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The right message

St. Albert moves to ban conversion therapy

Banning conversion therapy in St. Albert may not eliminate the discredited practice, but it sets an important standard and sends a message of acceptance to vulnerable St. Albert youths.

The city was thrust into the national spotlight this week after Coun. Natalie Joly brought forward a motion to crack down on the harmful practice, which council passed unanimously Monday afternoon. For those who are unfamiliar with it, conversion therapy aims to change one's sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, often through coercive or abusive means that have been characterized by experts and victims as being tantamount to torture.

It's unclear if conversion therapy is practised in St. Albert. Terry Soetart, who heads OutLoud, told council on Monday he isn't aware of anyone offering this practice, but he has heard of it happening. The difficulty lies in the underground nature of such therapy – it often flies under the radar, making a ban difficult to enforce.

Despite the challenges, councillors rightly chose to endorse such a ban. Part of the reasoning – aside from providing a strong denunciation of such services – is that if enough municipalities band together in opposition, regardless of whether it is a direct issue in their community, they can pressure other levels of government to consider laws.

In March, the federal government handed the responsibility for banning conversion therapy to provinces and territories. While a few provinces have passed legislation against it, Alberta is not one of them, and while the absence of legislation is not an endorsement of the practice, our current laws fail to truly condemn it.

St. Albert's forthcoming bylaw will declare conversion therapy to not be a lawful business activity and will prohibit it from being allowed under the land use bylaw. A $10,000 fine would apply for those offering such services to minors.

To those of us who have never had to worry about how our sexual orientation, gender identity or expression defies social norms, this can seem like a non-issue at best. At worst, it may be criticized as virtue signalling or grandstanding. But practices like conversion therapy pose a real threat to already marginalized and vulnerable youth, and for those familiar with or part of the LGBTQ community, this bylaw will hopefully give them some level of reassurance that their wellbeing is important.

As society progresses, so must its rules. If we want a safe community, our laws need to reflect that, just as they do for other harmful behaviours. Banning conversion therapy may not traditionally be in the purview of municipalities but it provides some small level of security until the provincial or federal governments tackle the issue.

The bylaw councillors voted to draft is unlikely to stop conversion therapy from happening in St. Albert, because ultimately if someone wants to subject their child to conversion therapy, they will find a way to do so. But this creates one more barrier in their path, one more protection for youth and a means of pressuring other levels of government to legislate on the practice – and that's a win on all counts.

Editorials are the consensus view of the St. Albert Gazette’s editorial board.