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UCP dissolves group tasked with banning conversion therapy in Alberta

Jason Kenney’s government says it’s not a ‘valid health service’

Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) has disbanded a working group tasked with finding a way to ban conversion therapy in the province.

On Monday, Jason Kenney’s government halted the operations of a group made up of academics, advocates, faith leaders and LGBTQ2 people that was examining ways to ban conversion therapy in the province. The group was established by Alberta’s former NDP health minister Sarah Hoffman in February and was originally meant to meet over the course of five months to brainstorm ways to stop the practice, which has already been banned in both Ontario and Manitoba.

Conversion therapy claims to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ2 people through the use of things like prayer and talk therapy. However, there’s no scientific research that supports this practice. In 2015, the Canadian Psychological Association denounced the practice, saying that conversion therapy can result in damaging outcomes for individuals such as depression, negative self-image and a feeling of personal failure.

So why did the UCP stop the group?

In an interview with Postmedia, the province’s new health minister, Tyler Shandro, said his party is opposed to conversion therapy: “Our priority is always to make sure nobody is forced to do anything, especially children. Children deserve to be living in a caring environment.”

Shandro’s press secretary, Steve Buick, later told the media that the UCP has no plans to bring the group back as conversion therapy is not a “valid health service.” This means that, according to Shandro, conversion therapy doesn’t need to be banned in Alberta because its practitioners can’t bill patients. He adds that the ban would’ve been unnecessary as no health professional regulator would permit the so-called therapy and that any regulated health professional — like a doctor, nurse or psychologist — who practiced it would be found guilty of unprofessional conduct.

However, NDP MLA Nicole Goehring, who co-chaired the disbanded group with activist and University of Alberta instructor Glynnis Lieb, says the UCP’s explanation is not acceptable. In a statement to the Edmonton Journal, Goehring says it’s not a reasonable argument because conversion therapy is still happening, regardless of whether the patient is being billed or not.

“It’s not advertised, the language is vague, but it’s still occurring,” she says.

What’s the state of conversion therapy in Canada?

Last month, Liberal Senator Serge Joyal tabled Bill S-260, which aims to amend the Criminal Code of Canada to make it an offence to advertise conversion therapy to anyone under the age of 18.

The move is the result of an online petition that called on the federal government to ban the practice geared toward Canadian children. In February, NDP MP Sheri Benson presented the petition to the House of Commons.

In March, the government responded, calling conversion therapies “immoral” and maintaining that those practices don’t reflect the government’s — or Canadian — values. However, since conversion therapy can be carried out by healthcare professionals, the government says that it’s largely a provincial and territorial issue. This means that the issue of conversion therapy could be addressed through existing sections of the Criminal Code; when a person is forced to undergo conversion therapy, criminal charges like kidnapping, assault and forcible confinement may apply.

In a statement to Huffpost Canada, Benson, the NDP MP who sponsored the online petition, says she’s pleased to see Joyal continue to fight to get rid of conversion therapy in Canada. Currently, the country has no national ban on the practice, but Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and the City of Vancouver have placed restrictions on it.

What’s next for Alberta?

After the working group was formed in February, then-opposition leader, Jason Kenney said he would keep an open mind and hear whatever arguments the former NDP government brought forward regarding the potential ban of conversion therapy in Alberta..

Goehring says the NDP knew the process of banning the practice would be complex, which is the reason why they decided to organize the working group in the first place. She says the group was assembled to provide some structure in order to find an effective strategy for moving forward. With the UCP’s recent decision, Goehring says the issue surrounding conversion therapy has become even more politicized. She has also said she is willing to step down to allow Shandro to appoint a UCP MLA if that means the group can continue its work.

“I would plead [the minister] to take a step back and have discussions with the working group so he can hear why it’s important to ban [conversion therapy],” she said. “At the end of the day, this really is about protecting vulnerable Albertans.”