All parties get to wear the failure to ban conversion therapy in Canada

Bill C-6, which would have prohibited the harmful practice on a national level, did not pass through the Senate—and there’s plenty of blame to share across party lines

The Senate did not pass Bill C-6, the bill that would ban conversion therapy in Canada, before they rose for the summer. This failure will likely mean that the bill will die on the Order Paper if an election is called before Parliament returns at the end of September. And while the Conservative campaign of slow-walking this bill is going to be held up as the culprit, every party gets a share of the blame for this political failure.

The move to crack down on conversion therapy at the federal level can be traced back to 2019, when queer NDP MP Sheri Benson tabled a petition calling on the federal government to take action to ban the practice. The government determined that this was something best dealt with by the provinces, given that healthcare is a provincial jurisdiction.

Later that year, then-Liberal Senator Serge Joyal, one of the architects of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, decided that there was something that could be done at the federal level: the feds could use the criminal law power to attach penalties to the practice. It had the additional potential of being a cudgel they could use against the Conservatives in the upcoming election, given the palpable sense of panic over Joyal’s bill coming out of the Conservative caucus room.

The Liberals lost their majority during the 2019 election, but tabled the bill very early in the new parliament, to much fanfare and photo ops in the foyer of the new House of Commons. Nevertheless, the Liberals were slow to get things moving after the election—and then, the pandemic struck. Parliament was largely shut down, and any legislation that didn’t include emergency measures to deal with the crisis was put on the backburner. It wasn’t until the fall, after a prorogation, that the House of Commons got back up and running in a “hybrid” format and began to look at bills again.

“The Liberals were slow to get things moving after the election—and then, the pandemic struck.”

When the bill was reintroduced as C-6, its prospects were good. Most Conservative MPs looked like they were going to support it; many of them, including new leader Erin O’Toole, insisted that while they didn’t support “forced” or “coercive” conversion therapy, they had concerns about the bill that they hoped to see addressed at committee. That process went relatively smoothly—while there were amendments, none from the Conservatives made it through.

But then the bill stalled. From December 2020 until April 2021, it made no progress at all, in part because the House of Commons was quickly becoming toxic and dysfunctional with an outbreak of procedural warfare that every party contributed to. Opposition parties, smelling blood in the water, tried to capitalize on the WE Charity imbroglio that cost finance minister Bill Morneau his job, and saw WE start to wind down many of its Canadian operations.


This warfare spilled over into the chamber, where the Conservatives, with the aid of the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP, began a series of dilatory motions that prevented any bills from seeing debate. It wasn’t until the end of April that the Bloc and NDP woke up to the fact that they were running out of time to get bills passed they deemed a priority—including C-6. They started agreeing to time allocation on some bills in one-off deals to get them through, along with the federal budget. By this point, about three months of parliamentary time was lost—time in which Bill C-6 could have been passed. The NDP insist that their hand was out to move this bill ahead, but we don’t know what particular strings were attached to the offer.

When the bill finally started third reading debate, the Conservatives started on their tactics of concern trolling, red herrings and continually putting up speakers so that debate wouldn’t collapse and let it go to a vote. This is where we got the gems like “lesbian activity,” ludicrous suggestions that the bill would criminalize parents having conversations with their children and the time-worn paranoia that pastors wouldn’t be allowed to quote scripture that they claim condemns homosexuality (fears which have been raised time and again with human rights laws, hate speech and same-sex marriage—all of which have never come to pass).

“In the bill’s third reading, the Conservatives started on their tactics of concern trolling and red herrings.”

This is where the cynicism creeps in: the Liberals may have tried to time the passage to Pride Month, because they love to tie tabling bills or adopting legislation to significant dates. But Conservative tactics made this increasingly unlikely. When it did finally go to a vote and made it to the Senate, there was no appetite by the Conservatives in that chamber to fast-track this bill. 

There has also been talk of a behind-the-scenes deal to let the government’s budget and climate bills pass at the expense of this bill and the Broadcasting Act changes. There was no reason why the Senate could not have kept sitting into July in order to pass either bill, even without overt fast-tracking. Curiously, however, the government’s “representative,” Senator Marc Gold, set a date for the chamber to rise for the summer, which didn’t make any particular sense procedurally. And that was it. He tried to move a motion that would at least let the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee to sit in the summer to study this bill, in the event that Parliament does reconvene in the fall without an election call—but the Conservatives denied it.

There is already talk that the Liberals may have instructed Gold to let the bill die in the Senate so that they can continue to use this as a wedge against the Conservatives on what could be an election trail. And while that cynicism is absolutely deserved, it doesn’t entirely capture some of the dynamics that have taken shape in Trudeau’s “new, independent” Senate.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have said that if C-6 does die and they form government in the next parliament, they will reintroduce their own bill to ban conversion therapy in a form that “builds consensus” around the issue. They have continued to cite their concerns about the current bill being overly broad and blame the Liberals for not bringing the bill forward for debate earlier.

“This has been a series of failures from all parties and both chambers.”

“We know conversion therapy needs to be banned,” said Conservative justice critic Rob Moore in a press conference. “If the Liberals are so incompetent that after six years in government they still can’t make that happen, Canada’s Conservatives will.”

The sentiment is absolutely precious considering the obstruction that they put forward, and the fact that their “concerns” about the bill were demonstrably false.

There is blame to go around—it’s not just the Liberals or the Conservatives. The NDP and the Bloc can’t wash their hands of their own culpability in the procedural warfare that delayed bills, including this one, for months. And it’s not just the Senate that is at fault, because they were handed the bill at the very last minute. This has been a series of failures from all parties and both chambers, and this harmful and discredited practice is going to be allowed to continue because everyone dropped the ball. Everyone gets to wear this.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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