IN THE NEWS - Did Trudeau do all he could to pass conversion therapy bill?

by: Jacques Gallant Political Reporter, The Toronto Star


If a federal election is called for the fall, killing the government's conversion therapy bill in the process, one of the big questions will be whether the government did all that it could to get the bill passed.

For some, that also sparks a perhaps more cynical question: Did the government even want the bill passed?

The Liberal government has blamed the Conservatives for frustrating Bill C-6's progress in the House of Commons, where it finally passed in June, and in the Senate, where it passed second reading before the upper chamber rose for the summer.

There's no question that the Conservatives dragged out the proceedings in the House, while the government's representative in the Senate says there's simply no agreement among Senate leadership to deal with the bill this summer should the chamber be recalled.

But that doesn't tell the whole story of the misfortunes of a bill that would provide much-needed protections for LGBTQ Canadians - and which would finally fulfil a major Liberal campaign promise.

So, what happened?

The New Democrats say they offered to help fast-track the bill in the Commons, and repeatedly asked why the bill wasn't being brought for debate sooner.

Meanwhile, some Senate leaders have told the Star that there appears to be enough support to not only deal with the bill this summer should the Senate be recalled, but to get the work done efficiently.

The "only explanation" that NDP House Leader Peter Julian says he can think of for the lack of priority afforded to the bill by the Liberals was that they wanted to use it as a wedge issue against the Conservatives, half of whose caucus - including deputy leader Candice Bergen - ended up voting against the bill.

"We didn't see the government use the tools that they needed to use in the House of Commons, now it doesn't appear that they're using the tools and the influence they have in the Senate to get the legislation through, so it raises the question," Julian said in an interview this week.

"What was the real intent of C-6? Was it to address this fundamental issue, or was it just for posturing?"

Bill C-6 is the government's proposed ban on the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy, which tries to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ individuals to heterosexual, or to coerce those questioning their gender identities to be in alignment with the sex assigned to them at birth. The bill would create several new Criminal Code offences around the practice.

"Ultimately, until this bill receives royal assent, those who are most vulnerable to conversion practices will not be protected," said Nick Schiavo, founder of No Conversion Canada.

The Liberals' first conversion therapy bill died last year when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament amid the WE Charity scandal.

They brought it back as Bill C-6 last fall. But while it cleared the House of Commons' justice committee in December, it was only passed in June.

The bill's rough ride in the House came as the chamber was becoming more dysfunctional - bogged down in motions that at times were supported by all the opposition parties - and as the government was still trying to get its fall economic statement and federal budget passed.

"Throughout this session, the Official Opposition has worked to slow the work of Parliament through various procedural manoeuvres that have nothing to do with the legislation before the House," Justice Minister David Lametti said of the Conservatives in a statement.

That said, "the government is committed to seeing this legislation through,' Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said.

"I do believe it's still not too late."

The Conservatives counter that the government failed to prioritize the bill and scheduled it for debate too late in the session. "Now they've put the bill in jeopardy of starting over again with a possible risky election," justice critic Rob Moore said in a statement.

Julian said the NDP was flagging the need to move faster on C-6 as early as March, so that the Senate would also have enough time with it before the summer.

He said the party was ready to help fast-track it, including by offering support for evening sittings and time allocation, which would limit debate, earlier in the parliamentary session. He said the NDP was looking for nothing in return on its offer.

The fact that the government didn't take the NDP up on its offer and brought the bill back late in the session "I think lends credence to the argument that they preferred to turn it into a wedge than actually get it done," said NDP MP Randall Garrison, his party's critic on justice and sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill finally passed the House on June 22, but now finds itself in the Senate with no clear way out.

The government's representative in the Senate, Sen. Marc Gold, said last week that there was no agreement on his plan to pass the bill by the end of July, which would require recalling the Senate. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc's office blasted the Conservatives for "refusing to agree to reconvene the chamber."

But the fact is, if the government wants to recall the Senate, it simply needs to ask the Speaker, who decides whether it's in the public interest to do so. And that request has not been made.

Senate leaders, including the Conservatives, told the Star that it was their understanding after meeting with Gold earlier this month that the Senate would be recalled and then they would proceed with next steps.

Gold has said there was no agreement on several elements of his proposal to pass the bill this month.

If there was a concern around senators trying to delay the bill in a recalled Senate, there are tools available to the government's representative, including time allocation with the support of other senators. But Gold's office says it prefers a "consensus-building" approach.

Nevertheless, the support appears to be there among some of the Senate groups if the government really wanted to try to finish the work on C-6 this summer.

"I personally can say that it appears that the numbers are there to support getting the bill dealt with in a timely way," said Sen. Jane Cordy, leader of the Progressive Senate Group, who said she fully expected to see the Senate recalled in early July.

Senate leaders told the Star that they collectively agreed in June on a government request to get C-6 as far as passing second reading before the chamber adjourned for the summer, which is what happened.

And so there was surprise when Gold rose toward the very end of the Senate's last sitting day with a motion for the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee to meet virtually over the summer to study C-6.

The motion required unanimous consent, and was denied by a number of Conservative and other senators. Liberal ministers and MPs quickly took to Twitter, calling out the Conservatives for blocking the bill.

There's plenty of blame to go around on the failure to enact protections for some of the most vulnerable Canadians, said Kristopher Wells, Canada research chair for the public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth at MacEwan University.

"The goal of Parliament is to put forward the needs and best interests of Canadians, and not passing C-6 is a failure of the Canadian Parliament," he said.

2021 Toronto Star (ON)

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