A federal Liberal bill to outlaw the damaging and discriminatory anti-LGBTQ+ practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is in its third reading and MPs will soon vote on passing it. “This legislation, and the decades of advocacy that came before it because of conversion therapy survivors, really symbolizes justice and freedom,” Nick Schiavo of the advocacy group No Conversion Canada tells Refinery29.
Conversion therapy has a long history in Canada. The controversial practice stems from the belief that LGBTQ+ people are “disordered” or that there is something “pathological or broken” about them, Kristopher Wells, the Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University in Edmonton, tells Refinery29. Attempts to “change” or “treat” someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity in the past have included everything from electroshock therapy to chemical castration to lobotomy. Today, conversion therapy encompasses a variety of different practices including group therapy, talk therapy, Bible therapy, and still even exorcism. “It's a fraudulent, pseudoscientific practice that's known to cause harm,” Wells says.
While some provinces have taken steps to outlaw conversion therapy, Bill C-6 would be the first national law restricting it. An earlier ban, years in the making, failed due to Parliament closing during the pandemic.
So, what exactly will this bill do to protect LGBTQ+ Canadians? Here’s what you need to know.
What is Bill C-6?
Bill C-6 is an amendment to the Criminal Code; it proposes five criminal offences related to conversion therapy. If the bill passes, it will be illegal to: force a minor to undergo conversion therapy; force a person to undergo conversion therapy against their will; profit off of providing conversion therapy; advertise conversion therapy; and take a minor out of Canada for the purpose of undergoing conversion therapy abroad.
Samantha Peters, a Toronto-based labour, employment, and human rights lawyer, tells Refinery29 that the criminalization of conversion therapy will be especially significant for trangender and non-binary youth. Peters points to a recent Trans PULSE Canada survey that found more than 10% of trans and non-binary people said they had experienced conversion therapy. “Conversion therapy is still happening today in Canadian schools (particularly faith-based schools) in insidious ways,” Peters says. “So perhaps federally banning conversion therapy will make schools safer for trans and non-binary students, especially Black and Indigenous trans, non-binary, and two-spirit students.”
While the vast majority of MPs have voted in favour of the bill, some pushback has come from Conservatives who argue it would limit religious freedoms, and as one put it, promote “lesbian activity.” (The homophobic remarks caused #lesbianactivity to trend on Twitter with even Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam weighing in.) There are also lobbying efforts against the bill from conservative religious groups.
How is conversion therapy still happening in Canada?
Good question. The practice has been denounced by leading mental health organizations across the world, including the Canadian Psychological Association, Canadian Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychiatric Association. As far back as 2012, the World Health Organization said that services that claim to "cure" people with non-heterosexual sexual orientation violate human rights and providers should be subject to penalties under federal laws.
And yet, to this day, roughly one in five LGBTQ+ men in Canada report experiencing “change efforts” in some form, including conversion therapy. Because it often happens in secret or under the guise of religious “counselling,” the actual number is likely higher. One Regina-based woman told Global News her church tried to get the “demons” out of her when they found out she identified as a lesbian; she was also forced to look at pictures of men. She experienced suicide ideation as a result of the traumatizing experiences.
Prior to this national bill, several provinces, including Ontario, Nova Scotia and P.E.I., have banned conversion therapy for minors and made it uninsurable through public health systems for adults. Municipal bylaws ban the practice outright in Vancouver, and businesses — including non-profit faith groups — in Calgary are prohibited from engaging in conversion therapy.
Even with these bans in place, provinces have struggled to prosecute conversion therapy cases for the same reasons why we don’t know how many people have been exposed to this practice: as the Globe and Mail points out, due to the therapy often happening in secret or marketed in a coded way.
Anti-LGBTQ+ religious groups can mask conversion therapy as “workshops,” “retreats” or “pastoral counselling.” This means in theory, Bill C-6 might not stop religious groups from engaging in free conversion therapy if it's guised as something else — especially as it pertains to adults.
Despite beliefs, religious groups have a responsibility to limit harm towards others even if that harm is not intended, Peter Newman, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, tells Refinery29. He points out that many churches welcome LGBTQ+ members and are against conversion therapy, but the ones that use the Bible as a conversion tactic need to be held accountable.
“There are certainly some sexual and gender-minority people who also grow up in a religious household, and that's an important part of their lives,” Newman says. “Ironically, those are the kids who are going to suffer the most because you shouldn’t be forced to choose between different parts of your identity.”
Is the bill doing enough?
While this proposed legislation is already an important leap forward, advocacy group No Conversion Canada is pushing for a "no-consent" provision to be added. The group argues that the current form of the bill doesn’t protect adults who “consented” to conversion therapy due to coercion, manipulation, abuse of trust or authority, fear, or internalized transphobia and/or homophobia.
Schiavo of No Conversion Canada says the amendment would define what informed consent looks like, and make sure that “all of the facts in terms of this practice being fraudulent were presented.” Without this disclosure, informed consent cannot be given, he says, and the person who perpetrated the conversion therapy — faith leader, counsellor or otherwise — would be legally liable.
When will Bill C-6 hopefully become law?
The bill is heading for its third reading vote in the House of Commons in the next few weeks, and from there, it needs to be sent to the Senate before becoming law. “This is not about imposing beliefs, or trying to change beliefs,” Schiavo says. “It's really about actions — actions that are proven to hurt people, and in some cases, have led them to take their lives.
“The more we can move to becoming a society that is more just and more free for everyone, the better.”
If you are an LGBTQ+ person in need of crisis support, call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.
If you are a trans person thinking about suicide or experiencing a crisis, please call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-330-6366 for confidential support from other trans individuals.