Members of Oxford County’s gay community are speaking out – and encouraging others to do the same – after the local member of Parliament introduced a petition in the House of Common calling for a bill banning conversion therapy to be scrapped.
Oxford MP Dave MacKenzie’s petition – signed by 1,169 people – specifically opposes Bill C-6, legislation seeking to amend the Criminal Code to ban specific actions related to the controversial practice of conversion therapy
“What (the bill) does is criminalize forcing minors into conversion therapy, makes it illegal to profit or advertise conversion therapy, or removing a minor from Canada to participate in conversion therapy,” said Tami Murray, president of Oxford County Pride, in response to the petition. “(The bill) isn’t what has been implied in (MacKenzie’s) petition.”
Conversion therapy is any formal therapeutic attempt to change the sexual orientation of a person to heterosexual.
The petition includes vague definitions, and claims that parents, teachers and religious leaders could be prosecuted for providing “loving support and guidance – according to their fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs—to children who are struggling with their sexuality or gender.”
MacKenzie presented the bill and read the text into the record on April 26. The petition, which can only be presented to the House of Commons by an MP, was drafted by his constituents, MacKenzie said, and represents their chance to make their views heard. MacKenzie voted in favour of the bill during its second reading, House of Commons records show.
“(It’s) people with a view on something, not necessarily my view but that doesn’t matter,” he said. “The bill does have some problems, but I don’t have to support the views in any petitions, or I might. It’s immaterial.”
MacKenzie did say he thinks Bill C-6 is flawed, and that criminalizing parents or teachers for talking to children about their sexual orientation is wrong, but both the bill and experts say Bill C-6 doesn’t criminalize those conversations.
“That’s one of these red herring arguments that somehow this is going to criminalize conversations. We heard this with same-sex marriage,” said Dr. Kristopher Wells, the Canada research chair for the public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth. “There is a difference between belief and conduct. … Parents and teachers, priests, counsellors are able to have any good faith conversations … so long as those are not part of a conversion therapy program.”
Under Bill C-6, consenting adults would still be allowed to seek conversion therapy, and providing that therapy to a consenting adult would not be a criminal offence, as long as money did not change hands. What would be criminalized under the bill is forcing a person or child to undergo conversion therapy, advertising conversion therapy services, taking a child out of Canada for conversion therapy, or profiting from conversion therapy.
Wells said conversion therapy has been likened to “psychological torture” and does real damage to youth at a pivotal moment in their lives.
“It teaches young people to hate themselves … and that self-hatred and self-harm that leads many young people to take their own lives because they see no hope or happiness for their future as an LGBTQ person,” Wells said. “That’s what so damaging, the psychological damage that they inflict. … There is still as element of Canadian society that believes it’s not OK to be an LGBTQ person and people should be forced to fundamentally change who they are.
“That’s what’s most concerning here, that those outdated attitudes continue to persist.”
Bill C-6 underwent second reading in October 2020 and was the subject of public hearings in December. It is now awaiting its third reading.
Murray said the petition sends the wrong message to Oxford County youth, noting a statistic that LGBTQ2S+ – an extended acronym that includes the Indigenous two-spirit community – youth are four times more likely of suicidal thoughts – a number that jumps to eight times more likely if their family and friends are not accepting of their gender or sexual orientation, she said.
“The message of conversion therapy is clearly non-acceptance. It’s not about seeking counsel, questions or resources or anything like that,” she said. “The petition is not relevant, given what they are expressing and the reality of the bill.”
MacKenzie said it would take something “drastic” for him not to present a constituent petition in the House, suggesting the backlash is politically motivated. Both the Oxford riding associations of the NDP and Liberal parties blasted the petition on social media in recent days.
“I think they misinterpreted the intent of the petition,” MacKenzie said. “My intent is to present. I have friends who are gay or lesbians. That is not an issue for me. I respect their position. That’s not what this is about.”
Murray said the reaction she’s heard from the community – businesses and individuals alike – has been swift, and she encourages people to make their concerns known.
“Calling Mr. MacKenzie or emailing, as a constituent,” Murray said. “His constituents wrote this petition and he presented it the way he felt he needed to, so I think in contrast to that our community needs to voice our concerns with that petition, which I’m doing right now.”
Murray said anyone looking for help or resources about sexual orientation or gender identity can find information at oxfordpride.ca.