The federal government has introduced legislation that would impose a blanket ban on causing a child to undergo therapy aimed at altering their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The bill would also make it a criminal offence to cause an adult to undergo so-called conversion therapy against their will. It would not prevent a consenting adult from voluntarily undergoing the therapy.
"Conversion therapy is premised on a lie, that being homosexual, lesbian, bisexual or trans is wrong and in need of fixing," Justice Minister David Lametti said Monday moments after tabling the bill in the House of Commons.
"Not only is that false, it sends a demeaning and a degrading message that undermines the dignity of individuals and the LGBTQ2 community as a whole."
Bill C-8 proposes five new Criminal Code offences.
In addition to the ban on conversion therapy for minors, the legislation would outlaw removing a minor from Canada for the purpose of obtaining conversion therapy abroad. Both those offences would be punishable by up to five years in prison, as would forcing an adult to undergo conversion therapy against their will.
The bill also proposes to make it an offence to profit from providing conversion therapy and to advertise an offer to provide conversion therapy — both punishable by up to two years in prison.
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The new offences would not apply to those who provide support to individuals questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, such as parents, friends, teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, school or pastoral counsellors and faith leaders.
"There is a difference between asking someone who they are and telling someone that who they are is wrong and in need of fixing," Lametti said, adding that those who engage in "open-ended," supportive discussions with an individual exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity have nothing to fear.
"This does not create a wedge between parents and their children."
If there is evidence of a discussion in which a family member or counsellor expresses disapproval or pressures an individual to change his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, that could fall afoul of the law. But Lametti suggested the proposed legislation would discourage such behaviour.
Lametti was flanked by two survivors of conversion therapy, Matt Ashcroft and Erika Muse, as well as the NDP's critic on the issue, Randall Garrison, and a number of gay Liberal MPs.
Garrison said his party supports the most comprehensive ban possible on conversion therapy but stopped short of endorsing the bill until he has had a chance to digest the details.
The Liberals hold a minority of seats in the House of Commons so they'll need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties in order to pass the bill. It is likely to pass easily with the support of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois but it could prove divisive for Conservatives, who are the midst of a leadership contest in which several candidates espouse socially conservative views.
Would-be contender Richard Decarie caused a stir last month when he asserted that being gay is a "choice" and affirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage and government funding for abortion. The Conservative party ultimately barred Decarie from the race but his views still have some support among the influential, social conservative wing of the party.
The Liberal government argues that conversion therapy is a cruel practice that can lead to lifelong trauma, aimed at changing someone into a heterosexual person, to repress non-heterosexual attraction and sexual behaviours or to make their gender identity match the sex assigned at birth.
Lametti said the practice has "no basis in science" and has been discredited and denounced by health care associations in Canada and around the world.
The Canadian Psychological Association says there is no scientific evidence that it works but plenty of evidence that it causes harm to LGBTQ individuals, including anxiety, depression, negative self-image, feelings of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships and sexual dysfunction.
Ashcroft, who went to a conversion therapy camp in the United States, said the experience "almost drove me to my death." He did not comment directly on the bill.
But Muse, who had just seen the legislation, doubted it would do anything to protect transgender people from being denied medical services for what's known as transition affirmative care. Muse herself was denied hormones, sex re-assignment surgery and other services needed to transition from male to female.
"My body is a prison because of what my conversion therapist did to me," Muse said. "I don't know if this would help me as a trans person. I don't know if it's enough."
Lametti suggested Muse's concerns are a "different discussion" outside the scope of the bill.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2020.