Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-6 today. As always, I look forward to the day that we can all be back in the chamber instead of speaking to pinhole cameras, though I am mindful of the fact that any inconveniences or challenges we face as MPs pale in significance to the impact of COVID on ordinary Canadians who have lost loved ones, lost livelihoods or who are still working on the front lines in this pandemic. These impacts have been even more strongly felt by the most marginalized among us, and especially the community I come from.
I speak today as the NDP spokesperson on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, or SOGIE for short, but I also speak as an out gay man, someone who has been out in public life for nearly three decades. I wish we had a more representative Parliament today when it comes to topics affecting my community, like conversion therapy. Unfortunately, many of those voices we should be hearing from are absent. In the House, we have only four out gay MPs, and we have no out lesbians and no transgender or non-binary MPs. We are short about 30 MPs from my community.
Some jurisdictions have done better. In fact, New Zealand just elected what has been described as the gayest Parliament in the world, at 10% representation. While it is great to celebrate this as a milestone, I might suggest a more accurate headline that goes something like “New Zealand finally elects a Parliament that nears fair representation of the SOGIE community”. Then the story would have to go on to say that the total does not include any trans or non-binary MPs, despite New Zealand having elected the first trans MP in the world, Georgina Beyer, who served from 1999 to 2007.
I also want to give a quick shout-out today to British Columbia, which has just re-elected six SOGIE MLAs. It looks like the number will still be six when the dust settles, but that is about 7% of the legislature again and ties the U.K. This is compared to a mere 1% in the House. That is a hint to both SOGIE individuals and parties when it comes to nominations for the next election, and as someone who is always recruiting, as the gay stereotype goes, I know this remains a challenge.
Why is there a long preamble on representation? I firmly believe that the most diverse parliaments make the best legislation. It is not only that diverse parliaments are likely to have more MPs with lived experience on the topics at hand, although that is true, but that, perhaps more importantly, they will have the networks in the communities they represent and in Canada as a whole to bring those diverse experiences and voices to bear on the matters at hand. Besides, it is also important to remember, as one wag once said, “If you're not at the table, you're much more likely to be on the menu.” Clearly, in this Parliament we have more work to do to make sure diverse voices are heard on the topic of conversion therapy.
When it comes to Bill C-6, which seeks to end the practice of conversion therapy in Canada, I want to start by saying three things, at least two of which should be obvious to all but clearly are not.
The first is that no one in the SOGIE community needs to be fixed because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The prevalence of homophobia and transphobia makes it hard enough for many of us to live authentic lives as who we are, at home, at work and everywhere else in our daily lives. The very idea that we can or need to be fixed, which is fundamental to the concept of conversion therapy, only serves to reinforce homophobia and transphobia. The idea that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity could possibly be changed is especially problematic for those who, early in their lives, are still working their way toward figuring out exactly who they are. For queer youth, the idea they need to be fixed can and does contribute to both self-hate and fear of rejection by family and friends, both very damaging to mental health.
The second thing that should be obvious, which I think is to most people, is that certain sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions are not better than others. It is certainly not appropriate for governments to prefer some sexual orientations and gender identities over others. Nor is it appropriate to disadvantage or fail to protect some of our citizens because of their gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. All of us are equally deserving of equal protection under the law, and that is the essence of the issues raised in Bill C-6.
Finally, the third thing I want to raise at the outset of this debate is apparently less well understood, though it is a clearly established fact. It is impossible to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and as a result, conversion therapy is harmful to those who are subjected to it.
As for the outcomes of these practices, whether they are called conversion therapy, reparative therapy, aversion therapy or gender affirming therapy, those names do not really matter: The results are always the same. There is no change, and those who are subjected to therapy suffer from outcomes that include guilt and shame, depression, social isolation and often self-harm or even death by suicide.
Fortunately, I was never subjected to conversion therapy, though some in my own family were anything but accepting. I recognize now, ironically, that attempts to beat the gay out of me may have been actually less harmful in the long run than being subjected to conversion therapy. That is because the overt violence allowed me to focus the resulting anger and hostility outward rather than inward on myself.
