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Divisive debate erupts in Red Deer city council chambers over conversion therapy

Coun. Dianne Wyntjes says it’s not a moral issue, but a people issue
Red Deer city Coun. Dianne Wyntjes said her motion against conversion therapy is not a moral issue, but a people issue. (Advocate file photo).

A motion to condemn conversion therapy, as a sign of community inclusiveness, caused much division on Red Deer city council Monday night.

Coun. Dianne Wyntjes, who introduced the motion, later acknowledged the irony.

Although her motion against conversion therapy was later passed by a majority council vote, this didn’t happen until it was amended and divided into separate clauses for votes — and after Coun. Vesna Higham accused Wyntjes of being disrespectful.

Higham took issue with Wyntjes bringing her private motion forward and suggested it came out of left-field for other councillors.

Higham said conversion therapy was discussed at a retreat where council decided not to take an official stance on it but to write to the justice minister instead with concerns and questions. She said Wyntjes did not respect that decision.

But an emotional Wyntjes later said she has every right to bring forward issues of concern to members of the community — and she said it was Higham who was being disrespectful.

“This is not a moral issue but a people issue,” Wyntjes responded, after Higham and Coun. Tanya Handley called it the former.

Wyntjes introduced a notice of motion last month to stand behind members of the LGBTQ+ community, who feel the practice of trying to convert gay youths to heterosexuality is a form of psychological abuse, leading to more depression and suicide.

This is the same position Alberta government has taken by making conversion therapy illegal in the province.

And it’s the same position taken by many other municipalities across the country, including Rocky Mountain House, which all threw its support behind trying to abolish the practice.

But Higham, who belongs to the Mormon faith, objected to criminalizing conversion therapy without carefully defining what that means. She sees it is a charter issue — in which the federal government would have to balance people’s personal freedoms against other people’s religious rights.

Higham fears criminalizing conversion therapy could prevent some people, such as church leaders, from discussing their views about sexual orientation.

Handley also described aspects of Wyntjes’ motion as potentially infringing on rights of free speech and expression.

But Wyntjes doesn’t see it as impinging on anyone’s faith, or dictating what people can discuss.

Conversion therapy means coercing somebody to change who they essentially are, she said.

While Wyntjes hasn’t heard this so-called therapy is being performed in the city, she still wanted city council to take a strong stand against it as a show of support for the LGBTQ+ community.

Conversion therapy, which has been discredited by experts and licensing bodies, is blamed “for impacting the physical and mental well-being, safety, security, dignity, inclusion and equality of LGBTQ+ persons,” added Wyntjes.

Coun. Buck Buchanan fully supported her motion against the practice, as did Coun. Ken Johnston and Coun. Michael Dawe. Buchanan said a gay former cop once explained to him that changing his sexual orientation would be as successful as changing the colour of his eyes.

But Coun. Lawrence Lee and Coun. Frank Wong took issue with Wyntjes’ motion because they said banning the practise doesn’t fall under city council’s parameters, but it is a provincial or federal matter.

And the city received several letters from the community asking council not to ban it.

“If they want to try some counselling or therapy it’s up to them, not some overreaching politicians,” said one of the letter writers.

While Mayor Tara Veer wants to support all members of the community, she expressed concern about the government possibly “overreaching,” and the city supporting what she called a “symbolic ban” when it had no authority to really prevent conversion therapy.

The matter is polarizing, Veer added. “The key is to go about building community even when there are differences of opinion …”

Dianne MacAulay, a member of the local LGBTQ+ community, was among a dozen people from both sides of the issue who attended council’s discussion.

She felt some councillors made “lame” arguments and missed the real point. She encouraged them to get educated about what conversion therapy really means: “It’s abusive, both mentally and verbally.”

MacAuley was disappointed Edmonton, Calgary “and even Rocky Mountain House” could take a strong stand against it, while Red Deer council seems to have a “disconnect,” and to be sowing messages of discord instead of inclusiveness.

Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
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