Mapping the connections between anti-queer, anti-trans speakers at Regina’s conversion therapy ban council meeting

In Alberta in 2019, hundreds of people rallied in front of the Alberta Legislature to oppose proposed changes to laws surrounding gay-straight alliances. Denin Lawley/Unsplash.

On April 28, Regina city council spent a grueling eight hours (excluding breaks) reviewing a city administration report proposing a ban on conversion therapy – and inadvertently gave a platform to an international network of organized anti-queer, anti-trans activists.

The bulk of the meeting was given over to 32 delegations from members of the public who presented to council. Many of those delegates, however, were from outside Regina altogether. Nearly all of them are linked to one another.

Of the 12 speakers who spoke in favour of the ban, only one – Dr. Kristopher Wells, a public policy researcher from MacEwan University in Edmonton – was not based in Regina. But of the 20 speakers not in favour of the ban, nine were verifiably from outside Saskatchewan.

“We’ve seen half a dozen of those delegates here saying the same story and constantly referring to each other.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilors Jason Mancinelli, Cheryl Stadnichuk, and Andrew Stevens expressed concern with the number of out-of-province speakers, with Stadnichuk describing them as a “coordinated effort” and Stevens referring to them as a “national movement.”

“We’ve seen half a dozen of those delegates here saying the same story and constantly referring to each other,” Stevens said. “I’m not convinced that these are credible positions for us to use to craft a bylaw.”

Though both Stadnichuk and Stevens correctly noted that these delegates were part of a coordinated effort, the connections between delegates weren’t described in detail and were largely sidestepped in media coverage of the meeting – in some cases, giving readers the impression that the number of anti-ban delegations was organic, rather than the calculated outcome of planning by a pre-existing lobby.

Here’s a list of the out-of-province delegates and their ties to anti-gay, anti-trans political movements:

  • Teresa Pierre – Toronto, Ontario. Pierre’s organization, Parents As First Educators, rose to prominence while opposing former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s proposed sex-ed curriculum in 2015. Its president, Tanya Granic Allen, is a former Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership candidate.
  • Marty Moore – Calgary, Alberta. Moore is a staff lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a socially conservative think tank founded by former Canadian Taxpayers Federation Alberta director John Carpay. As recently as 2020, the JCCF was listed as a partner by the Atlas Network, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has worked aggressively to undermine left-wing governments and social movements in Latin America.
  • Jose Ruba – Calgary, Alberta. Ruba is the communications director and sole listed staffer for an organization called Free to Care that advocates nationally against conversion therapy bans. He’s also the executive director of an evangelical speakers’ organization named Faith Beyond Belief.
  • Ann E. Gillies – Dundalk, Ontario. Gillies, a retired therapist, is affiliated with an organization named “Restoring The Mosaic” and appears to be its sole staffer or member. She’s written two books, including one titled Closing the Flood Gates, about the dangers of “gender identity realities and the LGBTQ agenda.” Gillies believes the contents of this book caused her to be removed as a candidate for the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound federal Conservative Party nomination in 2019.
  • Emmanuel Sanchez – Calgary, Alberta. A Regina expat, Sanchez identified himself as an activist from Free to Care. He’s also listed as an “evangelist catalyst” with Christian evangelical organization United Youth Outreach.
  • Jenn Smith – Abbotsford, B.C. Smith is a blogger and conservative activist who has repeatedly involved himself with school boards dealing with queer issues in B.C.
  • Maritza Cummings – Arizona. A YouTuber and blogger, Cummings has a lengthy history in the public eye and, in the mid-2010s, began espousing “gender-critical” rhetoric and aligning with prominent American TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) like Maryland-based lawyer Catherine Brennan.
  • Colette Aikema – Lethbridge, Alberta. A staff speaker with Faith Beyond Belief.
  • Jeremy Williamson – Medicine Hat, Alberta. Williamson founded the Concerned Parents of School District #76, an interest group formed to oppose two Medicine Hat school board measures that set guidelines for 2SLGBTQ+ students and gay-straight alliances.  Williamson also ran for office as a public school trustee in Alberta school district 76, falling around 2,000 votes short of a seat.

Of these out-of-province delegates, only two – Gillies and Sanchez – were queried during the meeting about their interest in Regina municipal politics.

One speaker not in favour of the ban, Lorna Pederson of the South Asian Christian Fellowship, did not attest to her location, and the Sask Dispatch was not able to determine where she is based.

