OTTAWA - A government bill seeking to ban conversion therapy has cleared the House of Commons and is on its way to the Senate.
Bill C-4 was fast-tracked through the legislative stages in the House of Commons with the unanimous consent of all MPs after Conservative Rob Moore introduced a motion to do so.
Erin O'Toole had been set to once again allow his caucus to have a free vote on the bill, but also pledged that his MPs would work to get it passed quickly.
The so-called therapy is widely discredited as a harmful practice, aimed at trying to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity.
Earlier in the week, the Liberals introduced legislation for a third time in the House of Commons to criminalize the practice.
The first bill died when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament in 2020. A second version introduced not long after didn't pass the Senate before the legislative agenda was cleared by Trudeau's election call last summer.
It was passed by the House of Commons, however, where 62 of O'Toole's 119 MPs voted against the bill, despite the leader's efforts to demonstrate a more progressive stance on LGBTQ issues.
At that time, numerous Conservative MPs — namely those who hail from its social conservative wing — complained the wording of the bill was overly broad and could criminalize conversations about sexuality between children and their parents or with religious leaders.
The vote prompted a backlash, with critics charging that O'Toole had failed to live up to his more progressive rhetoric on LGBTQ issues.
Faced with another vote on the issue soon, a spokeswoman for O'Toole had confirmed he would again allow a free vote.
After meeting with his caucus Wednesday, O'Toole emerged to tell reporters Conservatives would move to "accelerate" the bill's passage.
He repeated that his entire team rejects conversion therapy and criticized Trudeau's inability to criminalize the practice despite spending six years in government.
O'Toole said he's an ally of the LGBTQ community, which he accused Trudeau of using "in a way that's not appropriate, politically."
Allowing MPs to vote as they like on matters of conscience has been O'Toole's position since becoming leader of the party, which includes a sizable number of MPs who are social conservatives.
Nicholas Schiavo, founder of advocacy group No Conversion Canada, said federal leaders should ensure the legislation receives unanimous approval to send a clear message to LGBTQ Canadians that conversion therapy is unacceptable. He called O'Toole's decision to allow a free vote disappointing.
"You're putting the lives of LGBTQ Canadians who are proven to be at risk up for debate. And you're putting their fundamental freedoms up for debate," Schiavo said.
"I don't believe that you can have votes of conscience on issues that are unconscionable … that is a failure of leadership."
On his way into the meeting on Wednesday, Tory House leader Gerard Deltell told reporters those members who have concerns about how the legislation is written would be able to debate that behind closed doors.
Newly elected Ontario MP Michelle Ferreri confirmed she planned to support the ban, stating simply that conversion therapy is wrong.
Conservatives will alsohave to deal with another government bill related to COVID-19. The two-pronged bill would legislate 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers and create two new Criminal Code offences for anyone threatening a health-care worker or obstructing access to a health-care facility.
The latter measures are in response to anti-vaccine protests at hospitals and clinics, but they would also apply to facilities where abortions are performed.
The Liberals have long used abortion to drive a political wedge between the Conservatives, with the September federal election campaign being the most recent example.
Campaign Life Coalition, a national anti-abortion organization, has already warned the bill could restrict free speech for those who want to publicly oppose the procedure.
Longtime Ontario backbencher Cheryl Gallant also said in a recent social media video that Trudeau was pushing a "ban on protesting" and questioned "what type of protest will be banned next."
A statement from O'Toole's office suggests Conservatives plan to support the legislation, but spokeswoman Josie Sabatino didn't answer when asked whether the vote would be whipped.
She said they support existing Criminal Code measures that protect health workers and "will also support the new measures proposed in (the bill) along with the paid sick leave provisions for all federally regulated industries."
Sabatino also promised a Conservative government would expand the legislation to apply to "other public works and critical infrastructure."
O'Toole has in the past been critical of blockades and protests staged on transportation infrastructure, such as rail lines.