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Canada: The conversion therapy ban can still be saved — if all sides want it saved

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a group of people walking in front of a crowd: Participants in Calgary's 2019 Pride parade carried banners calling for conversion therapy to be banned. © Michaela Neuman Photography Participants in Calgary's 2019 Pride parade carried banners calling for conversion therapy to be banned.

If C-6, the government bill to ban conversion therapy, dies on the order paper this summer, it'll be due to some combination of politics and circumstances.

But if it's still possible to save the bill, time is quickly running short.

"Bill C-6 is a common-sense piece of legislation. It's fundamentally about safety. It's fundamentally about prohibiting torture and child abuse," said Nicholas Schiavo of the advocacy group No Conversion Canada.

"This should be a non-partisan slam dunk, for all parliamentarians."

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Schiavo is planning a last-ditch letter-writing campaign to call on the Speaker of the Senate to recall the upper chamber to deal with the bill this summer.

"When I think about the victims of conversion therapy practices, I think it's unacceptable to not be able to pass this bill," said Sen. René Cormier, C-6's sponsor in the upper chamber.

Cormier said he's pretty sure the bill won't pass this summer, but acknowledges that there could still be time.

It is widely assumed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will seek an election call before Parliament's scheduled return in late September. The dissolution of Parliament would kill C-6 and force any future proposal to ban conversion therapy to start over from the beginning of the legislative process.

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But the government's pursuit of a ban has suffered from bad timing from the start. An earlier version of the current bill was tabled on March 9, 2020. Days later, the full weight of the pandemic came crashing down on the country and Parliament. The only legislation that passed in the subsequent six months involved either funding the government or responding to COVID-19.

Prorogation and postponement

In August, as opposition MPs were chasing the Liberals over the WE Charity affair, the government prorogued Parliament. The House reconvened on September 23 — two days later than originally planned — and the government re-tabled the proposed ban on October 1. C-6 quickly passed through second reading that month and the justice committee completed its review of the bill in December.

But then it stalled. The government didn't bring C-6 forward for debate again until April. Then there was a prolonged debate at third reading as multiple Conservative MPs stood to speak to the legislation.

The conversion therapy ban can still be saved — if all sides want it saved

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It has been argued that blame for these delays is shared by all parties. All business bogged down in the House this spring (the parliamentary schedule has become a regular source of needless conflict over the last decade). It's fair to ask whether the government could have moved faster to pass C-6. But it's also fair to say Conservatives were willing to drag things out.

The bill had widespread support at second reading — only seven MPs, all Conservative, voted against. But there were more naysayers when C-6 came back to the House. With some critics claiming the bill would criminalize conversations between children and parents or clergy, 62 Conservative MPs — more than half of Erin O'Toole's caucus — ended up opposing the bill.

But by passing the bill on June 22, the House gave the Senate very little time to deal with C-6 before Parliament's summer adjournment. The government moved to a motion to have the Senate sit until June 29 — long enough to pass the government's budget bill and climate accountability legislation — but C-6 was left behind.

a couple of people posing for the camera: Conservative MPs Chris Lewis of Essex, Dave Epp of Chatham-Kent-Leamington and Marilyn Gladu of Sarnia-Lambton were among 63 MPs in their party to oppose Bill C-6 at third reading. The bill seeks to criminalize conversion therapy. © Chris Lewis, Dale Molnar/CBC, Marilyn Gladu Conservative MPs Chris Lewis of Essex, Dave Epp of Chatham-Kent-Leamington and Marilyn Gladu of Sarnia-Lambton were among 63 MPs in their party to oppose Bill C-6 at third reading. The bill seeks to criminalize conversion therapy.

Sen. Marc Gold, the government representative in the Senate, made a last-minute request to allow a Senate committee to continue meeting virtually to study C-6. It was denied. Conservative Senate leader Don Plett subsequently accused the government of both "playing politics" and "incompetence." (Plett shares the concerns raised by some critics of the bill.)

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Two days later, Sen. Gold came forward with a plan to allow the bill to be studied and voted on in July. But agreement among the Senate's disparate groups remains elusive.

"Unfortunately, it has been made clear to me that some in the Senate have no intention of finding agreement on the timeline, to approve virtual committee meetings, or to launch hybrid Senate sittings to maintain health and safety standards for senators and staff, and to ensure fair and equitable participation and voting for senators who cannot be physically present in Ottawa," Sen. Gold said in a statement last week.

Pointing fingers

There is no immutable law that says Parliament needs to take nearly three months off each summer. Sen. Gold could ask the Speaker of the Senate to recall senators at any time. But Gold apparently wants agreement on an agenda before he does so. Further complicating matters is the fact that a previous agreement that allowed the Senate to meet virtually during the pandemic expired on June 30.

In comments to the Toronto Star this week, the office of Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc blamed Conservative senators for the lack of a path forward. Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos has said that the fact the Senate isn't sitting is entirely the government's fault.

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a close up of a man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Sen. Leo Housakos and other Conservatives have said the Trudeau government is entirely to blame for the plight of C-6. © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press Sen. Leo Housakos and other Conservatives have said the Trudeau government is entirely to blame for the plight of C-6.

It is always tempting to speculate about political motives. Maybe neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives would entirely mind if the bill failed in a way that would allow them to point fingers at each other. It's also true that an election might only delay a ban on conversion therapy; if the Liberals remain in government, they could bring a new bill forward this fall.

But it's hard to see how the failure of C-6 would be a clear win for any party — and any short-term political advantage would be dwarfed by the potential real life benefits of the legislation.

In its new, independent form, the Senate is harder to control and more prone to close review of legislation. In a previous era, it would have been easier to argue that the Senate should have simply passed C-6 with little to no review.

Paula Simons wearing glasses: Independent Sen. Paula Simons says C-6 would pass if it were introduced in the Senate tomorrow. © Roger Cosman/CBC Independent Sen. Paula Simons says C-6 would pass if it were introduced in the Senate tomorrow.

"The Senate is not a rubber stamp," said independent Sen. Paula Simons, who delivered an emotional speech about C-6 when it arrived in the Senate.

There might be just enough time to do a meaningful review and vote on the bill before an election is called. The House of Commons might have to be recalled to deal with any proposed amendments.

"If we were recalled tomorrow to vote, the bill would pass," Simons said.

That makes it even harder to justify failing to deal with this bill over the next few weeks.

"For LGBTQ Canadians and for survivors, quite honestly we're not interested in partisanship," Schiavo said. "We have heard from every group in the Senate that no one is interested in playing partisan games, no one's interested in making this political, and I think that's a great message. But then let's get it done."

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