Proposed changes to Canada’s Criminal Code relating to conversion therapy
On March 9, 2020, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada introduced a bill that proposes to criminalize aspects of conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is a practice that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual, to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviours, or to change an individual’s gender identity to match the sex they were assigned at birth.
The proposed changes would protect the dignity and equality rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ2) persons.
Many professional associations such as the Canadian Psychological Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Paediatric Society have denounced conversion therapy as a practice that is harmful to LGBTQ2 persons, especially minors. According to the 2011-2012 results of the Sex Now Survey, exposure to conversion therapy is positively associated with negative psychosocial health outcomes such as loneliness, regular illicit drug use, suicidal ideation and suicide attempt. The 2019-2020 interim results of the Sex Now Survey also indicate that 1 in 5 sexual minority men have been subjected to conversion therapy; results from the 2011-2012 survey also showed that lower income, Indigenous and trans persons are disproportionately represented among those exposed.
Conversion therapy in Canada’s Criminal Code
Proposed Criminal Code offences related to conversion therapy
The proposed legislation would define conversion therapy as any service, practice or treatment designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual, gender identity to one that matches the sex assigned at birth, or to repress or reduce non–heterosexual sexual attraction or sexual behaviours.
It proposes to create 5 new offences that would prohibit:
- causing a minor to undergo conversion therapy (a hybrid offence with a maximum penalty of 5 years on indictment)
- removing a minor from Canada to undergo conversion therapy abroad (a hybrid offence with a maximum penalty of 5 years on indictment)
- causing a person to undergo conversion therapy against their will (a hybrid offence with a maximum penalty of 5 years on indictment)
- profiting from providing conversion therapy (a hybrid offence with a maximum penalty of 2 years on indictment)
- advertising an offer to provide conversion therapy (a hybrid offence with a maximum penalty of 2 years on indictment)
This Bill would also authorize courts to order the seizure of conversion therapy advertisements or their removal from computer systems or the Internet.
These new offences would not criminalise private conversations in which personal views on sexual orientation, sexual feelings or gender identity are expressed such as where teachers, school counsellors, pastoral counsellors, faith leaders, doctors, mental health professionals, friends or family members provide support to persons struggling with their sexual orientation, sexual feelings, or gender identity.
Existing Criminal Code offences that could apply to conversion therapy
Under the Criminal Code, some existing offences associated with conversion therapy may apply, depending upon the facts of a case. For example, where conversion therapy is provided through coercive practices, kidnapping (subsection 279(1)), forcible confinement (subsection 279(2)) and assault (sections 266 to 268) may apply. In addition, fraud (section 380) may apply where fees are charged for conversion therapy, because promising to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity could be found to constitute a dishonest act that deprives a victim of money when they pay for the therapy. Finally, literature advocating conversion therapy could amount to wilful promotion of hatred (subsection 319(2)), depending upon its content.
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