After two days of fasting, the people on screen were practically drooling as they talked about chicken wings and homemade pizza.
“You end up dreaming about food when you’re fasting; it’s hilarious,” Rob Parker said to the 60 or so other people who had joined the Zoom call last Sunday evening. Participants had been urged to fast for the weekend leading up to the prayer meeting where they would break the fast together and take online communion.
Parker is one of the founders of the National House of Prayer, a group started in 2005 committed to “praying for the Government of Canada.” He was kicking off this virtual prayer meeting dedicated to praying against the federal government’s proposed conversion therapy ban, Bill C-6, which someone later called a “bad bill.”
People from coast to coast would be joining, Parker said, taking pauses to let someone from Quebec translate in French. More and more attendees popped up from their respective living rooms and kitchens.
The event held a heightened sense of urgency for them as C-6, a bill to ban some conversation therapy practices, is expected to pass its third and final reading at the House of Commons in the coming weeks before moving to the Senate.
“We pray that if it does get to the Senate, Lord… that it would go no further,” one man said. “And we pray for more time, Father, to actually see opinions sway, to actually see this bill killed forever.”
Since last year, dozens of people from Christian groups have come together regularly like this to pray and strategize against proposed laws that would criminalize conversion therapy practices. Bill C-6 defines conversion therapy as a practice 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.
Some Christian groups have put out guidelines for how to discuss their concerns with members of Parliament, senators, and their churches, and offer training meetings with “legal advice and medical advice.” They have also testified before parliamentary committees and city councils.
Despite their efforts, and a few sympathetic Conservative MPs who share their opposition to C-6, the bill has garnered broad support and is expected to fully pass before the summer. On Wednesday, Regina’s city council became the latest city to officially support the proposed federal ban. Though the hours-long council meeting heard from a roughly even split of people for and against Bill C-6—including from at least one delegate who was also on Sunday’s prayer call—the council unanimously voted to put forward a draft ban by July.
The movement to ban conversion therapy has gained momentum around the world in recent years with a number of countries imposing or tabling various laws. More than 100 states, provinces, and municipalities across Canada and the U.S. have also passed their own types of bans. Recent estimates show that at least 47,000 Canadians have experienced conversion therapy.
It would make it illegal under Canadian law for children to undergo conversion therapy, to force anyone to undergo conversion therapy against their will, to promote or advertise conversion therapy, and to make money on it. A person convicted under the law could face two to five years in prison.
Advocates support the bill as a necessary way to help curb harmful practices, but they say it’s not perfect—the bill does not criminalize conversion therapy for consenting adults.
Groups that oppose the law insist they’re against people being forced into any type of counselling or mistreatment. But they also see Bill C-6 and other similar conversion therapy bans as overly broad and a potential infringement on peoples’ ability to freely provide and seek counselling around questions of sexuality and gender identity. They take particular issue with the bill’s conversion therapy definition that includes efforts to “reduce non-heterosexual attraction,” which they say could be used to target people, including straight people, wanting to do things like stop watching porn or having an affair.
Experts and advocates for Bill C-6 and conversion therapy bans shake their heads at this and say these concerns are misguided: the legislation does not prohibit good-faith conversations about these issues.
Prayer events and the pushback against the law are largely led by Free to Care, a nonprofit started in 2020 by Jose Ruba. Ruba is a Calgary-based Christian advocate and youth leader who has been at the forefront of the opposition against conversion bans at various levels of government across Canada.
“We have a lot to pray for,” Ruba told the participants. “This may be our last prayer meeting before the votes in Parliament.”
Ruba, who says he has previously received Christian counselling to “reduce” his own “same-sex attractions” to become celibate, told those on the Zoom call he just landed in Ottawa where he will spend the next week preparing for the vote and “working with people from multiple parties” on Bill C-6. He said his group has also taken out advertisements in the Hill Times with personal testimonies about why Bill C-6 should be opposed. These ads were met with backlash from the LGBTQ+ community and supporters of the bill.
(On Monday, the newspaper released a statement from the publisher apologizing for running the ads and “the hurt they have caused.” “The Hill Times will no longer run this campaign and any money collected from the publishing of these ads will be donated to groups that support 2SLGBTQ+ and trans communities,” publisher Anne Marie Creskey said.)
From Ruba’s perspective, there’s a lot on the line if the bill passes as is.
“I'm providing counselling for a young man who's struggling with LGBTQ questions,” Ruba said, “If Bill C-6 was the law right now, I could be in trouble for sharing what we believe to him...He’s a minor. But he wants to talk to me.”
“And that's why we're here tonight,” Ruba continued. “Because young men like him still need to hear the Gospel.”
Ruba later clarified to VICE World News in between meetings that he had not actually met this person before and didn’t know what the “LGBTQ questions” were yet.
“I'm hoping to build a relationship, but (part) of that relationship would be to learn where this person is at… Maybe he's just questioning at this stage,” Ruba said. He added that he’s been hearing from a number of pastors who are reluctant to return calls from LGBTQ people who reach out to them to talk because of a potential threat of reprisals.
“Pastors are getting scared that they might get caught or trapped or all kinds of things,” Ruba said. “So now members of the LGBT community are not getting the spiritual support they deserve.”
Kristopher Wells, the Canada research chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth, told VICE World News that “all conversion therapy is rooted within an anti-LGBTQ ideology.”
“So if you don’t believe that there’s something wrong with being an LGBTQ person, then there’s no need to try to fix, change, or cure them,” he said.
Wells said the Liberals have been clear the legislation would not criminalize “good-faith conversations” and people who were seeking guidance and support. “It prevents the harmful and unscientific practice of conversion therapy from happening, but it doesn’t prevent someone from seeking support to ‘manage their same-sex attractions’ or parents being able to have conversations around sexuality with their children.”
Someone doesn’t automatically end up in jail if they are charged with a crime, Wells added. There’s due process including hearings and evidence that delve into the motivations and actions of someone accused of a crime.
He added the only real threat to the federal legislation would be if an election was called before it was passed—not any sort of opposition campaign.
Ruba is prepared to continue his efforts if the legislation passes as is. “We're not going to drop this,” he said.
For Wells, conversion therapy will not end in Canada with the bill’s passage.
“You see these organized and well-funded campaigns against Bill C-6, and conversion therapy legislation across Canada, but the federal government isn't funding a counter-campaign,” he said.
“There should be a fund to help provide counselling supports for any person in Canada who's experienced conversion therapy and wants support dealing with its aftermath.”
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