We have all had a lot on our minds in the course of the past year, and in various ways we have become distracted. While we were distracted, an amendment to Bill C6 concerning so-called “conversion therapy” recently passed through the Commons justice committee on its way back to the House for approval. We would do well to pay attention to what has happened to it, and to how it has happened.
The government’s consistent line on Bill C-6, repeated by Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger on the first day of the justice committee’s deliberations, has been that its purpose is to criminalize “coercive and systematic efforts to change” a person’s identity – “forced and coordinated efforts.”
However, as with the proverbially unclothed emperor, it remains crucial to keep our eyes on the body of the Bill and ignore the rhetoric attaching to it. As a matter of fact, Bill C-6 has never fundamentally been about criminalizing only coercive practices. The amended version is no different.
The term “coercion” still appears nowhere within it. The word “forced” appears only twice, referring to any “conversion therapy” lacking an adult person’s consent. However, the specification of “force” in this context obviously implies that the conversion therapy otherwise criminalized by Bill C-6 is not coercive.
The Bill’s legislative definition of this “therapy’ confirms it: any “practice, treatment or service designed to change” certain aspects of a person, including their “gender expression,” which was a late amendment in Committee. The language of coercion is studiously avoided. At least as far as minors are concerned, Bill C-6 sets out to criminalize any such “therapy” – whether or not force is involved.
What are these practices, treatments, and services? The government has consistently claimed the language is entirely clear. But to the contrary, in the amended as well as the original Bill, it remains entirely unclear, as frequent and persistent enquiries by legally-trained justice committee members during the hearings confirmed.
Not one of these three key terms is defined elsewhere in the Criminal Code of Canada, and “practice” is particularly broad in its normal usage. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as simply “a repeated or customary action.” The question that naturally arises from such opacity is this: is it possible for any citizen actually to discern in advance of being prosecuted for a particular action what it is that Bill C-6 sets out to criminalize?
Various members of the justice committee asked intelligent questions about this. The government response on each occasion was essentially: “Don’t worry about it.” But we do need to worry about it. For in the amended, as much as the original, Bill C-6, the definition is broad enough that one could drive a socially devastating truck through it. It potentially criminalizes parents, religious leaders, counsellors, physicians, and many other ordinary Canadian citizens following their ordinary “practices.”
One particular exchange on the final day of the committee hearings powerfully illustrates the challenges that lie ahead if we have any intention of living our lives and raising our children according to “traditional values,” – or standing for the rights and freedoms of those who do. At one point Bloc Quebecois MP Rhéal Fortin placed before a department of justice official a hypothetical case in which a mother concerned for the well-being of her son refuses to allow him to go to school dressed up as a girl. Fortin asked whether this counts as “conversion therapy” under the terms of Bill C-6.
The official responded by saying that this does not constitute a “practice, treatment or service” – it is not a “formalized intervention.” However, when Fortin objected that the mother is surely engaging in a “practice,” the official acknowledged that “practice” is indeed a broader term than the other two in the Bill’s definition. At least for a moment, she appeared to define “practice” as that which is “habitual and regular” rather than “formalized.” Fortin then followed up with this question: What if parents were to ask a psychologist to dissuade the son from wearing make-up and heels to school? Would they be committing a crime under the new legislation? The official declined to answer the question, placing the burden on the courts to decide if, and when, the crime of conversion therapy had been committed.
The government may well wish to claim that the Bill is designed to criminalize only coercive practices. However, the Bill itself makes no pretense of limiting itself to this goal, and it does not mainly concern this issue. This is a Bill, instead, that is about making it as difficult as possible for Canadians to exercise certain kinds of choices when it comes to their sex and identity, and about which counsellors should help them, regardless of the disapproval of the Canadian government.
It is a Bill that is mainly about making it all-but-impossible for professional, paid people, or anyone who might recommend them, to offer support to such Canadians in their life-choices. It is a Bill that threatens the freedom of parents and other responsible adults to look after minors of all ages in the way that they believe to be right, and to access professional and pastoral help congruent with their beliefs and values in doing so.
If Bill C-6 becomes law, many minors will be deprived of the kind of counselling they need in the midst of confusion and distress about their identity. Those suffering from gender dysphoria, for example, might have no trouble in finding counselling that affirms their desire to gender-transition. But they (along with their parents) will be greatly challenged in finding counselling that affirms them in their given body. Any “practice, treatment or service” that can be characterized as “designed to change” an individual identity already present “within” a minor (of whatever age) can now be brought under the prosecutorial gaze. And the legal sanction envisaged for a professional offering any such “practice, treatment or service” to minors is up to five years in prison. It’s more than severe enough to cause many of them to walk away from this now dangerous and unpredictable business before trouble ensues.
Even consenting adults will find it difficult to find such counselling. Because some adults had testified to the justice committee that they had found “conversion therapy” helpful, Liberal members resisted NDP and Green Party calls to prevent even adults from accessing it at all – freedom of adult choice apparently not being either of those parties’ major philosophical commitments.
Helpful or not, and legal for adults or not, Bill C-6 nevertheless specifies a penalty of two years in prison for anyone “who receives a financial or other material benefit … from the provision of conversion therapy,” or “knowingly promotes or advertises an offer to provide conversion therapy.” The addition of the word “promotes” was another amendment to the Bill in committee, designed to catch word-of-mouth recommendations as well as formal advertising. So there exist practices, treatments, and services in which all consenting adults may legally involve themselves, and that some may find helpful. Remarkably, however, no professional may legally offer them for a fee nor advertise them to anyone, adult or minor, and no citizen may recommend them to others even if these “practices” have previously saved their lives.
Bill C-6 may be a Liberal government bill, but it is an illiberal Bill, and it is a bad Bill. If it passes into law it will cause grief for many Canadians. The government of Canada, tasked with ruling us all for the common good, appears determined along with its allies to get this done regardless. Acting with unseemly haste, and in the process allowing time for reading only a fraction of the record 290 briefs submitted by Canadians for its consideration, the justice committee ignored all the cogent objections entered to the Bill from diverse perspectives and voted to take it back to the House – after only four sessions of deliberation. It did so despite Mr. Fortin’s stated opinion as a lawyer that the definition section in the Bill needed to be entirely rewritten.
Every Canadian of genuinely liberal sentiment, committed to genuine pluralism in this country, in whichever political party they find themselves, must now wake up, read the text of Bill C-6 attentively, get a firm grasp of its reality. They must communicate concern about it to their MP. This is not only a Bill that opposes, importantly, some kinds of coercion. It is a Bill that, equally importantly, explicitly promotes other kinds of coercion, and lays clear groundwork for still more of it in the future.
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