Justin Trudeau waves a rainbow Canada flag. The prime minister's government tabled legislation to ban conversion therapy earlier this year.
Credit: The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Politics
7 min

Canada’s failed plot to end conversion therapy

Legislation that would have banned the practice across the country has been killed. A survivor weighs in on the Canadian government’s responsibility to address its shortcomings

On March 9, 2020, the same week that the country began to shutdown schools and, later, non-essential businesses due to COVID-19, the Canadian government introduced Bill C-8, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (conversion therapy) in the House of Commons. The proposed legislation would have made it illegal to force someone to undergo conversion therapy “against the person’s will,” put a child through the so-called therapy or to advertise and profit from it.

In the ensuing six months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this new proposed law—the product of years of advocacy by many people, myself included, calling on all levels of government to ban what the United Nations recently named “violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” That’s because I know first hand how harmful the practice can be: I was an adult when I went through my own six years of conversion therapy with a licensed psychiatrist in British Columbia. And for more than 20 years, I have advocated for tougher regulations or legal bans on conversion therapy for everyone, including adults.

Bill C-8 had its shortcomings, but it would have at least set legislative precedent for the country in regards to conversion therapy—a practice that affects nearly one in every five sexual minority men, according to one B.C.-based survey.

But now, the proposed ban won’t come to fruition for any Canadians in the foreseeable future. On August 18, on the heels of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s exit from cabinet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted to prorogue the government, effectively shutting down Parliament until September. An unintended consequence of that move: Killing all tabled bills that have yet to receive royal assent—including Bill C-8. The bill could be revived with unanimous consent from all parties, but it’s likely to be a low priority for a government embroiled in ethics scandals and facing a confidence vote in the fall.

Trudeau’s move to prorogue Parliament, I have to assume, was a political strategy—one that didn’t take into account the lives of LGBTQ2 people who experience the harmful effects of conversion therapy. It also creates gaps at provincial and municipal levels: Where other levels of government might have created their own legislation against the practice, many have deferred to the feds to enforce its national ban. Such was the case in B.C. last year, when the NDP quashed a ban introduced by the provincial Green Party, insisting conversion therapy was a federal issue.

If the Canadian government truly wants to make a difference for LGBTQ2 people, it must consider how its political maneuvers have left us vulnerable. And if they are serious about making a difference, Trudeau’s Liberals must go back to the drawing board come September to ensure our collective safety.

I was 24 years old in 1989 when I met my former psychiatrist. During our first meeting in his office, I told the doctor I was gay but that my parents had rejected me because of my sexuality. I explained that I’d been sexually abused as a child but had never dealt with the abuse. Depressed, suicidal and highly anxious, I was too emotionally distraught to articulate much of anything else, except to say that I needed help. If my “will” desired anything early on, it was simply to feel better; the rest I left up to the doctor, a medical professional.

I began the psychiatrist’s treatment model: Primal scream therapy. One by one, over a period of months and then years, the doctor introduced various other practices into my therapy—prescription medications, weekly injections of ketamine hydrochloride, reparenting techniques, aversion therapy—eventually explaining that all of it would help “correct the error” of my homosexuality. The sexual abuse had caused my homosexuality, he said, and I needed to listen to him and do as I was told. The doctor’s interpretation of what he thought it meant for me to be gay redirected my treatment, setting me on a trajectory that I could have never understood or anticipated at the time.

Consent was lost along the way, but I can’t believe that true consent could have ever been given while under such distress. To this day, I still say that I only ever consented to the doctor’s invitation of trust—his claim that he knew the best way out of my misery. Long before I met him, I had been raised to believe the lie that sexual abuse could make a person gay. So by the time I was deep into treatment and under the spell of incredibly powerful psychotropics, I accepted as truth what turned out to be the false promise of “correction.” The level of betrayal I experienced after leaving his care—withdrawing from the last of the medications, gaining back some semblance of sanity and realizing the full extent of our malevolent pact—left me shell-shocked.

In the iteration tabled in March, the only part of Bill C-8 that would apply to adults is described as “forced conversion therapy.” This suggests that anyone who, like me, seeks out therapy of any kind and doesn’t say “no” to the ensuing treatment consents to conversion therapy of their own volition. During a press conference on March 9, Minister of Justice David Lametti doubled down on this suggestion: “With respect to adults, we are criminalizing where there has been coercion, so the person is not making the decision necessarily of their own free will,” he said. “We felt that a competent adult could conceivably defend the right in a court to consent to this kind of activity and we felt that we couldn’t move ahead in that case scenario simply because of the Charter of Rights.”

