Conversion therapy in Canada:
A national ban is just a starting point
13 April 2021 | Tyler Cheese
AT 18 YEARS OLD,
Matt Ashcroft wanted to change his sexuality.
Ashcroft grew up in Belleville, Ont., a relatively small town where he felt different and isolated from other people.
When he began having feelings for other men, he knew his father wouldn’t approve. So Ashcroft turned to religion to try to change himself.
“I found on Twitter, somebody who was a pastor. He invited me to this group, where it had 400 to 500 same-sex attracted or SSA men,” he said.
This is how he came to learn of Brother’s Road, now one of the biggest conversion therapy groups in the world, Ashcroft said.
“I didn't realize what I was getting myself into. I was told that I had to sign up.”
Ashcroft attended a weekend retreat in Pennsylvania meant to change his sexual orientation, he said.
He remembers hitting a punching bag with a baseball bat and screaming with rage at his father.
He remembers being made to cuddle, fully-clothed, with 30 to 40 strangers, and being told he was gay because he wasn’t held enough as a child.
Photo: Courtesy of Matt Ashcroft
He remembers learning that being gay is often the result of childhood sexual abuse. He even witnessed one sexual assault survivor being made to re-enact his assault until they broke down in sobs.
When Ashcroft talks about those he experienced conversion therapy with, he often concludes that he doesn’t know whether or not they are dead or alive today.
it’s estimated that at least 47,000 GBT2Q men have experienced some form of conversion therapy, according to a 2020 survey.
After years of advocacy work, the federal government is now working on a national conversion therapy ban.
Bill C-6, if passed into law, will criminalize all non-consensual conversion therapy, conversion therapy practiced on minors and any promotion of conversion therapy practices.
The bill’s second reading in parliament occurred on Oct. 28, 2020. The third reading, which needs to occur for the bill to reach the Senate, has yet to be scheduled. [Author's Note: the third reading of Bill C-6 occurred on April 16, 2021, after this story was published.]
The problem with conversion therapy legislation is that the practice is hard to define.
The bill defines conversion therapy as, “a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual, to change a person’s gender identity or gender expression to cisgender or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour or non-cisgender gender expression.”
Most conversion therapy survivors and advocates will tell you that this definition is too vague to encompass the wide range of harmful conversion practices.
“It could be from electric shock therapy to snapping a rubber band on your wrist,” Ashcroft said. The one thing he wants people to understand is how severe these treatments can be.
“My goal is to try to get government to see the severity of what conversion therapy is so that they can actually do something and fight for us,” he said.
Conversion practices are also sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy”, but advocates prefer the SOGIECE acronym, meaning “sexual orientation and gender identity and expression change efforts.”
A report led by the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity in Vancouver defines SOGIECE as “a broad set of treatments, practices, or sustained efforts that aim to repress, discourage, or change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
ASHCROFT NOW LIVES
in Toronto and wants to see more change when it comes to the legality of conversion practices.
“My goal is to try to get government to see the severity of what conversion therapy is, so that they can actually do something and fight for us,” he said.
Ashcroft has become an activist, fighting the institutions he feels has allowed these practices to continue.
That activism lead him to creating CT Survivors, an online community for conversion therapy survivors and those who support them.
After attending a United Nations Global Task Force meeting on the subject, Ashcroft became aware of just how many resources are available for survivors.
He wanted to create a community where people who have experience conversion therapy can talk to each other and access these resources.
“It's to create a safe space where people can learn and grow together,” he said. “We want to … make sure that survivors are protected at the end of the day.”
Travis Salway is another activist of sorts.
Though he is not a conversion therapy survivor himself, he has dedicated a significant amount of his professional life to working with and for the LGBTQ+ community, so the issue is close to his heart.
Salway is a social epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and his research focuses on health inequities, stigma, and LGBTQ+ people, including conversion therapy survivors. He was the lead researcher on the aforementioned study for the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity.
He has been on the frontlines of the fight to get governments to do more for the past two years.
“I started doing work on this issue … when our federal government conducted a pretty significant historic study that was commissioned by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health,” he said.
The federal government looked back at around thirty years of legislation meant to improve the lives of LGBTQ+, but there wasn’t a measurable improvement in anxiety, depression, suicide and substance use, Salway said.
And yet, in February of 2019, the government rejected a petition for a national ban on conversion therapy, he said. Parliament ruled that it was a matter for the provinces.