Frankly, it is hard to imagine that some of the torture that was carried out in the past, under the name of therapy, ever actually took place. Far too many Canadians were subjected to barbaric practices, such as electroshock therapy, chemical castration and even exorcism, as we heard today. It is equally hard for me to accept the idea that conversion therapy should still be going on in Canada to this day, no less harmful in its results, even if somewhat less brutal sometimes in its means.
The fact that conversion therapy is harmful to those subjected to it is the reason this pernicious practice has been condemned internationally and domestically by health professionals. More than eight years ago, on May 17, 2012, on the 22nd anniversary of the removal of homosexuality from the list of recognized mental disorders, the World Health Organization issued a statement labelling conversion therapy to be “a serious threat to the health and well-being—even the lives—of affected people.”
Eight years ago, the World Health Organization called for action at the national level to ban and place sanctions on conversion therapy. No organization of health professionals in Canada currently approves of or allows the practice of conversion therapy. No provincial health plans allow for the practice of conversion therapy as part of the public health care system.
Conversion therapy is no longer supposed to be taking place within the formal health care system in this country, yet we know that it still goes on in the shadows. Not only is it taking place in Canada, but some Canadians are still being sent for conversion therapy in the United States. A report on conversion therapy in Canada was published in February of this year. It surveyed over 7,200 gay, bisexual and two-spirit men. More than 20% reported being subjected to some form of conversion therapy. When it comes to transgender and non-binary Canadians, the numbers approach 50%.
It is one thing to know from formal studies that this is still taking place, but it is quite another to hear the brave survivors who have come forward to tell their stories of the harm they suffered as a result. I encourage all MPs to listen carefully to those stories.
When it comes to Bill C-6, let me say again, as we did last March and when the bill was reintroduced recently, the New Democrats will be supporting Bill C-6 at second reading. What the bill does can briefly be summarized as follows. It specifically criminalizes subjecting minors to conversion therapy and transporting minors out of Canada for the purpose of conversion therapy. It criminalizes subjecting adults to conversion therapy against their will, and it criminalizes what we call the business of conversion therapy.
The main strength of Bill C-6 is its focus on youth, for it is young people who conversion therapy is almost always directed against. It is young people who suffer the greatest harm from the attempts to force them to be someone they are not.
Its second strength is the suite of comprehensive measures to ban the practice or promotion of the business of conversion therapy, which would help ensure the practice is actually shut down by making it illegal to charge for, to profit from or to advertise conversion therapy for both minors and adults. The bill contains significant power to seek court orders to remove offending materials from online platforms.
Let me stop here for a moment to address the reddest of red herrings concerning this bill. This is the “what about” argument: “What about the rights of others?” and in particular, “What about the rights of others whose religious freedoms might be infringed by this bill?” For me, it is always a red flag when I hear arguments that start with “what about”. The resort to what about-ism is rarely about promoting real dialogue, and is instead usually a diversionary tactic to take the argument onto grounds that what about-ers think will make it easier for them to win the argument. What I am saying is that arguments that start with “what about” are most often exercises in distraction rather than attempts to confront the real issues before us.
Clause 5 of Bill C-6 says clearly that the definition of “conversion therapy” in the bill does not refer to “a person’s exploration of their identity or to its development.” This means that there is nothing in the bill that prevents parents from talking to their children about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Nothing in the bill prevents spiritual leaders from discussing these topics with their followers. Nothing in the bill prohibits anyone from holding bigoted and outdated ideas about sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. What it does prevent is taking those beliefs and ideas and turning them into hateful and harmful practices disguised as “therapy”. How the bill is an appropriate bill for a free vote is a question that I will continue to have for my Conservative colleagues.
Returning to the NDP position on the bill, again, as I have said, we will support it at second reading. However, we do believe the bill can and should be improved. What are those improvements we are looking for?
First, we would like to see the government respond positively to the demand from the SOGIE community for a full ban on conversion therapy, a ban for adults as well as for children.
The minister has made the argument previously that his goal here is to have a bill that is charter challenge proof. His solution has been to design Bill C-6 to avoid possible charter challenges by focusing on non-consenting adults, minors and the “business” of conversion therapy. It sets aside the question of so-called “consenting adults.”
