Senator Plett’s Speech at the Second Reading of Bill C-6
June 6, 2021 (Ottawa, ON) - The Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, issued the following statement:
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-6, and although I rise as a critic of this bill, I wanted to make it very clear from the outset that I am very supportive of a well-defined ban on coercive conversion therapy. As much as the Liberals try to make it appear otherwise and, unfortunately, even my good friend Senator Cordy did just a minute ago, Conservatives agree that coercive conversion therapy is unconditionally wrong, and it needs to be banned.
In fact, this support for banning abusive and coercive practices of conversion therapy appears to be universal. As noted on the government’s website, many professional associations such as the Canadian Psychological Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, and the Canadian Paediatric Society have denounced conversion therapy as a practice that is harmful to LGBTQ2+ persons, especially minors.
Faith-based groups are also in agreement, colleagues. The Coalition for Conscience and Expression is an alliance of faith groups that includes the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities and the Christian Legal Fellowship.
Today, they represent millions of Canadians and are unequivocally united in opposition to all abusive and coercive practices, including those related to conversion therapy.
We have all heard the horror stories where techniques used in conversion therapy included things such as the application of electric shocks to the hand or genitals, ice pick lobotomies, chemical castration, nausea-inducing drugs, primal scream therapy and more. Attempting to alter a person’s sexuality through coercion and demeaning treatments is not therapy, colleagues. It’s abuse.
I am personally troubled by the experiences shared by victims of abusive conversion therapy. Too many members of the LGBTQ2+ community have been harmed by degrading and dehumanizing practices, which were imposed on them in an effort to change their sexual orientation against their will.
Colleagues, this is wrong. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and as parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that this right is reflected in our laws.
As noted on the Justice Department’s website, Bill C-6 proposes to do this by creating five new Criminal Code offences: causing a minor to undergo conversion therapy; removing a minor from Canada to undergo conversion therapy abroad; causing a person to undergo conversion therapy against their will; profiting from providing conversion therapy; and advertising an offer to provide conversion therapy.
The idea of banning coercive therapies designed as sexual orientation change efforts is not new. In 2009, the American Psychological Association noted that following the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, the publication of studies of sexual orientation change efforts decreased dramatically, and non-affirming approaches to psychotherapy came under increased scrutiny. Behaviour therapists became increasingly concerned that aversive therapies designed as sexual orientation change efforts for homosexuality were inappropriate, unethical and inhumane.
Today, conversion therapy is already banned in one form or another — Senator Cordy alluded to this — in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and the Yukon territory. Manitoba has adopted a policy stating that “. . . conversion therapy can have no place in the province’s public health-care system.”
Municipalities such as Vancouver; Edmonton; Calgary; Lethbridge; Rocky Mountain House; St. Albert; Strathcona County; Wood Buffalo; Saskatoon; Spruce Grove; Montreal; and Saint John, New Brunswick all have bans on conversion therapy, and plans to do the same are underway in Kingston; Regina; and Naimano, British Columbia.
In truth, colleagues, the federal government is a little late to the table on this one. When asked about banning conversion therapy in February 2019, they swatted down the idea, saying it was the responsibility of provinces and territories. But after Senator Joyal tabled his private member’s bill, Bill S-260, in 2019 and then reintroduced it as Bill S-202, the government seems to have had an awakening and decided to take action.
It is regrettable, however, that so much of what this government does is crass political manoeuvring rather than simply being motivated to do the right thing. We see this again with Bill C-6. Banning coercive conversion therapy is the right thing to do, but instead of drafting a bill which clearly articulates those parameters that could have passed unanimously, the government chose to try to make it a wedge issue by making this bill overly broad and ambiguous.
Allow me to explain. Bill C-6 does not just ban coercive, harmful measures which are denounced by everyone. It casts a wide net which will have unintended and harmful consequences. Despite hollow assurances from the government, which we see regularly, as it is currently worded, this bill threatens voluntary conversations between individuals and their teachers, between individuals and school counsellors, between individuals and pastoral counsellors, between individuals and faith leaders, between individuals and doctors, and between individuals and mental health professionals, and friends or family members.
Ironically, however, it does not threaten conversations with Canadians who are heterosexual or cisgendered, only with those who are non-heterosexual or non-cisgendered.
