Meet the unlikely senator sponsoring Canada’s bill to end conversion therapy

New Brunswick’s René Cormier never expected to be an LGBTQ2S+ advocate in the Senate. But now, he’s the senator ushering Bill C-6 to the finish line

While Conservative MPs in the House of Commons continue to delay the bill to ban conversion therapy—either through procedural filibusters or by continuing to put up more speakers to repeat the same concern trolling that has dominated the debate to date—Bill C-6’s sponsor in the Senate patiently waits for its arrival.

Independent Senator René Cormier, who represents New Brunswick, never thought he would be an activist for queer and trans issues. Despite being gay himself, Cormier spent his life before his Senate appointment advocating for issues more closely related to his Acadian heritage, language and culture.

“I had a career in music and theatre,” Cormier says. Raised in Caraquet, New Brunswick, in the Acadian community, he studied music at the University of Montreal and later had a career as a musical director. Cormier also studied theatre, went to France for a couple of years, and became a theatre director in New Brunswick.

“I was always involved in politics in a way—not in parties, but in policies,” Cormier says. “I was always involved in cultural policies, and that’s where I started to be aware of the importance of the infrastructure around culture and the need to have strong policies. I never thought I would become a senator.”

It was during his time presiding over the Société Nationale de l’Acadie (SNA), the representative organization for the Acadian people in Atlantic Canada both nationally and internationally, that Cormier was encouraged to apply for the new Senate nomination process. He was appointed in November 2016.

One of the functions of the Senate has always been to serve as a chamber of minorities. At Confederation, it was more concerned with linguistic and religious minorities, but evolved to include women (consider the Famous Five’s “Persons” Case), and eventually more cultural minorities and Indigenous people.

“From when I came out a long time ago, there’s a lot of work that’s been done but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Cormier intended to represent just his Acadian community within the upper chamber, and never saw himself as an LGBTQ2S+ activist despite being a proud member of the community, until he actually arrived at the Senate.

“I was challenged by the young generation in a way,” Cormier says. “From when I came out a long time ago and what’s happening now, there’s a lot of work that’s been done but there’s still a lot of work to do. All of the dimensions around diversity and the trans community that I didn’t know very well, I’m mainly interested in that because it’s human rights—making sure that people have the right to be who they are.

 

“It’s almost a surprise for me that I’m now so involved, but I’m very glad to be involved,” Cormier adds. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Cormier volunteered to sponsor Bill C-6 in the Senate, having previously sponsored the bill on expunging the records of queer individuals who had once been convicted of the offences of gross indecency, buggery and anal intercourse.

“It’s always interesting but challenging for [an Independent] senator to sponsor a bill because it comes from the government,” Cormier says. “My main job is to make sure that the bill progresses in the Senate and that debate happens, that it goes to committee, and that it ultimately goes to a vote. That’s my role, and coming from the LGBTQ+ community, after reading and hearing the impact on young people’s lives, that’s my motivation.”

Cormier says that he has been speaking to senators about the bill and has had positive feedback so far. “The most important thing for me is to have the work in committee, so that we can go deeper into the content of the bill and what the bill hopes to achieve,” Cormier says. As the bill’s sponsor, he has a list of suggested witnesses for the committee who can speak to the realities of conversion therapy; ultimately it will be up to the committee to decide who they invite.

“My main job is to make sure that the bill progresses in the Senate.”

“The importance here is having a balance of witnesses, to have experts, and it’s crucial to make sure that we examine the bill in all of its dimensions,” says Cormier.

Cormier hopes that it can make it through the Senate before the summer.

“It’s an important bill,” says Cormier. “I’m thinking about the people, about the LGBTQ+ community who went through [conversion therapy]. A lot of people didn’t know about it, and a lot of people have a lot of concerns that don’t really belong in the bill, so we have to go back to what the bill is, and that’s what I hope we will do when it comes to the Senate.” 

Debate in the House has included a number of red herrings, such as concerns that gay men seeking help for sex addiction could be denied it under this bill, or that a heterosexually married man could not voluntarily seek counselling to deal with same-sex attraction that could lead to infidelity. 

When it comes to potential roadblocks, there is the possibility that the Conservatives will attempt to slow-walk the bill in the Senate as they have in the House. But because this is a government bill, there remains a chance that the Leader of the Government in the Senate can use procedural tools like time allocation to push Bill C-6 through—if he can secure enough votes to do so.

Nevertheless, the Senate has been making short work of all of its business in recent weeks, having condensed their sitting days so as to minimize their footprint on Parliamentary resources when it comes to “hybrid” sittings in the current pandemic context. This could be an (optimistic) indication of swift passage of the bill once it reaches the Senate. But with the number of sitting days in the House rapidly running out, and with the Conservatives putting up as many roadblocks to this bill’s progress as possible, the possibility of it being delayed over the summer break has become a real threat.

Dale Smith

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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