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12 min

1989: The murder police couldn’t ignore

How everything changed for Ottawa's gay community


THE MATCH IN THE POWDER KEG. The murder of Alain Brosseau at the Alexandria Bridge ignited the community, leading to a thawing in police-gay relations in Ottawa and the induction of gays into hate crimes legislation. (Peter Fritz photo)

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It’s a story that’s hard to hear, but harder to forget.

In the August of 1989, after working a late shift at the Chateau Laurier, 33-year-old waiter Alain Brosseau stepped out into the summer night and made a shortcut through Major’s Hill Park.

Maybe Brosseau didn’t know that the park was a popular cruising spot for the city’s gays; maybe he never looked too closely into the shadows on his walk home.

But a gang of teenagers went to the park that night well aware of what they might find. Laying in wait, they found Brosseau.

Jeffrey Lalonde, one of the four young men convicted of Brosseau’s murder, admitted during his trial in 1990 that he and his friends had gone out that night “to roll a queer.” In court, the teens said that they saw Brosseau walking alone; that they saw he was small and well-dressed. In other words, they’d seen enough.

As Brosseau crossed the Alexandria Bridge, heading towards his home in Quebec, Lalonde and his friends attacked. They beat him, stole $80 and pried a ring off his finger. Then seizing the man’s legs, they hoisted him up and over to dangle off the edge of the bridge.

According to testimony at trial, Brosseau “freaked out” while his attackers laughed.

“I like your shoes,” said Lalonde, holding Brosseau by the ankles.

Then he let go, and Alain fell, face-first, to the rocks below.

Although Brosseau wasn’t gay, he was perceived so by his killers. At the time, violent hate crimes against gays were as common as they were underreported.

Earlier that month, the Ottawa Citizen ran an article explaining that there would be no inquest into the number of men who had “fallen off cliffs” that summer, all near Major’s Hill Park. The headline of the article emphatically quoted the chief regional coroner, declaring that an “inquiry won’t solve cliff deaths.”

Neither the police nor the press publicized the sexual orientation of these “fallen” men.

Tom Barnes is the oldest active member of Pink Triangle Services (PTS.) He’s the chief librarian at the Kelly McGinnis Library.

“The mainstream attitude was that we got what we deserved,” says Barnes.

Barnes knew men who “fell” near Major’s Hill Park and lived.

“We weren’t falling from cliffs, and they knew it — we were hurled over. If you were lucky, you grabbed onto something and broke your fall.”

As president of PTS in the late 1980s, Judy Girard had been fighting the passivity of the Ottawa police for years before Brosseau was murdered, trying desperately to have gaybashings taken seriously.

“At the time, the police were certainly no different than anybody else,” says Girard. “As Canadians, gays and lesbians had achieved their rights on paper, but we still had to warn kids saying, ‘You’re going to get your ass kicked one way or another, so be careful.'”

Barnes remembers calling on the owners of downtown bars for help as bashings took place outside. They told him it wasn’t their problem, he says.

Reluctance to claim responsibility became a common theme in the wake of Brosseau’s death. It was, from an early stage, tied up in jurisdictional red tape.

One roadblock was police reluctance to claim jurisdiction. Although the murder itself took place in Ottawa, because Brosseau’s body was discovered along the riverbank in Quebec, the Ottawa police felt that the case should be handled by the Quebec police and vice versa.

The police also dragged their feet in acknowledging that anti-gay sentiment fuelled Brosseau’s murder, even though it was clear that Lalonde and his friends were targeting queers.

Only hours after throwing Brosseau over the Alexandria Bridge, Lalonde and the other young men hopped a cab and followed a gay couple back to their home in Orleans. There, the teens forced their way into the couple’s home and stabbed the two men with screwdrivers and knives.

In 2008, Lalonde’s name resurfaced in the press. He died in prison in Quebec May 26, marking the end of a sad story arc. Suicide was reported as the likely cause of death.

Barry Deeprose has worked with both Gayline and PTS over the years. In 1989, he saw how Brosseau’s murder acted as the catalyst for the gay community to confront the Ottawa police, fighting for the protection that was their right.

“People were hesitant to report crimes for fear they would be victimized a second time,” writes Deeprose in an email. “Gays of Ottawa took up the cause, which lead to a demand for greater sensitivity and awareness on the part of the Ottawa police.”

Rallying around Brosseau’s murder, activists organized a “Blow the Whistle” campaign, and taking to the streets of Ottawa, distributed safety pamphlets and raised awareness about the lack of services available to the gay and lesbian community.

Gays of Ottawa, along with other organizations, created a Task Force on Violence to bring the concerns of gays and lesbians to the new chief of police, Thomas Flanagan, who at the time had only recently been sworn in.

Girard recalls going as a member of the Task Force to meet with Chief Flanagan for the first time.

“The moment that I arrived to talk with the chief, I noticed we were wearing the same shirt,” says Girard, laughing. “I knew we’d get along. It’s the little things that were so strategic in building community in a bigger sense.”

The matching shirts seemed to work. Chief Flanagan was quick follow up on suggestions given by the Task Force, including, among other things, mandatory diversity training for all the officers in the Ottawa Police Service — a first for Canada.

“The pilot sessions were difficult,” says Girard, who helped run training sessions for more than 600 officers on the force at the time. “One of the first things an officer said to me was, ‘No man’s penis belongs in another man’s rectum.'”

In order to overcome the mistrust inherent in the relationship between the police and the gay community, Girard had both the officers and the training facilitators air their own dirty laundry lists of prejudices.