Many delegates are connected to one another through Free to Care, which lists Ruba, Gillies, Moore, Sanchez, Aikema, and Van Beek as a “sample” of available speakers. (As noted above, Ruba and Aikema are both additionally listed as staff with Faith Beyond Belief.)

Other, smaller formal connections link the group: Smith appeared on Cummings’ YouTube channel in a now-deleted interview, and has connections to other anti-trans activists in British Columbia. Cummings referred to Aikema as a “friend” in their delegation and is listed along with Van Beek on an extensive networking site for conversion therapy proponents, Two Prisms. In 2019, Williamson organized a conference with Ruba as a keynote speaker.  Both Ruba and Van Beek have worked with the Bethel Church in Redding, California, an evangelical megachurch. A Bethel ministry, Equipped to Love, advocates against conversion therapy bans. Van Beek’s story appears on their “Changed” website, while Ruba has been interviewed by Equipped to Love founder Elizabeth Woning.

These connections reveal that homophobic and transphobic activists are highly organized on a national and international level, and that coordination is key to their strategy.

Many of these links also run through Ontario-based conservative organization Campaign Life Coalition (CLC). In addition to its Conservative Party activism, Campaign Life Coalition founded LifeSiteNews, an online publication with anti-abortion, anti-2SLGBTQ+ views that recently saw itself banned from YouTube for promoting COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Ruba has appeared to talk about conversion therapy on a LifeSiteNews podcast; the Interim, another Campaign Life Coalition publication, features a recurring column, “Law Matters,” by JCCF president and Marty Moore’s boss, John Carpay; Williamson is identified as a “consultant” for the organization in a 2020 edition of the Interim, and his school board run was endorsed by the CLC; and the president of Pierre’s organization, Tanya Granic Allen, was at one point a spokesperson for the group.

These connections reveal that homophobic and transphobic activists are highly organized on a national and international level, and that coordination is key to their strategy. In the U.K., anti-trans and anti-gay activists have employed a similar strategy with success, coordinating to pressure the British government to reject changes to the country’s Gender Recognition Act that would make it easier for trans people to self-identify their gender and modify their birth certificate accordingly.

Moreover, organizing in this way allows for greater integration with mainstream conservative politics on an international level. In 2019, for example, the Heritage Foundation, an American conservative think tank, brought several U.K. TERFs to the U.S. for a meeting. Plus there’s the aforementioned Atlas Network connection to JCCF; in 2016 alone, Atlas says it dispensed over $5 million to its partners across the world. Anti-trans and anti-gay activists brought into this global network of conservative organizations benefit from those organizations’ massive resource pools, legitimacy, and connections to politicians. They can also leverage themselves directly into electoral politics: Campaign Life Coalition claims to have brought 9,000 supporters of Granic Allen into the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in 2018, which was enough for the CBC to have deemed her the race’s “kingmaker” after she dropped out and endorsed the eventual winner, current Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

It’s easy for ordinary people to misunderstand backlash to conversion therapy bans as coming from a diverse set of grassroots community members, rather than from a rotating cast of activists who strategically target local political debates.

In the U.K. these activists have largely presented themselves as concerned parents and/or feminists, organizing public pressure campaigns through websites like the highly influential parenting forum Mumsnet. Internationally, the alliances this creates allows transphobic and homophobic politicos on the right to appear as if they have common cause with the left when advancing a political program hostile to trans and queer people. In Canada, however, the effort is taking place through an existing network of conservative lobby groups and think-tanks, along with Christian organizations.

Because the members of this small, tightly-connected network of activists are part of so many overlapping organizations, it’s easy for ordinary people to misunderstand backlash to conversion therapy bans as coming from a diverse set of grassroots community members, rather than from a rotating cast of activists who strategically target local political debates and know each other as colleagues or even coworkers. This effect is magnified when mainstream media fails to report on speakers’ connections to each other. It’s also difficult for policymakers to put these connections together on the spot, especially at a municipal level, where other duties and day jobs get in the way of doing the necessary research.

But until the public understands the level of coordination behind anti-trans and anti-queer activists, the network will continue to spread “deceit and misdirection,” as Stevens put it, at all levels of government, and slow or stall necessary moves toward equal and fair treatment for 2SLGTBQ+ people.

Update, May 11, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect that Campaign Life Coalition does not run LifeSiteNews. Instead, CLC founded LifeSiteNews.