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Ideology underpinning conversion therapy has foothold despite ban: LGBTQ advocates

OTTAWA — Despite a federal ban on conversion therapy being in place for more than a year, advocates fear the broader ideologies underpinning the practice continue to have a strong foothold in Canada. 

New Criminal Code offences came into effect in January 2022, but it appears no charges or prosecutions have yet taken place.

Conversion therapy is the practice of attempting to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or to change their gender identity to match the sex they were assigned at birth.

Nick Schiavo, executive director of No Conversion Canada, said he is worried about the possibility that those who wish to influence a person’s sexual orientation may use “coded language” to avoid falling under the law.

Florence Ashley, an incoming assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s law faculty, said it’s common for organizations to use broader terms, such as: “We’re not actually changing sexual orientation. We’re kind of healing and repairing the underlying trauma that makes people gay, or we’re just letting them truly explore who they are.”

There are no real repercussions to being open about that line of thinking, Ashley said.

When conversion therapy was banned in Canada, there were some immediate effects. For example, Exodus Global Alliance, one of the largest organizations in the world that offers conversion therapy, announced it was closing its operations in the country. 

It said on its website that the new law made it clear the federal government was “trying to prevent the gospel and Christian help from being offered to LGBT people.”

But some Christian organizations in Canada appear to use course materials that are in line with the wider tenets that also motivated the now-illegal practice, raising concerns for advocates who say the law has had little effect.

Justice Minister David Lametti called conversion therapy “horrific” and “torture.”

“I’m obviously concerned that the practice continues. I wanted to eliminate it. That’s why we criminalized the practice,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The government’s Charter statement on the conversion therapy bill stipulated that the legislation would not criminalize “conversations in which a person expresses an opinion on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, unless that conversation forms part of an intervention designed to make a person heterosexual or cisgender.”

Nor would “interventions that support an individual’s exploration and development of their own identity” be prohibited, as long as “they are not based on an assumption that a particular sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is to be preferred over another.”

Several American states already have conversion therapy bans in place.

“That’s where the practitioners have figured out how are they going to operate, by avoiding the language that’s in the state laws in the U.S.,” said Travis Salway, a professor at Simon Fraser University.

Salway said that historically, groups called the services change or conversion therapy, but names and descriptions have shifted so as to avoid language used in legislative bans.

“Conversion therapy as a term means different things to different people. And when I talk about conversion therapy, I think there is a set of practices that are more circumscribed that the federal ban was attempting to get at,” he said. 

“We have come to understand that there’s a much broader set of practices that probably would not fall under the federal Criminal Code’s definition of conversion therapy.”

The Institute of Biblical Counselling International, which has operations in British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba, including within several First Nations communities, offers what it calls a biblically based counselling program.

A syllabus posted to the institute’s website includes a unit on “common psychological problems people face” and lists books by several loud proponents of conversion therapy, including titles edited or written by Joe Dallas, a popular pastor in the so-called “ex-gay” movement.

One of the books, “The Complete Christian Guide to Understanding Homosexuality: A Biblical and Compassionate Response to Same-Sex Attraction” argues that people are not born gay and offers tools to help people permanently abstain from homosexual behaviour and desires.

Geoff Clarke, the chair of the institute’s board, confirmed the course is still taught and the syllabus is genuine, but said it does not teach conversion therapy and sexual orientation is not its focus.

“That’s not our role or a practice within our program at all. That would be an individual’s choice. That’s not something that we’re oriented towards,” he said.

Clarke said the course deals with trauma or addictions, and though he was aware that a section of the course deals with “sexual disorders,” he said that it is not conversion therapy.

“We could have any reference book and a person can read that, and then draw their own understanding or conclusion from that,” he said. 

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having an array of books listed that a person could look at.”

Clarke said the Institute of Biblical Counselling doesn’t have a position on conversion therapy because it’s not something it deals with.

“It’s not something that is part of our position, because we’re not working with that,” he said. “That’s not in our agenda.”

He added that no course materials were reviewed, including the reading list including titles by Dallas, when the ban was brought in because there was no need to do so. Students can read “lots of different books,” he said, but “we’re not prescribing conversion therapy.” 

Salway said that efforts to change or influence people regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity that do not fall into the strict category of conversion practices still have the effect of encouraging people to deny who they are.

“When I think about conversion therapy, I think about it being kind of a tip of an iceberg, or tip of a pyramid.”

He said the ban shows there is political will to eradicate the practice. But people need to be willing to report it, investigate it and prosecute it.

“We sort of build up the muscle memory within our society to identify this practice, call it out and then get it over to authorities to prosecute it,” Salway said. 

Lametti said police need to understand conversion therapy is a crime.

He added there is always an expectation of some lag time between a new law coming into force and people being prosecuted under it. 

“You want to be able to train people to look for the hidden code words or the programs that are disguised, but really are conversion therapy programs,” he said. 

“That takes more time. I appreciate that takes more time. It takes more time for police not only to understand, but also to investigate.”

Ashley said the ban has been “really discouraging” because of a lack of enforcement so far.

“Survivors have to go to the police in order to get things investigated, and for lots of very valid reasons, people often don’t feel that you can trust the police and are fearful that the police are going to retraumatize them.”

Ashley suggested the federal government should flesh out other avenues for complaints to be investigated, such as via the Canadian Human Rights Commission or the Canadian Revenue Agency, saying that would be a powerful tool to help enforce the law.

They said professional licensing bodies should also take more action against practitioners allegedly taking part in conversion therapy. 

Schiavo said the new law is not a silver bullet, but a step in the right direction. 

“It’s important that you’re writing your officials, whether that’s a city councillor, or an MP, or an MLA, and saying very clearly that you support human rights, you support equality, you support inclusion and pushing back on proposals or policy or legislation that tries to send us backwards.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2023.

David Fraser, The Canadian Press

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