A growing outcry is developing after local MP Jamie Schmale decided to hold a constituency-level referendum on Bill C-6, which would outlaw conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy is a range of dangerous and discredited practices that could attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation, such as from lesbian, gay, or bisexual to straight. These practices have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization for many years.
The bill was introduced in the House of Commons last October.
Schmale’s letter to constituents reads that he is asking “the voters of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock, to instruct me how to vote on Bill C-6…when it is placed before the House of Commons for final approval.”
Schmale then goes on to say he is personally against the debunked practice but then immediately says he has “an obligation and a duty to represent my constituents.”
Dr. Peter Anderson a family physician in Lindsay, told the Advocate that the practice of conversion therapy is “appalling,” and has been “rightly denounced as a fraudulent practice.”
“I’m really offended that Jamie Schmale has sent out a referendum about it. There is no justification for a referendum. Mr. Schmale should do the right thing and vote in favour of Bill C-6 to amend the criminal code,” says Anderson.
In a letter sent to Schmale that the Advocate was copied on, Hugh and Ruth Armstrong of Burnt River note they “received your Constituency Referendum on Bill C-6 in the mail today and have returned it in the affirmative.”
“However,” they write, we are “concerned that you, our elected member, would not vote on this issue based solely on science irrespective of what the view of the electorate may be. To do otherwise is dangerous.”
Mike Perry, a local lawyer and equality advocate, said “our 2SLBTQ+ friends and neighbours here locally — and their families and friends — shouldn’t have to endure a referendum on conversion therapy.”
“The practice has a horrifying history and even the term is so painful to many. It’s very hurtful to imply that this de-bunked, odious practice is somehow debatable. A young person I know said she can’t believe it was ever allowed in the first place,” Perry said.
The Advocate asked Schmale, on a matter of minority rights, why he would even consider putting something like this issue to a local referendum?
“As I stated in the referendum (mailout piece),” said Schmale, “I believe conversion therapy is wrong. However, the issue isn’t whether conversion therapy ought to be unlawful, but rather whether certain kinds of advocacy should actually be criminalized.”
The MP says if not worded properly, Bill C-6 “could have consequences far beyond the LGBTQ community.”
“We need to protect LGBTQ rights in Canada, but we also need to ensure that people who are asked for their counsel are not punished. Bill C-6 has the potential to affect, counsellors, parents, teachers, faith leaders, coaches, in fact anyone who may be in a position to provide advice to another,” says Schmale.
At least one faith leader isn’t buying this.
Rev. Paul Reed of the United Church in Lindsay says he understands that the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms “allows me to live openly as a person of faith – for myself, as a Christian.”
“But a charter provision that offers me protection cannot be used to justify an attack on the freedoms of another.”
In an emailed statement Reed writes that, “reducing leadership to an exercise of doing what the majority wants is an abuse of power.”
“A referendum of this nature can only lead to division and polarization. It is not a healthy form of democracy and does not produce a healthy society. The decision then, is not to be made based on what is popular but what is right and most beneficial.”
Reed says, “to make a decision, and to invite others to vote, without debate and study, fixates opinion, but does not reach truth.”
Schmale says he holds constituency referenda because “the people of this riding — and by extension, the people of Canada as a whole — are no less thoughtful and reasonable than their elected officials.”
“I have promised throughout my career to give my constituents the power to determine my vote on moral matters like this one, whenever circumstances allow,” says Schmale.
Since being elected in 2015, this is his fourth constituency referendum. The last one was on assisted dying.
Schmale was asked about the potential for low engagement on the local referendum, and how he would measure whether enough people participated to inform him. Without naming any threshold number of people he would expect to hear from, Schmale encouraged constituents to vote.
“However, I cannot force them to vote. That is not how democracy works. Democracy is about giving people a choice and that is what this referendum is about.”
He said in the three previous referenda there has been a growth in responses but declined to comment on what those numbers were.
Perry says a hallmark of our democracy “is that we protect people in the minority, especially from harm.”
“The majority of us here locally have the privilege of never having to worry about the possibility of our sexual orientation being ‘treated.’ Majority rule doesn’t work in cases where people can be harmed based on their identity.”
Perry says surely, “we wouldn’t need a referendum to ban 1960s shock therapy for people with depression, like my grandfather went through. It’s 2021.”