OTTAWA — A video promoting June as Pride month coupled with a concerted push to end the gay "blood ban" is what the Conservative Party of Canada looks like under Erin O'Toole as he works to prove once and for all it stands for LGBTQ rights.
Growing the big blue tent to include more rainbow, pink and blue flags — as well dissuading people from believing the political attacks of its opponents — comes as a handful of O'Toole's own MPs oppose a Liberal government bill that would ban conversion therapy.
Bill C-6 aims to make it a crime to force someone to undergo a "practice, treatment or service," meant to change or suppress their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.
While parliamentarians roundly criticize this so-called therapy as traumatic and wrong, some in the Conservative caucus voice concern the government's definition is too broad, worrying the law could prevent people from seeking help and dissuade parents and church leaders from talking openly to kids about sex and gender.
Saskatchewan MPs Cathay Wagantall and Jeremy Patzer are among the Conservatives who say they can't support the bill in its current form.
O'Toole on Tuesday affirmed his party's opposition to conversion therapy saying forcing someone to change who they are "can tear at their soul, and our party opposes that."
"The debates in Parliament are meant to be debates where we can say …'is the legislation going to address that harm that we all recognize in a way that helps people affected, helps the victims and prevents new victims from being created and doesn't expand into areas where it's limiting conversations,'" he said during a press conference.
As party leader — who previously voted in favour of the proposed ban under the caveat it needed amending — O'Toole added he's "pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-choice" and expects his caucus members to have respectful policy debates.
His well-advertised stance on advocating for LGBTQ rights comes after the party's 2019 election loss under former leader Andrew Scheer, who was dogged by Liberal attacks during the campaign that continued with questions afterwards about his beliefs around same-sex marriage.
That prompted calls for the party to better articulate its position on LGBTQ rights and put an end to any uncertainty.
Conservatives are now trying to leave no room for ambiguity.
In a video released Tuesday by O'Toole, he talks about celebrating June as Pride month by standing in front of a mural commemorating the historical fight for LGBTQ rights in Canada.
Walking across a rainbow crosswalk, he promises to be an ally and stand up against the intolerance and discrimination faced by members of the LGBTQ community.
During his press conference, O'Toole said there's more work still to do.
He lauded the work of MPs like Eric Duncan pushing to end the blood donation limits from men who have sex with men.
Beginning in 1992, Canada imposed a lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, after thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV and hepatitis C through tainted blood products. That policy changed in 2013 to allow it if the donor abstained from being sexually active with another man for at least five years. That period dropped to one year and eventually three months in 2019.
The Liberal government has said the policy is not one set by Health Canada, but rather by the Canadian Blood Services — an arm's-length agency.
At a separate news conference, Duncan and Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner announced they had sent a letter to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, calling for her to end the ban altogether under the Food and Drugs Act, which would fulfil a promise the Liberals campaigned on twice.
"It's our job to stand up for human rights and to call out discrimination and stigma where it exists," said Duncan, who is gay.
Rempel Garner says when it comes to Pride and LGBTQ rights, Conservatives are focused on action. She also reflected on how far the party has come.
"Over the last 10 years of my career, I've fought a lot of battles on this issue. We went through the battle of changing the definition of marriage in our party's policy's declaration and we won," she said Tuesday.
"I had a moment standing here, Eric was up here talking about this a few minutes ago — I will always remember that moment because we've come a long way."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2021
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press