Canada’s Senate rose for its summer break late Tuesday after members of the upper house pushed through two key pieces of government legislation — but two other bills failed to get through in time, including a ban on so-called conversion therapy and a controversial plan to overhaul the Broadcasting Act.
Senators passed C-12, the government’s “climate accountability” legislation, which would force current and future federal governments to set binding climate targets to get Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The upper house passed it with a vote of 60-19, with two abstentions. All Conservative senators voted against the bill.
Senators also gave the green light to the multi-billion-dollar federal budget that Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled in April, clearing the way for some pandemic-related programs to continue until the fall as the COVID-19 health scare drags on.
But the government wanted at least four of its “priority” bills passed before Parliament rose for likely the last sitting ahead of a widely expected fall election campaign — and it fell short on securing a conversion therapy ban and C-10, a bill designed to make online streamers contribute more to Canada’s cultural landscape, which has been dismissed by Conservatives as an attack on free speech.
‘It needs to be banned’
C-6, the conversion therapy ban bill, which would criminalize the dangerous practice of trying to forcibly “convert” LGBTQ people to heterosexuality, passed the Commons last week despite entrenched opposition from some social conservatives.
More than half the Conservative caucus voted against the bill in the Commons, because some members were worried the legislation would outlaw conversations between adolescents and religious leaders and therapists, despite government assurances that that was not the intent.
The Liberals maintain any practice designed to forcibly “convert” LGBTQ people is barbarous and must be banned.
Senators said they shouldn’t be expected to pass a bill like this so quickly after receiving it from the Commons, as it leaves members of the upper house little time to do their due diligence.
Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett, the critic of the bill, said he was “very supportive of a well-defined ban on coercive conversion therapy,” saying the practice is “unconditionally wrong, and it needs to be banned.”
But he said many of the provinces have already banned this sort of pseudoscience and the federal bill is just an attempt at “crass political manoeuvring” to “make it a wedge issue.” He said the language in the bill was “overly broad and ambiguous.”
“The bill before us today may be well-intentioned, and Conservatives support it in principle. Abusive or coercive conversion therapy should be banned, but the bill has significant problems that must be addressed,” Plett said, before voting to send the legislation to the legal affairs committee for further study sometime later this year.
The Tories also are fiercely opposed to Bill C-10, legislation the government says is meant to make digital streaming services pay for the creation, production and promotion of Canadian content.
Bill C-10 would make online streaming platforms that operate in Canada — like Netflix, Spotify, Crave and Amazon Prime — subject to the Broadcasting Act, allowing the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to impose regulations on them.
‘It needs a stake through the heart’
The Conservatives maintain the legislation is too heavy-handed and threatens Canadians’ rights and freedoms, because it would give the CRTC the power to regulate posts that millions of Canadians upload every day to social media platforms.
Sen. David Richards, a Canadian novelist who was appointed as an independent senator by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017 and now sits as a member of the conservative-leaning Canadian Senators Group (CSG), told the Senate Tuesday that C-10 raises serious freedom-of-speech concerns.
“I will always and forever stand against any bill that subjects freedom of expression to the doldrums of governmental oversight,” he said. “And I implore others to do the same. Because I don’t think this bill needs amendment. I think, however, it needs a stake through the heart.”
Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos said Monday the Red Chamber would not rush its study despite the government’s pleas to pass it quickly. While the legislation, on its face, may seem like a reasonable attempt to modernize decades-old regulations and an outdated Broadcasting Act, Housakos said, there are other “consequences” to giving the CRTC control over some aspects of the internet.
“The core problem with this bill is that it takes the regulatory tools designated for a small, fixed number of licensed TV and radio stations in the 1990s and attempts to apply it to the vast universe of the internet in the 2020s,” Housakos said.
“In doing so, it gives the CRTC an unprecedented delegation of power with no clear framework or definitions as to how it will be used,” he said. “We have a government which, by its own admission in December, wants to go after individual websites, podcasts, audiobooks, sports streaming services, PlayStation games, home workout apps and even adult websites.”
“This lack of clear limits on what can be regulated is a fundamental problem with this bill,” he said.
If there isn’t an election in the interim, the Senate and its committees are expected to return sometime during the week of Sept. 21.