Mike Smith. Credit: Provided by Mike Smith

Wednesday marked a huge victory for the 2SLGBTQ community in Canada, as legislation to ban practices of conversion “therapy” for people of all ages unanimously passed its first hurdle to becoming law.

The legislation would prohibit the act of causing another person to undergo conversion therapy, as well as make it illegal to remove a minor from Canada to subject them to conversion therapy abroad.

The ban would also criminalize profiting from providing conversion therapy and the advertisement or promotion of conversion therapy.

For Mike Smith, a survivor of conversion “therapy,” the ban means others won’t have to suffer the horrific trauma of the long-debunked practice.

Smith, a consultant in Toronto who uses they/them pronouns, began “sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts” (SOGICEs) at the age of 18.

Smith was told by a registered psychologist to read passages from the Book of Mormon. Two church leaders promised them that remaining faithful to God would help them one day become straight.

“I was told that I wasn’t living my true authentic self if I allowed myself to be feminine,” Smith said.

While at a “Journey Into Manhood” camp – one such form of conversion “therapy” – Smith was asked to stand in the middle of a circle of men. “[They] were calling me names like sissy, faggot, and wuss while throwing items such as tampons and bras at me,” they told rabble.ca in an interview.

Smith paid money to travel to the U.S. to participate in a program by Latter-day Saints organization Evergreen International, a self-described non-profit organization that “helps people who want to diminish same-sex attractions and overcome homosexual behavior.”

“They attribute everything to this incomplete or abnormal psychosexual development,” Smith explained.

An internet archive search for Evergreen International found its website last updated in 2012. A flyer from the 21st Annual Evergreen Education and Resource Conference, which took place in Sept. 2011, appears here.

The bill moved swiftly through the House after Conservative Party justice critic Rob Moore presented the motion during Wednesday’s sitting. The motion, which pushes the proposed legislation through all stages without amendments, was passed by a unanimous vote.

“We said that we wanted people to be on the right side of history on this issue,” Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault told reporters after Wednesday’s vote. “Nobody can consent to torture.”

Bill C-4 goes further than its predecessor – C-6 — which fell off the order paper when Parliament was dissolved prior to the 2021 federal election. The new bill extends the ban to individuals of all ages, whereas the previously proposed ban was only applicable to adults.

“There are clearly people in the Conservative caucus who exercised a great deal of leadership on the issue, and I thank them sincerely,” Justice Minister David Lametti added. “This is what we can accomplish when Parliament works together.”

Earlier this year, 62 members of Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party voted against a similar bill. Opponents claimed the legislation could criminalize conversations parents or faith leaders have with children, even though the amendments to the criminal code would be too limited to prevent these kinds of conversations.

The NDP have been advocating for a federal ban on conversion therapy since 2015. Bill C-4 marks the fourth piece of federal legislation to ban conversion therapy nationwide (and the Liberal government’s third crack at it), but it’s the first to include minors.

“The motion that was passed today was only possible because of those survivors, community members and allies who have worked tirelessly for years to push the government to act,” read a joint statement from NDP critic and deputy critic for 2SLGBTQI+ rights, Randall Garrison and Blake Desjarlais on Wednesday.

Varying levels of conversion so-called “therapy” bans have already been enacted in Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, and Quebec. Other municipalities have banned conversion therapy programs on a local level.

The new legislation would also empower courts to both seize and order the removal of conversion therapy advertisements from the internet.

Snake oil

Dr. Travis Salway is a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University with training in epidemiology and social work. His research looks broadly at the landscape that lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender people find themselves in in Canada.

Salway, who likened conversion therapy to snake oil, calls the practice of conversion “therapy” a misnomer.

“Usually in medicine, we would reserve [the term] therapy for something that has demonstrated therapeutic benefit,” Salway explained. “In the case of conversion therapy, it has been quite the opposite.”

In 2019, Salway gave a statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health where he noted “[Queer Canadians] continue to face disproportionately high rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety.”

Through his research, Salway has interviewed many survivors of SOGICEs, and concluded these practices are likely to cause long-term psychological distress, including depression, anxiety and suicidality.

“One in 10 queer Canadians have had direct experience with conversion therapy at some point in their lives,” Salway wrote earlier this year.

Salway pointed out that while more than 20 countries have banned SOGICEs in some form, those who deliver these services tend to change the name or description of their programs.

Salway explained that not all forms of SOGICEs can be prevented through an amendment to the Criminal Code.

“In the Criminal Code, we set a pretty high bar for what constitutes criminal activity, and there might be things that are below that threshold that still cause harm, but might not be protected by that bill,” Salway said.

Smith, who is now 30, is still healing from the trauma they endured during their change efforts. They say it took a long time to come out as non-binary because of the “incredible shame” that lingered from SOGICEs.

Editor’s note, Dec. 2, 2021: The photo on this story has been updated.

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...