Now that I am many years on the other side of my own traumatic experience, I can safely say that any suggestion that I may have ever consented to or chosen, of my “own free will,” the kind of treatment that doctor used on me shows a lack of understanding of the practice of trying to change a person’s sexuality (or, for others, trying to change their gender), as well as the vulnerability of anyone who seeks therapy for any reason and the power differential implicit to all therapeutic relationships.

No one should have to experience what I did some three decades ago. And yet, the proposed legislation set forth by the Trudeau government wouldn’t prevent a similar conversion experience to mine from happening to others today.

Generally speaking, I have grave concerns with the idea of dividing a ban on conversion therapy by age—prohibiting it for minors, but not explicitly prohibiting it for adults. It implies that a criminal offence is warranted because of the harm conversion therapy causes to some (minors), but that there may still be something about it that is useful or at least not as harmful to others (adults). Rather than focusing on the fact that conversion therapy is a fraudulent practice and causes harm to all, it centres the issues of “choice” and “coercion”—that an adult could conceivably still “choose” one of these treatments “of their own free will.”

For this reason alone, the Canadian government must reassess how it views those who have survived conversion therapy. The reference in the bill to the word “will,” for instance, makes it sound as if there are times in these relationships when the client is not vulnerable or when they have complete and autonomous agency—a suggestion that is entirely false and does not adequately reflect the reality of the helping relationship. Similarly, Minister Lametti’s reference to the word “coercion” makes it sound as if the act of conversion therapy could be anything other than coercive. Regardless of whether or not the client seemingly “consents” to treatment, all forms of conversion therapy are inherently coercive—it is disingenuous to imply that in certain cases it could be anything but.

In 2020, the most publicly known “change treatments” are found within religious organizations, which often describe their practices as “helping” those struggling with their sexuality or gender. Many times, the goals are overt: The client knows beforehand that the aim will be to change or suppress their sexuality or gender. Other times (as in my case) the ultimate plan can remain covert—clients may be led down a path not of their own intent.

In these latter cases, it is important to remember that conversion therapy is ideology—it is a belief in the brokenness of people by virtue of their homosexuality or trans identity, and it speaks to the intent of the practitioner in their goal to “cure,” “correct” or “heal” the sexuality or gender-identity of the client through various interventions. Practitioners never claim to practice anything remotely called “conversion therapy,” and many will use other covert language, like battling “unwanted same-sex attractions.” What is true for us all, however, is that when we seek help, we trust that our helper will not hurt us even more.

Adults are even more likely than minors to initiate a helping relationship, but that does not prevent them from becoming susceptible to the influence of the practitioner. Indeed, implicit in all of these relationships is the fact that the client is vulnerable to the innate power differential of the relationship.

Some who oppose these bans state that, in a free and democratic society, adults should retain the right to “choose” any treatment they want—that efforts to prevent them from doing so, in the form of bans, are even fascistic. What I find troubling about this argument in particular—and by the government’s apparent concession to it—is that an adult’s “right to choose” does not mean that practitioners should be given free reign to enforce a violent and discriminatory practice through their programs. Adults have the right to do as they please in the privacy of their own lives; helping professionals—and in this definition, I include all faith leaders—do not have the right to practice, advertise or charge a fee to anyone, regardless of the person’s age, for a kind of treatment that is proven to be fraudulent and can cause harm. Finally, in response to another of Minister Lametti’s statements: The point is not that an adult could conceivably try to “defend the right in a court to consent to this kind of activity”; the point is that the very thing these adults would try to consent to is what a ban on conversion therapy should seek to abolish.

We know that conversion therapy is an expression of homophobia and transphobia from within a helping professional environment. It is institutionalized torture. That the Canadian government has failed to address and end the practice on a national scale shows an inability to break down systems of prejudice that have caused undue suffering to a targeted minority of individuals. And until conversion therapy is legally banned in its entirety in Canada—a ban that firmly and resolutely eradicates orders of hate—LGBTQ2 people remain at risk.