For example, if a heterosexual is in a committed relationship and is struggling to stay faithful to his or her partner, they can seek professional help from a counsellor, therapist, spiritual leader or health professional with no fear of legal recourse. Likewise, those who provide them with assistance have no reason whatsoever to be concerned about the impact of Bill C-6.
However, colleagues, if a homosexual in a committed relationship is struggling to stay faithful to his or her partner, any professional help to reduce or manage sexual attraction would be criminalized.
Similarly, if a cisgendered person wants to seek out assistance in transitioning away from their biological sex, this bill does not erect any barriers to them in doing so. However, if a non-cisgendered person finds themselves wanting to transition back to their biological gender, this bill makes any such assistance criminal.
Where is the consistency? Much of this problem stems from the definition in the bill, which is both broadly and vaguely worded.
The definition currently reads as follows:
. . . conversion therapy means a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual, to change a person’s gender identity or gender expression to cisgender or to repress or reduce non‑heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour or non‑cisgender gender expression. For greater certainty, this definition does not include a practice, treatment or service that relates to the exploration and development of an integrated personal identity without favouring any particular sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
This definition has a number of problems. For starters, the terms “practice,” “treatment” or “service” are not defined. Because of this, many witnesses at the Justice Committee noted that it is difficult to have a clear grasp of the scope of the bill’s impact.
The Coalition for Conscience and Expression said:
Terms like “practice,” “treatment” and “service” could be broadly construed to include not only harmful professional or commercial practices but also discussions and activities with family members, friends, faith leaders and others—whether in the settings of worship or other “services” or as “practices” in families or group settings—that have nothing to do with the ordinary meaning of conversion therapy.
Moreover, the breadth of the terms “practice” and “service,” especially when coupled with severe criminal penalties, threatens to unduly inhibit or restrict the good-faith promulgation or expression of religious doctrines, teachings, and beliefs regarding sexuality . . ..
Secondly, although it is conversion therapy that is being banned, nowhere does the definition point out that the practice, treatment or service needs to be therapeutic. This again opens the bill up to a broad interpretation and an overly broad application which, according to some constitutional lawyers, will threaten the constitutional freedoms of Canadians and leaves the act open to the possibility of being struck down as unconstitutional.
To address this problem, it has been recommended that the word “therapeutic” be added to the definition so that it would read “conversion therapy means a therapeutic practice, treatment or service” and so on.
As suggested by one committee witness:
Adding “therapeutic” at the beginning of the definition of conversion therapy would go a long way in focussing the scope of this bill. It would alleviate the legitimate concerns of parents, teachers, and spiritual leaders from a diversity of faith groups that their good-faith conversations around identity are not targeted by this bill.
Third, the definition targets not only conversion therapy but also any attempt to “. . . reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour . . . .” This is highly problematic.
As noted by Jose Ruba at the Justice Committee, this phrase:
. . . is not used by any professional body in North America. The Canadian Psychological Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association and their American counterparts do not include the phrase, “reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.”
There are legitimate reasons why Canadians would want to reduce sexual behaviour without changing their orientation. Sexual behaviour can include porn or sexual addiction or extramarital affairs.
Fourthly, as noted earlier, this bill’s definition of conversion therapy only applies in one direction. It restricts the freedom of non-heterosexuals and non-cisgendered persons to voluntarily seek out certain kinds of professional help, but it does not restrict heterosexuals or cisgendered persons.
Mr. Ruba put it this way at committee when speaking about getting help for undesirable sexual behaviours:
If Bill C-6 passes, heterosexuals would be able to get supports to reduce these behaviours, but LGBT Canadians will not. Consenting adults would not be able to pay for a professional counsellor and mature minors would have no choice at all. In fact, this bill says that only the counselling sessions of LGBT Canadians will be regulated by criminal law.
Lawyers at the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms have noted that this one-directional nature of the definition is almost certainly unconstitutional. They said:
A law that allows opposite-sex attracted Canadians to receive . . . supports to reduce unwanted sexual addictions or behaviours, but bars same-sex attracted Canadians from doing the same, is indisputable discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Similarly, allowing medical, psychological and other therapeutic interventions to help individuals transition away from their natal gender, while prohibiting such help for individuals seeking to detransition, is likewise discriminatory.
