The Canadian government’s bill to ban conversion therapy will likely be headed for a third reading vote in the next couple of weeks, before being sent off to the Senate for sober second thought. The history of Bill C-6 is relatively short compared to some previous queer bills, such as the protection of gender identity and expression. As a piece of government legislation, it looks like it will be able to cross the finish line—despite the Conservative caucus’ disjointed attempts to stop it.
The bill has been a point of division in a caucus where attempts to achieve unity between social conservatives and the more progressive members have been fraught. That’s less of a surprise, however, than the ways Conservatives have decided to surreptitiously oppose the bill without looking like they are trying to oppose it. Their prime tactic has been to adopt “concern trolling”—a technique often employed online whereby one pretends to support a cause but is reluctant to offer full support because of “concerns.”
This is precisely how many Conservatives have chosen to debate the bill.
When a Senate Liberal first proposed a bill to ban conversion therapy on a national scale in the spring of 2019, there was panic among the Conservative caucus because they knew that the issue would set off the social conservatives in their ranks, who would be afraid that their religious practices were going to be criminalized. Recall that many of these same social conservatives had a similar fear when same-sex marriage was debated some 15 years ago: They feared pastors would be jailed for hate speech should they denounce homosexuality, and that a law that pertained only to civil marriage would somehow be used to force churches to perform same-sex weddings—something that has not come to pass.
When Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government first proposed the anti-conversion therapy legislation, many Conservatives tried to hedge their opposition in carefully chosen language. Then-leader Andrew Scheer said that he did not agree with anyone being forced to change their sexual orientation, but that choice of language left open the notion that he believed someone could willingly do so of their own volition—something he did not discount.
This is, of course, the glaring loophole in the bill: That a consenting adult would be free to pursue some form of conversion therapy on a voluntary basis, because the government (rightly) recognized that an attempt to impose such a ban would almost certainly be struck down in a Charter challenge. (This loophole exists despite the fact that the World Health Organization has denounced conversion therapy as a discredited and “unjustifiable practice.”) The bill does make it illegal to advertise conversion therapy services or to profit from providing them, which limits the avenues for the provision of such “services.” That, however, will likely relegate the practice to the confines of churches with charitable status.
The bill was the subject of some debate in the Conservative leadership contest last year when Scheer stepped down, with social conservatives like Leslyn Lewis citing fear that a simple conversation with a pastor would mean criminal charges (it wouldn’t), or Derek Sloan—who has since been ousted from the party—insisting that this bill would make child abuse legal, which is how he described gender-affirmation surgery for someone under the age of 18.
New party leader Erin O’Toole says he supports the intent of the bill, and voted for it at second reading. But he also insisted that he had problems with how it was drafted and intended to propose amendments to provide clarity around people seeking counselling—a position numerous other Conservatives adopted. The few amendments the bill received at the committee stage came from the NDP, and none of the Conservative amendments were adopted. As a result, the Conservatives maintained these concerns about counselling as the bill headed into its third reading last week.
During debate on Apr. 16, B.C. Conservative MP Tamara Jansen, after quoting Matthew 23:27, went to bat for “counselling sessions” with the tale of a young woman from Calgary named Charlotte, who was “involved in lesbian activity.”
“She struggled with self-worth and depression,” Jansen said. “She reached a point in her life when she did not want to continue with her lesbian activity, and her parents supported her choice and helped her find a counsellor who helped her process the feelings.” Jansen then quoted Charlotte saying that this counselling was what she desperately needed at that time in her life.
Her fellow MP, Alberta’s Michael Cooper, insisted that he was concerned that the bill was so “vague and overly broad” that it “could also more broadly encapsulate such things as good-faith conversations.” That’s a stretch.
If the bill were challenged in court by anyone who was arrested and subject to criminal prosecution for offering “good-faith conversations,” a judge would look to the parliamentary record for what the government intended, and it’s on the record multiple times that no, good-faith conversations are not the subject of this bill. It is apparent that this tactic fits the very definition of concern trolling.
I have little doubt that far fewer Conservatives will support this bill at third reading vote than they did at second reading, citing that their concerns were not mollified by amendments. We may yet see another round of this kind of concern trolling from Conservatives in the Senate. But because this is government legislation, and the broadly progressive composition of the Senate supports the intent of the bill, it is sure to be smoother sailing in that chamber. And while we’re likely to see the bill fully passed and receiving royal assent before Parliament rises for the summer break, the Conservatives will still be remembered for lagging behind on this crucial LGBTQ2S+ legislation.