Just days before the start of Pride month, Alberta’s newly elected conservative government has cancelled a working group tasked with banning conversion therapy in the province.
Conversion therapy is the belief that a person can change their sexual orientation or gender identity through psychological or spiritual intervention. This belief, which has been discredited by virtually all medical associations in Europe and North America, is often referred to as ‘praying the gay away.’
Alberta’s Health Minister Tyler Shandro claims that while the working group has been disbanded, Alberta’s government is opposed to conversion therapy. Shandro said:
“Our priority is always to make sure nobody is forced to do anything, especially children. Children deserve to be living in a caring environment.”
In a follow-up email to Postmedia, Shandro’s press secretary Steve Buick wrote that while the working group will not be brought back:
“[The government is] happy to hear from anyone who may have a concern. We don’t think there’s a need to address it specifically because it’s not a valid health service. It’s not practiced in Alberta and it cannot be, because no health professional regulator would permit it. Any regulated health professional — doctor, nurse, psychologist, etc. — would be found guilty of unprofessional conduct if they practiced it.”
While Buick is correct that most healthcare regulators have banned conversion therapy, he omits the reality that conversion therapy continues to be an accepted practice in many non-professional environments including some religious organizations.
This development also raises potential ethical questions for Premier Jason Kenney. In 2014, Kenney’s brother David was forced to close an unlicensed youth treatment centre he ran — NeurVana Innovative Recovery and Wellness — after a lawsuit was launched by families who claimed their children were bullied and mistreated there.
NeurVana was purported to help youth with drug addiction, depression, and psychological issues. While not legally substantiated, there have been rumours that conversion therapy was one of the services offered.
The decision to disband the working group is another worrying development from a government that is under fire for rolling back LGBTQ+ protections. This includes a highly controversial decision to repeal a law that protects youth from being outed by educators if they join a gay-straight alliance.
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This latest development in Alberta clearly highlights why the federal government must legislate to ban conversion therapy across the country.
In 2015, the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) formally condemned conversion therapy stating:
“Conversion or reparative therapy can result in negative outcomes such as distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction.”
On February 1, 2019, NDP MP Sheri Benson presented a petition containing more than 18,000 signatures to the House of Commons calling on the Liberal government to legislate a nationwide ban on conversion therapy.
After waiting nearly two months to address the issue, the federal Liberal government responded saying that:
“conversion therapies are immoral, painful, and do not reflect the values of our government or those of Canadians.”
Despite this response, the federal government fell short of supporting legislation. A spokesperson for the Liberals claimed that the therapy falls into provincial jurisdiction.
To date, some provinces and cities have started to take legal action. Ontario and Manitoba have created laws that strictly forbid conversion therapy. Nova Scotia has made it illegal for health care professionals to offer conversion therapy to minors, and Vancouver has created a bylaw restricting businesses from offering it.
While these are positive developments, it is a fallacy that the federal government lacks the purview to create a nationwide ban.
Yes, the regulation of healthcare professionals is a provincial matter as outlined in the Canadian Constitution, but there are precedents where the federal government has regulated health matters for the entire country.
These matters are usually addressed by amending the criminal code. The legalization of abortion, which began in 1969, came through amendments to the federal criminal code.
In a 2011 ruling — Canada v. PHS Community Services Society — the Supreme Court confirmed the federal government’s ability to legislate health matters. The ruling states:
“[The federal government] has the power to legislate with respect to federal matters, notably criminal law, that touch on health. For instance, it has historic jurisdiction to prohibit medical treatments that are dangerous, or that it perceives as ‘socially undesirable’ behaviour.”
If the Liberal government feels that conversion therapy is immoral and does not reflect the ethics and values of Canadian society, then amending the criminal code to reflect this aligns perfectly with the Court’s ruling.
Justin Trudeau holds the record as Canada’s most LGBTQ+ friendly Prime Minister. He’s the first Prime Minister to participate in Pride parades across the country. Shortly after being elected to government, he created the first Prime Ministerial Advisor on LBGTQ2+ issues.
In 2017, he offered a historic formal apology to the LGBTQ community for decades of state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection.
He has also participated in events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada, including the approval of a coin issued by the Royal Canadian Mint.
Given his government’s track record, it’s surprising that there is a reluctance to create a national ban on conversion therapy.
Trudeau is on record supporting provincial bans. Shortly before the 2015 federal election, Trudeau tweeted his praise for the Ontario government’s decision to ban conversion therapy calling it a huge victory for equality.
So, the question must be asked why the Prime Minister doesn’t see that a federal ban would be a massive victory for equality.