Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s efforts to straddle the divide between social conservatives and more moderate members of his caucus were on display Wednesday as the House of Commons gave approval in principle to a bill that would outlaw the discredited practice of conversion therapy.
The bill passed easily by a vote of 308-7 but exposed divisions within Conservative ranks.
O’Toole himself voted in favour of the bill, as did most Conservative MPs.
But seven of his MPs voted against it, two abstained and eight others made it clear they were supporting it only grudgingly for now, in hopes that it will be amended by the Commons justice committee.
Cloverdale-Langley City MP Tamara Jansen is one of the two who opted not to vote but that does not mean she is in favour of conversion therapy.
“Protection from any sort of degrading or dehumanizing practice that would seek to coerce someone into changing their behaviour is a no brainer,” she told Black Press Media. “Ensuring that parental rights and religious freedom will not be nullified by a badly worded bill is my top priority. Good amendments at committee level will be the way that we can all get to yes.”
She told Black Press Media she’s concerned about the imprecise wording in the legislation.
’Most politicians oppose conversion therapy in principle,” she said. “But Bill C-6 proposes to use an overreaching definition of ‘conversion therapy’ that would needlessly criminalize normal conversations between children and their parents, teachers, counsellors and mentors about gender and sexual behaviour.”
Former leader Andrew Scheer was among those who simply did not show up for the vote.
O’Toole allowed his MPs a free vote on the issue, part of his bargain with social conservatives that helped him secure the Conservative leadership in August.
The bill would criminalize the practice of forcing children or adults to undergo therapy aimed at altering their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some Conservatives have expressed fears the bill would outlaw conversations between parents and their children or counsel from religious leaders. O’Toole himself has said “reasonable amendments” are necessary to clarify that point.
But Jansen is not sure that the changes will be made.
“While Parliament was prorogued, the government had ample time to make the necessary changes that would address our concerns, but instead they brought back the exact same bill. Not a word is changed,” she noted.
The Liberal government has said it does not criminalize normal conversations between the person and family members, friends, school, mental health and spiritual counsellors, pastoral advisors, and those in health care roles that affirm support to the person struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity. Jansen said the addition of the word affirm on the federal government website changes the bill and “creates the exact environment for criminalizing conversations the Conservatives are trying to avoid.”
“After hearing the debates in the house thus far, I am not convinced that the Liberal members on the justice committee will be open to accepting amendments to the bill,” Jansen told Black Press Media. “We have been raising concerns about the definition for months. The Liberals keep pointing us to the definition on the Justice Department website to assure us that no parent, therapist, doctor or friend will be criminalized for normal conversations. We urged them to take that very wording and add it to the bill so that we could get to a yes vote. When judges adjudicate on future cases of alleged conversion therapy, they will not look to the Justice Department website, they will interpret the letter of the law itself. That’s why we need to ensure that the intention to protect religious and parental rights is made clear in the wording of the bill.”
During debate on the bill earlier this week, former leadership contender Derek Sloan went so far as to suggest it would outlaw prayer. Sloan has previously said the bill amounts to child abuse.
Justice Minister David Lametti has dismissed those fears, arguing that the bill does not criminalize conversations that are meant to provide guidance to those questioning their gender or sexuality.
Sloan was among the seven Conservatives who voted against the bill Wednesday.
Others supported the bill for now but made their reservations crystal clear.
“With the best of faith, I vote in favour of sending this flawed bill to committee,” said Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall as she registered her virtual vote.
By contrast, all Liberal, Bloc Quebecois, New Democrat, Green and independent MPs who took part in the vote supported the bill. A number of Liberal MPs made a point of announcing that they were “proudly” voting in favour.
The NDP questioned the validity of votes that came with “qualifiers,” prompting Speaker Anthony Rota to remind MPs that when voting virtually, they are supposed to say simply whether they are for or against the motion, with no other comment.
During question period moments before the vote, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a veiled shot at the sincerity of O’Toole’s profession of support for the bill.
“Conversion therapy is rooted in the harmful premise that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity could and even should be changed,” Trudeau told the Commons, in response to a setup question from a Liberal backbencher.
“Our legislation will criminalize efforts to force someone to change or hide who they are. While Conservatives couch their support for conversion therapy behind misleading arguments, on this side, we will always stand up for the rights of Canadians.”
The bill would ban conversion therapy for minors and outlaw forcing an adult to undergo conversion therapy against their will.
It would also ban removing a minor from Canada for the purpose of undergoing conversion therapy abroad and make it illegal to profit from providing the therapy or to advertise an offer to provide it.
The practice has been widely discredited as cruel and traumatic.
The Canadian Psychological Association says there is no scientific evidence that conversion therapy works but plenty of evidence that it causes harm to LGBTQ individuals, including anxiety, depression, negative self-image, feelings of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships and sexual dysfunction.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press with files from the Langley Advance Times
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