That’s when Salway got to work, using his experience and pre-existing connections to conduct surveys and interviews on the subject.
“The purpose was to really to hold the federal government's feet to the fire,” he said.
By December of 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had requested Justice Minister David Lametti to craft a bill to ban conversion therapy. That would become Bill C-6.
The bill is a step in the right direction, Salway said. “But then we spent the next year, collecting data to show why [the government’s] definition of conversion therapy and the bill they had proposed was really far too narrow.”
He has since worked as somewhat of a liaison between survivors and legislators to make changes to the bill.
Cut & Shave
Deep Tissue Shave
How to be a good ally to those who have experienced conversion therapy.
used to carry scripture cards in his pocket for moments of temptation.
He is now in his 60s and lives in Kitchener, Ont. with his husband, Bruce.
Photo: Courtesy of Mark Hartburg
Hartburg’s father made it clear that being gay was unacceptable at a young age, Hartburg said. So, he stayed in the closet, married a woman and turned to religion.
“She was aware that I was gay and we thought God could change me,” he said.
This led to, what Hartburg describes as, decades of confessions and therapies with ministers, support groups and “ex-gay” groups like Exodus International.
Hartburg even became a church minister, preaching about the “evils of the gay agenda.”
He spent years struggling with depression and suicidality.
In 1990 Hartburg ran away to Seattle. His wife, who he describes as his best friend, brought him home.
In 1992 he tried to kill himself with carbon monoxide.
Hartburg’s wife died of cancer in 2013 and he has since come out, met the man who would become his husband and started his journey of recovery.
Today he is involved with many anti-conversion therapy advocacy groups, like No Conversion Canada.
Nick Schiavo is the founder (but not the leader) of No Conversion Canada. He works closely with Hartburg and confirmed the harmful impacts conversion therapy can have on survivors.
“The research is well established. There's no credible or scientific proof that this can change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said.
“What the research does show us is that these change efforts are proven to often have devastating effects.”
Schiavo listed anxiety, depression, self-hate, PTSD and suicidal thoughts as conditions conversion therapy survivors often live with.
And that’s just the medical issues, he said.
“This could potentially lead to conflicts with people you love. Potentially, it leads to a situation with housing. I mean, there's a lot of different effects that come from conversion therapy.”
As for his thoughts about Bill C-6, Schiavo recognizes it as historic but said it still needs some work.
“It needs to protect all Canadians of all ages,” he said. “We know that up to about 50 per cent of survivors who experienced conversion therapy are adults.”
No Conversion Canada is currently getting materials ready to send to politicians when the bill gets passed into the senate.
The group wants to add amendments around gender-affirming health care and consent—Schiavo feels that no one can truly consent to conversion therapy, as making such a decision is dependent on one’s belief that they are sick, he said.
THE CONSENT CONVERSATION
Bill C-6 seeks to ban ‘non-consensual’ conversion therapy. Advocates say
no one can really consent to
Ashcroft expressed concerns with the language in Bill C-6, with regard to trans and non-binary individuals.
He’s concerned that the government officials who created this bill haven’t done enough to connect with all members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Trying to protect survivors of conversion therapy with little to no communication with folks that are struggling or that have struggles is only going to perpetuate harm,” he said.
He called on officials to do more to understand the perspectives of survivors.
“Work together so we can build a safer community,” he said.
a transfeminine bioethicist, public speaker, and activist, is even more critical of Bill C-6 and agreed that it doesn’t do enough to protect trans and non-binary people.
“It's not a very good bill,” they said.
On the one hand, Ashley thinks “you gotta get what you can get.”
On the other, they question whether tackling conversion therapy is a criminal matter at all.
“I don't think the criminal law is going to do a good job. ... the burden of proof is [very] hard to meet,” they said.
Their concern is that defendants can refuse to testify in a criminal trial. In such a case, Ashely thinks the more morally ambiguous actors (ie. parents who place their child in conversion therapy) will be punished, while the actual practitioners will get off scot-free.
If conversion therapy was combatted by civil legislation, she said, then practitioners will be held to account for specific practices, which can then be understood better and dismantled properly.
When it comes to trans conversion therapy, Ashley doesn’t feel that there is a huge distinction from gay conversion therapy.
The methods and goals are the same, they said. But they do feel legislation needs to be inclusive of non-conforming genders.
