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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole will once again allow his caucus to have a free vote on a government bill seeking to ban conversion therapy.

The so-called therapy is widely discredited as a harmful practice, aimed at trying to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity.

Earlier in the week, the Liberals introduced legislation for a third time in the House of Commons to criminalize the practice.

The first bill died when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament in 2020.

A second version introduced not long after didn't pass the Senate before the legislative agenda was cleared by Trudeau's election call last summer.

It was passed by the House of Commons, however, where 62 of O'Toole's 119 MPs voted against the bill, despite the leader's efforts to demonstrate a more progressive stance on LGBTQ issues.

At that time, numerous Conservative MPs complained the wording of the bill was overly broad and could criminalize conversations about sexuality between children and their parents or with religious leaders.

The vote prompted a backlash, with critics charging that O'Toole had failed to live up to his more progressive rhetoric on LGBTQ issues.

Faced with another vote on the issue soon, a spokeswoman for O'Toole confirmed he will again allow a free vote, but added that he "has long been an ally to the LGBTQ community and will continue to support efforts to ban conversion therapy."

@erinotoole to allow free vote for Conservative MPs on new #ConversionTherapy ban. #CDNPoli #CPC

"He will also continue to highlight the fact that the Liberals have failed three times to move swiftly on the issue," wrote O'Toole's director of communications, Josie Sabatino.

"While the bill will be subject to a free vote, all Conservative MPs oppose the coercive and harmful practice of trying to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity."

Allowing MPs to vote as they like on matters of conscience has been O'Toole's position since becoming leader of the party, which includes a sizeable number of MPs who hail from its social conservative wing.

Nicholas Schiavo, founder of advocacy group No Conversion Canada, said federal leaders should ensure the legislation receives unanimous approval to send a clear message to LGBTQ Canadians that conversion therapy is unacceptable. He called O'Toole's decision to allow a free vote disappointing.

"You're putting the lives of LGBTQ2 Canadians who are proven to be at risk up for debate. And you're putting their fundamental freedoms up for debate," Schiavo said.

"I don't believe that you can have votes of conscience on issues that are unconscionable ... that is a failure of leadership."

A spokeswoman for the New Democrats confirmed all of its MPs will vote in favour of the ban.

Schiavo said Michelle Rempel Garner, a well-known Conservative MP who has long championed LGBTQ rights, has agreed to meet with them. His group is hoping two openly gay Conservative MPs — Eric Duncan and Melissa Lantsman — will also push the issue.

O'Toole's MPs will have a chance to discuss the legislation when they meet in Ottawa today for their weekly national caucus meeting.

They also have to deal with another government bill related to COVID-19. The two-pronged bill would legislate 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers and create two new Criminal Code offences for anyone threatening a health-care worker or obstructing access to a health care facility.

The latter measures are in response to anti-vaccine protests at hospitals and clinics but they would also apply to facilities where abortions are performed.

The Liberals have long used abortion to drive a political wedge between the Conservatives, with the September federal election campaign being the most recent example.

Campaign Life Coalition, a national anti-abortion organization, has already warned the bill could restrict free speech for those who want to publicly oppose the procedure.

Long-time Ontario backbencher Cheryl Gallant also said in a recent social media video that Trudeau was pushing a "ban on protesting" and questioned "what type of protest will be banned next."

A statement from O'Toole's office suggests Conservatives plan to support the legislation. But Sabatino didn't answer when asked whether the vote would be whipped.

She said they support existing Criminal Code measures that protect health-workers and "will also support the new measures proposed in (the bill) along with the paid sick leave provisions for all federally regulated industries."

Sabatino also promised a Conservative government would expand the legislation to apply to "other public works and critical infrastructure."

O'Toole has in the past been critical of blockades and protests staged on transportation infrastructure, such as rail lines.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec.1, 2021

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