This is a good argument in that I do believe the bill would survive a charter challenge as the provisions around the business of conversion therapy included will result in an effective ban on the practice for consenting adults, at least when it comes to paid services. However, a total ban would also survive a charter challenge. I would very much like to see any legal opinions that the government might have saying that it would not.
In brief, my argument here is that there is an equally compelling charter argument that it is a reasonable limit on fundamental rights to prohibit anyone from giving consent to a practice that is clearly harmful to those subjected to it. Without going too far down the legal rabbit hole here, there is parallel jurisprudence that has upheld restrictions on things like fight clubs, which leads me to conclude that a full ban would also be found charter compliant.
The second and perhaps more significant area in which the bill can be improved is in the language used to define what conversion therapy is. The language in Bill C-6 is actually pretty good when it comes to the traditional conversion therapy practice directed at sexual orientation. I am also glad that there is language in the bill attempting to ensure it covers banning conversion therapy directed at trans and non-binary Canadians.
This kind of practice is often styled as “gender-affirming therapy” or “transition treatment” or other such positive-sounding names. However, this is where the language in the bill is not so good. The committee will need to have a close look at this clause of the bill to ensure it is as comprehensive and up to date with current practice as possible when it comes to so-called therapies aimed at transgender and non-binary Canadians.
Now let me address a bit of revisionist history that has crept into the discussion of the bill. I want to take a moment to remind the House how we got here to second reading on a bill to ban conversion therapy. Of course elected officials have played a role, but not everyone who is on side now was always there.
Former Saskatoon West NDP MP Sheri Benson, the only out lesbian in the previous Parliament, sponsored petition e-1833 in the last Parliament, which called on the government to ban conversion therapy. That petition received nearly 20,000 signatures. When the petition was presented to the government in March of 2019, the Liberal government said it would take no action as it argued conversion therapy was a provincial responsibility.
In his 2019 Pride message, the NDP Leader, the member for Burnaby South, called for a ban as part of the NDP Platform. The Liberals still refused to budge. Then on September 29, in the midst of the election campaign just over a year ago, the Prime Minister suddenly changed course and promised a federal ban on conversion therapy. His December 2019 mandate letter for the justice minister included instructions to bring forward legislation to ban conversion therapy. I thank the minister for doing so and I welcome this conversion. I have no doubt also in the sincerity of his intentions to get a bill through this Parliament, which will end this practice.
However, let me stress today as always that no progress on SOGIE rights has ever taken place that has not been fought for by courageous members of our community and no place has that role been more important than in the case of brave conversion therapy survivors who have stepped up to tell their stories. Without them, the rest of us might have gone on blithely assuming that formal professional condemnation of conversion therapy was enough and had actually stopped this practice.
I cannot name all those who have spoken up, but let me quickly point to two who have helped deepen my understanding of how harmful this practice can be and how it continues to go on. I thank Erika Muse and Matt Ashcroft for speaking boldly and publicly.
There are days when the younger me is still surprised that I can stand in the House of Commons and speak as an openly gay man, and even more surprised that I do so as an official party spokesperson on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. However, there are also days when I am discouraged about the long distance we still have to go to reach full equality and acceptance, especially for transgender and non-binary Canadians. There are also days when I am hopeful that we will soon see more MPs from my community, including trans and non-binary representatives. We need those diverse voices in the House and young Canadians need to see those role models.
It is time to act and in fact long past the time to bring an end to this harmful practice. As welcome as new laws banning the practice are, new laws alone will not be sufficient to repair the past damage from conversion therapy nor combat the hate that underlies these practices. The government will need to fund capacity building within the SOGIE community so these challenges can be addressed by our community ourselves. Unfortunately, for some from our community it is far too late and they will never be able to be brought back to us.
I look forward to the speedy passage of the bill so we can get on with the important work of healing. I look forward to the day when we can say that all forms of conversion therapy have been banned from Canada and are no longer practised. I look forward to the day we can fully celebrate the full range of sexual and gender diversity in our country.