Ottawa’s mayor and city staff tell Global News there are no plans to put forward a bylaw to regulate conversion therapy after Kingston became the first city in Ontario to announce its intention to ban the practices municipally.
Conversion therapy refers to a range of practices designed to repress or change a person’s sexual orientation, behaviour or gender identity, according to No Conversion Canada, a group lobbying to outlaw such practices across the country. Conversion therapy can take many forms, including exorcism-like ceremonies, forced fasting or extreme isolation, among others.
The United Nations last year called for a global ban on such practices, likening the severe pain and psychological trauma inflicted on LGBTQ2 individuals to a form of torture.
But is not only an issue beyond our borders: the Vancouver-based Community-Based Research Centre reported in 2020 that as many as 47,000 men have been subject to conversion therapy in Canada.
Kingston became the first city in Ontario to move to ban conversion therapy last week when the council directed staff to start drafting bylaws that would prohibit such practices locally.
The direction comes following a Global News investigation into allegations of conversion therapy at the Third Day Worship Centre in Kingston. LGBTQ2 members of the non-denominational church said they experienced conversion therapy practices aimed at changing their sexuality while a part of the congregation.
Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson, who was a member of Third Day but stepped away after videos surfaced of Pastor Francis Armstrong preaching passionately against homosexuality, seconded the motion calling for a bylaw to ban the conversion therapy practices.
Kingston’s motion also included formal support of the federal government’s Bill C-6, which would criminalize the practice nationally.
Ottawa city council made a similar move in September of last year, with Mayor Jim Watson introducing a motion to denounce conversion therapy locally and signalling the city’s support of the federal bill.
But that’s as far as the city is willing to go right now, Watson said in a statement to Global News, even after Kingston made the move to institute an outright municipal ban.
The mayor cited the prospect of legal challenges to the bylaw as a deterrent to moving forward with formal regulation beyond the motion put forward last summer.
“The resolution was introduced following extensive legal research and consultation conducted by city staff, which revealed the potential for significant legal challenges to a bylaw. Their professional advice was based on the fact that conversion therapy is a serious offence of a criminal nature that accordingly should be legislated by the federal government, which has unfettered jurisdiction over criminal matters,” Watson said in a statement through his press secretary.
He pointed to Bill C-6, which was reintroduced in the House of Commons on Oct. 27, 2020, as a step in the right direction at the federal level.
“Mayor Watson stands by his approach and the motion adopted unanimously by Ottawa city council,” his press secretary said in conclusion.
Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who seconded the mayor’s original motion back in September, told Global News they were interested to hear about Kingston’s bylaw and how the city’s approach might differ from Ottawa staff’s recommendations.
“I will eagerly await the outcome of Kingston’s research and the resulting draft bylaw later this year,” they said in an email.
A follow-up request to city staff confirmed there have been no developments or changes put forward since staff issued a memo on the topic this past summer.
That memo, released Aug. 25 in response to Watson’s requests for a judicial review of the matter locally, pointed to several obstacles to banning the practice locally.
But other cities in Canada have successfully implemented a conversion therapy ban without prompting legal challenges, and one expert tells Global News that Ottawa is in a position to follow Kingston’s lead in taking a stand against the harmful practice.
“The safety and welfare of its citizens is within the power of the municipality to take action,” says Kristopher Wells, Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth and one of the founders of No Conversion Canada.
“The model is there. It just really now comes down to the courage to take action and to show that kind of inclusive leadership. Leadership that actually serves to address systemic discrimination.”
Gaps in legislation
Wells believes that a city council simply supporting the federal government’s efforts to criminalize conversion therapy is an effort to pass the buck of responsibility down the line.
“A letter of support is nice but it does nothing to actually protect members of the community,” Wells says.
The federal government’s Bill C-6, first proposed as C-8 last March and reintroduced in October, would add five offences to the Criminal Code of Canada: causing a minor to undergo conversion therapy; removing someone from the country to undergo the practice; profiting off conversion therapy; advertising it as a service; and forcing someone to undergo the process against their will.