Fifth, the bill’s overly broad definition will violate Canadians’ freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights says the following:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
But here’s the problem: It is no secret that the practice of homosexuality is forbidden in some faiths. For example, while not universal in their doctrinal positions, the following religions believe that sexual relationships are permitted only between a husband and wife: Bahá’í, Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. There may be more, colleagues, but those are the ones that I am aware of.
Take, for example, a person who goes to his pastor or imam and says, “I am experiencing homosexual desires. What does our faith say about that?” And the spiritual leader says to them, “Our faith does not believe that homosexual desires are wrong but practising homosexuality is.” The person then says, “Well, can you give me some guidance or refer me to a program that will help me reduce my non-heterosexual attraction, so that can I live in accordance with our beliefs?”
In that situation, Bill C-6 is going to force that pastor or imam to answer, “No, I’m sorry. I cannot help you. The Criminal Code of Canada prevents me from giving you any such guidance or assistance. If I do so, I could go to jail for up to two years.”
Although the person wants to live in accordance with their faith, Bill C-6 is going to make it a criminal offence for their religious leaders to offer them any assistance in doing so. That is a clear violation of their religious freedom.
I am aware that the government has responded to this concern by saying that the bill does permit consenting adults to be offered help. However, this is blatantly misleading. A person cannot advertise such a consulting service and cannot be paid for such a consulting service. Any religious leader who gets paid to serve in that role cannot offer this counselling or they would be charged with being paid to provide conversion therapy services, even though such assistance is being sought out and is neither abusive nor coercive.
Furthermore, the bill also says the following:
Everyone who receives a financial or other material benefit, knowing that it is obtained or derived directly or indirectly from the provision of conversion therapy, is
(a) guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than two years; or
(b) guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.
This means that not only the person giving the spiritual guidance could be charged but also their overseers, paid board members or even the organization’s receptionist if they were aware that these counselling services were and are being provided.
When faced with these concerns, the government published the following statement on the Department of Justice website:
These new offences would not criminalise private conversations in which personal views on sexual orientation, sexual feelings or gender identity are expressed such as where teachers, school counsellors, pastoral counsellors, faith leaders, doctors, mental health professionals, friends or family members provide affirming support to persons struggling with their sexual orientation, sexual feelings, or gender identity.
This, colleagues, is very misleading. First of all, these conversations can only provide affirming support. This does nothing to protect the Charter rights of Canadians to freedom of religion.
Second, the City of Calgary’s definition of conversion therapy is almost identical to the one in Bill C-6 and freely admits that their bylaw impacts all clergy.
On a City of Calgary web page, they have a Q&A about their conversion therapy ban. One of the questions is this: “Will the bylaw apply to clergy and church organizations, such as synagogues, mosques and other faith-based organizations?”
Here’s the answer:
Yes, the Prohibited Businesses Bylaw includes not-for-profit organizations such as faith groups that provide practices/services designed to change, repress or discourage a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.
The simple fact of the matter is that Bill C-6 will criminalize the beliefs and teachings of many faith communities.
This, in spite of the fact that the government’s own website says the following:
Freedom of religion or belief, including the ability to worship in peace and security, is a universal human right. It is enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among other key human rights documents. Discrimination against religious and belief communities, as with all forms of discrimination, causes suffering, spreads division, and contributes to a climate of fear, intolerance, and stigmatization.
Colleagues, I could go on, but for the sake of time, I am going to wrap up.
The bill before us today may be well intentioned, and Conservatives support it in principle. Abusive or coercive conversion therapy should be banned, but the bill has significant problems that must be addressed.
As my colleague before me, who opposed Bill C-10, has said, and as I have said many times, I do support bills going to committee for study. I cannot oppose a bill and then refuse that it go to committee for study. I will not do that today. I believe this bill needs to be sent to committee to examine how to resolve these issues properly.
If we do so, colleagues, I believe we could have a bill that passes unanimously in this chamber and in the other place.
I cannot think of a better way to send a clear, united message that abusive or coercive conversion therapy is unacceptable in today’s day and age and will not be tolerated. Thank you.