“We are starting to see ... pro-gay trans conversion therapy,” they said. “The whole idea [is that] gay people are being turned trans, and thus we must prevent them from being trans to protect the gays.”
Inclusive legislation will make sure everyone is protected.
Cait wanted people to know that even though conversion practices are often attributed to religious groups, that isn’t always the case.
“I want to be clear, because I know that for a lot of people conversion therapy is tied into religion. For me it was absolutely not,” she said.
Cait G. is a trans woman who asked not to be identified by her full name for privacy.
“When I was four I told my parents that I was trans,” she said. “I mean, I didn't have the word for it or anything like that, this was 1970, but I told them and I got punished for it.”
Cait was sent to see two therapists when she was twelve, with the aim of correcting her identity.
“I'm not gonna call it therapy because I don't believe at this point it was anymore,” she said.
She described having electric pads attached to her wrists. She would receive a shock any time she insisted she was a girl.
After four to five months, the therapists gave up on her as a lost cause, she said. But it took over 40 years for her to recover from the shame she felt from these sessions.
conversion therapy was heavily tied to religion.
Kinitz is a social worker and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.
He turned to his pastor as a teenager to discuss what to do about his feelings toward other men, he said. He was then connected with a religious group once a week, for about eight months.
Ultimately, he left the group as he felt pressure to accept the idea that a bad relationship with his parents made him gay. He felt the goal was to create a rift with his family, he said.
His parents weren’t the problem, he said.
FOR DAVID KINITZ,
“It's a direct response of like the pervasive heterosexism and sexism in our society,” he said, referring to conversion therapy in general.
Kinitiz wrote a piece for The Conversation last year, titled How I ended up in conversion therapy and why Canada’s proposed ban is only a first step for LGBT+ youth.
Beyond the national ban, there is still more work that needs to be done, he said.
“We need to address the cis-heteronormativity that undergirds a lot of what conversion [therapy is meant to correct, and] how conversion therapy continues to exist,” Kinitz said.
Beyond policy, religious institutions need to be questions and hard conversations must be had about religious freedom, he said.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada opposes Bill C-6 on the basis of religious freedom.
A page published on the EFC website states that the group is “seeking assurances that religious instruction, parental guidance and supportive services for individuals wishing to order their sexual lives in accordance with their religious conscience, faith identity and personal convictions will not be captured.”
A representative for EFC declined to comment on this story.
Photo: Courtesy of David Kinitz
agreed there is still work to be done, even after a national ban is implemented.
Firstly, the general public needs to be more educated on this subject, he said.
“There's a lot of stigma around the topic,” Ashcroft said. “I want people to open up their eyes and see that this is happening. You need to do something about it.
The government also needs to do more to work with, not just for, marginalized communities, he said.
“Little to no communication with ... folks that that are struggling or that have struggled is only going to perpetuate harm. Work together so that way we can build a safer community.”
Sex Now Survey results reveal prevalence of change efforts. (2020, February 24). Community-Based Research Centre. Retrieved April 7, 2021 from https://www.cbrc.net/sex_now_survey_results_reveal_prevalence_of_change_efforts
Parliament of Canada. (2020, December 11). Government bill (House of Commons) c-6 (43-2) - second reading - an act to amend the Criminal Code (CONVERSION THERAPY). Retrieved February 06, 2021 from https://parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/43-2/bill/C-6/second-reading
Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity. (2020, February 18). Ending conversion therapy in Canada: Survivors, community leaders, researchers, and allies address the current and future states of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression change efforts. Retrieved February 06, 2021 from
Trudeau, J. (2019, December 21). Prime Minister of Canada: Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Mandate Letter. Retrieved March 02, 2021 from
Conversion therapy is Torture. (2020, April 23). International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. Retrieved April 7, 2021 from https://irct.org/media-and-resources/latest-news/article/1027
Article 15 – Freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs - Disability. Retrieved April 7, 2021 from
Kinitz, D. J. (2020, March 10). How I ended up in conversion therapy and why Canada's proposed ban is only a first step For LGBTQ+ youth. Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/how-i-ended-up-in-conversion-therapy-and-why-canadas-proposed-ban-is-only-a-first-step-for-lgbtq-youth-131647
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. (2020, October 5). Bill C-6 to Ban Conversion Therapy. Retrieved February 07, 2021 from https://www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/Resources/Government/2020/Bill-C-6-to-Ban-Conversion-Therapy
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