effective, nor is it helpful.

      Conversion therapy is, in fact, harmful. It stigmatizes the LGBT2Q community. It hurts its participants. The devastating impacts of conversion therapy includes anxiety and depression, along with other social and psychological issues that can lead to self-harm and—in some cases—suicide.

      Over the years, conversion therapy has been denounced by dozens of legitimate medical organizations and human rights groups, including the Canadian Psychological Association and Amnesty International. Some countries, including the United States and Australia, have regional laws in place to ban the practice altogether. In 2018, Vancouver made headlines by becoming the first Canadian city to ban conversion therapy following a unanimous vote by city council.

      In spite of this, there are currently no federal laws in place prohibiting conversion therapy in Canada. It is still legal—and in use—throughout our country.

      According to government data, approximately 20 percent of Canadian LGBT2Q men have undergone some form of conversion therapy. More marginalized individuals, including those with lower incomes, Indigenous people and trans people, are more likely to be exposed. 

      Bill C-6, which amends the Criminal Code, would mark the first federal law aimed at protecting the LGBT2Q community from this discredited, discriminatory, and damaging practice.

      The bill specifically seeks to prohibit coerced participation in conversion therapy programs. If this bill is passed, it would become an offence to force a person to undergo the therapy against their will. It would also be an offence to have a minor to undergo conversion therapy in Canada or to send a minor abroad for such purposes.

      Other criminalized activities would include advertising conversion therapy or receiving a financial or other material benefit from such a program.  Under take-down provisions, courts could also authorize the seizure and forfeiture of advertisements for conversion therapy and order their removal from computer systems.

      It is a serious bill to deal with a serious issue.

      But not everyone is pleased.

      Some religious organizations are hoping to challenge the amendments in Bill C-6 if they become law, arguing that they would breach their fundamental Charter rights.

      While a number of Charter protected rights could potentially be engaged by these laws, the most obvious one is under section 2(a)—freedom of religion. Some organizations and individuals are of the view that any law prohibiting or limiting their ability to practise conversion therapy would infringe on their right to freely practice their religious beliefs.

      This claim, however, is unlikely to succeed.

      Like all Charter rights, the right to freedom of religion is not absolute. It can be subject to limitations, so long as they are reasonable and demonstrably justifiable.

      In this case, it is likely that the court will consider the limitations under Bill C-6 to be so. After all, the harm done to members of the LGBT2Q community by conversion therapy is likely to outweigh any potential breach to religious freedom.

      Moreover, Bill C-6 does not ban conversion therapy outright.

      Adults who wish to voluntarily undergo conversation therapy would not be criminalized. This allows them to seek spiritual guidance or assistance as they feel necessary, without any fear of legal penalty.

      Similarly, conversion therapy program providers will not be charged as long as they operate within the ambit of the law.

      These exceptions exist to strike an appropriate balance between the protection of LGBT2Q people and the ability for informed adults to voluntarily exercise their religious freedoms. This will further insulate Bill C-6 from successful legal challenges.

      Bill C-6 is currently before the standing committee on justice and human rights. There is no firm date as to when—or if—it will ultimately be passed into law.