Ontario was among the first in Canada to regulate conversion therapy at the provincial level in 2015, making it illegal to subject a minor to conversion therapy within the health-care system.
But despite the layers of protection available at higher levels of government, Wells says there is a role cities can play in filling in the gaps of regulation, namely through business licensing or zoning bylaws.
Among the gaps in the provincial legislation are its limits to applications within the health-care system, while Wells says most conversion therapy occurs in “underground” and ultra-conservative, faith-based settings.
Proposed laws at the federal level, which hold no certainty of being passed and could be delayed again if rumours of a snap election come to fruition, also leave out protection for adults in many circumstances.
A bylaw that carries a substantial fine for businesses or institutions that provide conversion therapy practices can be a strong deterrent, Wells says.
Municipal violations also have different qualifications than those under the Criminal Code, which can lower the bar to impose penalties for such actions.
“A bylaw can provide a much quicker and simpler remedy,” Wells says.
“The takeaway is that the most effective approach to stopping conversion therapy from happening and protecting LGBTQ people is legislation at all levels of government.”
Staff question legal jurisdiction
The City of Vancouver became the first in Canada to ban conversion therapy practices in 2018 by amending an existing business prohibition bylaw to include charging for services that seek to change a person’s gender or sexual orientation.
Since then, 10 municipalities in Alberta including Calgary and Edmonton, have moved to ban the practices, as have Saskatoon, Montreal, and Saint John, N.B.
None of the cities that have enacted such bylaws have ever faced legal challenges, Wells says.
But the City of Ottawa’s legal staff believe there is no such precedent in Ontario to prohibit types of businesses under the province’s Municipal Act, which provides cities with their regulatory powers.
Staff said in the August memo that there could be opportunities to license certain businesses and deny them accreditation should they perform particular services, similar to how Toronto regulates hookah-use through its restaurant licensing system. But as the city does not currently provide licences to places of worship or counselling services, such attempts “would likely not be justifiable,” staff wrote.
Staff also wrote that definitions of conversion therapy are difficult to pin down, which would make enforcing a bylaw difficult for officers.
The memo notes that moves to prohibit conversion therapy practices — particularly between consenting adults — could face challenges of religious freedom under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A matter of human rights
Ultimately, city staff stated their position that conversion therapy is best regulated at higher levels of government under criminal grounds, and recommended council indicate their support for the federal bill to address such concerns.
But those arguments don’t hold water for Wells.
Conversion therapy is a direct threat to the freedoms of LGBTQ2 residents of Ottawa, he argues, and a bylaw to protect their livelihoods is well worth the prospect of a legal challenge.
“What would you do if someone were to challenge other human rights laws? Well, you defend them,” he says. “It’s basic leadership for human rights.”
Amid concerns that any municipal action on conversion therapy would be ultra vires — in other words, stepping on the federal government’s toes in terms of legal jurisdiction — Kingston legal staff suggested to city council last week that any proposed bylaw be designed to “supplement and complement” any legislation at higher levels of government.
Alan McLeod, Kingston’s city solicitor, compared this approach to how the city regulates firearms, with a bylaw prohibiting the discharge of guns to complement federal regulation.
McLeod said during the council meeting that he had “confidence” staff could draft bylaws against conversion therapy that would maximize Charter compliance.
Kingston’s first steps towards banning conversion therapy municipally could create a “domino effect” across Ontario like Alberta saw once Calgary and Edmonton got on board, Wells hopes.
There’s a moral high ground that comes with the action, he believes. For Ottawa, moving forward on a conversion therapy ban takes the city’s denunciation of the practices and moves it beyond words.
Doing so could show the city’s LGBTQ2 residents that the local government is willing to fight for their protection and rights to self-identity.
“It’s not only a symbolic statement like raising the Pride flag or a rainbow crosswalk. It’s about actually changing the law. It’s about the structural changes that need to occur to root out systemic homophobia, transphobia, biphobia,” Wells says.
“Symbols are one thing, but we need more than symbols. If you’re going to be a true ally, you actually need to walk the walk.”