The licensing and promotion of conversion therapy has been banned in Wood Buffalo, becoming the fourth municipality in Alberta to ban the practice after Edmonton, St. Albert and Sherwood Park.
The vote passed 8-2, with councillors Phil Meagher and Sheila Lalonde opposing the motion. Councillor Claris Voyageur was absent from the meeting.
Conversion therapy refers to treatment or counselling with the goal of changing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The idea of conversion therapy is a quackery and serves no purpose in our region,” said Mayor Don Scott, who announced he would pursue the motion at the start of Pride Week this past August.
The bylaw prohibits providing, performing, or imposing conversion therapy on anyone. Penalties include fines between $1,000 and $10,000. Not paying the fine could result in imprisonment for up to six months.
Enforcement of the bylaw would come often come from a complaint and an investigation would be done, said Deanne Bergey, director of community services.
Three delegates, all pastors, spoke to council opposing the motion.
Brian Coldwell, who is the pastor of the New Testament Baptist Church of Edmonton and board chairman of two private Christian schools in the Edmonton-area, agreed that “no one should be coerced into taking any type of harmful medical therapies or forced religious conversion.”
However, he argued the bylaw would restrict religious freedoms, could censor what is said during sermons, and what advice and feedback a pastor could give during counselling.
“We’re not trying to harm anyone, but people who want to come, obey the gospel, they should not be restricted from doing so,” he said.
These comments angered several members of council when it was their turn to respond.
“Sitting here as a heterosexual Catholic woman I found some of your comments very offensive,” said Councillor Verna Murphy. “To somehow insinuate being gay is not healthy… I find that offensive so I can’t imagine being a gay person and coming to your church.”
Councillor Keith McGrath, who is also a trustee with the Fort McMurray Catholic School Division, called it “brainwashing” when it was his turn to respond.
“Some parts of the bible need to be revisited and renewed,” he said. “I’d support this wholeheartedly, simply because you or I have no right to judge people how they want to love. I believe love is love.”
Meagher and Lalonde said they were concerned the bylaw would control how parents could raise their children.
“To me, that’s taking away the freedom of a parent to choose,” said Meagher, who added he was initially supportive of the motion.
The other pastors who spoke were Pastor Dennis Glenon at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Thickwood and Pastor Jose Ramos of Calgary.
Shortly after the meeting, Pride YMM called the bylaw’s passing “a huge step to protecting and ensuring the health and safety of all LGBTQ2+ people in this region.”
“This bylaw makes a clear statement that all people have the right to live, free of harassment, as their true authentic selves,” the statement reads. “We are disappointed the motion did not pass unanimously but we appreciate all the councillors who did support the motion.”
Cluster Housing ammendment, new motions passed
Earlier in the evening, council unanimously approved an amendment to the Land Use Bylaw adding “Cluster Housing” to rural hamlets. This would allow multiple homes to be built on one lot. How many homes could be built would be a case-by-case basis.
The change was proposed after administration heard interest for cluster housing projects in Fort Chipewyan. The amendment also applies to Fort McKay, Anzac, Janvier and Conklin.
The housing situation in Conklin has already been described as a crisis by local residents and community leaders.
Council also approved unanimously the first reading of a proposal by the Tabernacle of Praise Church to renovate the former Dunvegan Gardens property. The church lost its original space in Waterways during the May 2016 wildfires.
A public hearing is scheduled for February 11.
Towards the end of the meeting, councillors presented three new motions which all passed.
Scott motioned to invite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to hold a federal cabinet meeting in Wood Buffalo.
“One of the problems we have with the federal government among many others is that they do not have a presence in this region,” said Scott. “They could certainly see firsthand what this region is all about and become ambassadors for the region.”
Scott also motioned to send a letter endorsing Fort McMurray Legion member Bill Rockwell for the Governor General Medal for Volunteers.
Both of Scott’s motions passed unanimously.
Murphy motioned that any air travel for municipal business must go through the Fort McMurray International airport.
“I think this is setting a great example from the top down,” said Murphy.
The motion passed 9-1, with Councillor Bruce Inglis opposing the motion.
“As an elected person, I’d like to make my own choices on how I choose to travel when I’m doing my job,” said Inglis. “If it means I want to drive my vehicle to Edmonton and then carry on a flight, I’d like to have the freedom to do that.”
CORRECTION: This article originally reported the conversion therapy bylaw bans the practice, unless an adult has given their written consent to it. This was overturned in an amendment. Offering conversion therapy is banned throughout the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The Fort McMurray Today apologizes for the error.