Stepping into the breach: St.Alberta debates ban on conversion therapy after province declines

St. Albert city council is looking at imposing a $10,000 fine for anyone advertising therapy to minors that would try to change their sexual orientation or identity. It could also refuse a business licence or development permit to practitioners. The intent appears to have wide support on council, but some wonder if a city has the proper tools.“We just want it to stop,” said St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron on Sunday. “The debate in St. Albert tomorrow will not be about whether or not you support banning these practices; the debate will be about how to best achieve the elimination of conversion therapy.”The therapy can cause lasting psychological harm and is opposed by the Canadian Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, and Amnesty International. The United Conservative government disbanded an NDP-appointed working group designed to find a provincial response to the issue in June. That inaction demands cities step up, said St. Albert Coun. Natalie Joly, who proposed the municipal ban. It’s a statement of values and a show of support for LGBTQ people. Even if action at the municipal level is difficult to enforce, “it’s still saying, ‘You are who you are and we support that. We don’t want anyone telling you any differently.’ That’s the value in this bylaw,” she said. Municipal officials and concerned citizens across the country will be watching St. Albert, said Kristopher Wells, a well-known local activist.

In June 2018, Vancouver became the first Canadian city to ban businesses from offering conversion therapy services. St. Albert will be the first city in Alberta to debate it. Edmonton’s debate is scheduled for August and other councils have expressed interest. It’s about showing leadership, Wells said. On LGBTQ issues, the UCP is out of step with the majority of Albertans, he said. That’s why municipal governments need to step up. “It’s time for cities to rise,” said Wells, who is a MacEwan University associate professor and Canada Research Chair specializing in sexual and gender minority youth and culture.

Conversion therapy is not a recognized health service in Alberta and is not covered by Alberta health care. The practice is happening, but no one knows how many people are affected or how many people are offering it, said Christopher Pappas, rector of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church and former member of the province’s conversion therapy working group. It may be masked as another type of spiritual or psychological treatment, he said. “In one case, individuals were told that they were going to go through an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing — a perfectly acceptable therapy to help people unlock emotional blocks. But it wasn’t,” said Pappas.

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