“In the end, we determined we were a lot more like each other than not,” says Girard. “We each have our own cultures, we each have our own language — and nobody wants either of us at parties. I gained such an appreciation for each of those officers and the job they do.”

Outside of the training, Girard saw changes in the way gays and lesbians were treated by police.

“When there were meetings between our communities, there was more respect. Same goes for when officers were working with domestic disputes between same-sex partners,” she says. “The discrimination had come out of fear and not knowing who we were, how to handle us, or what we might do.”

By the time Brosseau’s killers were making their testimonies in court, the work of the Task Force had gained significant momentum. In 1991, gays and police officers sat down for the first time under the banner of the Ottawa Police Service Liaison Committee for the GLBT Communities — another first for Canada.

Douglas Janoff wrote about the relationship between police and gay communities across the country in his book, Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada. In an interview, he reflects on some of the positive changes that came out of the Liaison Committee.

“There’s something about the consistency of the dialogue in Ottawa which I think is very admirable,” said Janoff. “You can always complain that the dialogue isn’t good enough or representative enough of the gay community, but at least it’s something and a lot of communities have zero communication.”

Janoff was recently in Paris, France, on a book tour for Pink Blood, where he met with “40 angry queer activists” and was amazed at how seldom gay issues are discussed with other police forces around the world.

“They have absolutely no committees to deal with the police, yet their problems are much bigger because Paris is a much bigger city,” he says. “When I was telling them about Ottawa and the fact that a group has been meeting for the past 20 years, they were really impressed. It made me realize that we’re further along than we sometimes give ourselves credit.”

The liaison committee has made a point of documenting hate crimes reported by both police and community members, even when no police report was filed.

A StatsCan report released last February on hate crimes in Canada showed the fruit of that communication: Ottawa was ranked as one of the top three cities in Canada for the most comprehensive police reporting on hate crimes.

The mandate of the Committee to make visible and validate the diversity within Ottawa’s queer community, as well as that of holding the city’s police accountable, has led to the increased visibility of queer realities in police procedures and training, as well as increased police involvement in queer community events like Ottawa Pride. And even if inertia has hampered in recent years, these early victories put Ottawa ahead of the rest of the country by the mid-’90s.

The work of the Liaison Committee also resulted in the creation of a Hate Crimes Section in 1993 and a Partner Assault Support Team in 1997 — also unique developments to their times.

This progress wouldn’t have been possible, particularly with the atmosphere of hatred towards gays in the late 1980s, if Brosseau’s story hadn’t sparked the compassion and support of the Ottawa community at large.

Dr Dawn Moore, the managing editor of the Canadian Journal of Law and Society, published the 2006 article “Hated Identities: Queers and Canadian Anti-Hate Legislation,” and she believes that Brosseau’s murder was the perfect storm for political, social and legislative change in Canada.

“The murder happened quite literally in the shadow of parliament, so it was very difficult politically to ignore,” says Moore. “Also, it happened at a time when the Ottawa community was already trying to galvanize around gaybashings, so the issue wasn’t coming from left field, but from within.”

Moore also pointed out the importance that Brosseau was only perceived to be gay, versus actually being gay.

“Going back through the parliamentary debates after the murder, the vast majority of MPs were able to stomach new hate crime legislation because the justification wasn’t that it was wrong to beat up a gay person,” Moore explains. “Alain’s murder was just as much a case for the need to protect straight people from the hate-on for queers proliferating at the time, as it was to protect the queers themselves.”

For this reason, Brosseau’s story spoke to even the most conservative critics of anti-gay hate crime legislation, and according to Moore, brought them onside with more liberal MPs to extend 1966’s hate crimes law — a sentencing provision that allowed judges to increase the penalty for crimes motivated by hate — to include gays and lesbians.

Janoff agrees with Moore that the fluidity of Brosseau’s own identity in the eyes of the public helped to serve as a wake up call for straight people by confronting them with the danger of making assumptions about identity and sexual orientation.

“It was shocking for the heterosexual community to suddenly be forced to come to terms with violence that the gay community knows too well,” he said. “It’s not just straight people looking out for straight people — it’s more complex than that — because he represented both communities, anyone could see themselves in his shoes.”

While the changes that Brosseau’s murder set in motion have tangibly made a positive impact on policing and handling of anti-gay discrimination in Ottawa, the problem of violent hate crime against queers is not one that will disappear any time soon.

The same StatsCan report that showed Ottawa Police Service’s initiative in acknowledging hate crimes found that over half of all hate crimes involving sexual orientation were violent, with one in 10 resulting in serious bodily harm.

According to Janoff, despite the improvement in how the Ottawa police are reporting hate crimes, the more violent of these crimes usually go unreported, or if they are reported, are not acknowledged as hate motivated.

“There’s still a two-tier system in the hate crime categorization in police departments. If it’s a minor assault or vandalism, the police will categorize it as hate motivated, but when it comes to murder, it’s the killer’s word against the victim’s family,” he explains.

Of the total hate crimes reported by police across Canada in 2006, only one was a homicide, whereas 129 incidents of minor assault were reported that did not involve a weapon or bodily harm.

Moore believes this disconnect is not as much a problem with police services as it’s a problem with the justice system at large, with part of it being the difficulty in proving an assault was a hate crime.

“If somebody goes and sprays swastikas on the tombstones in a Jewish cemetery, there’s a clear message. With personal assault, the law has always danced around allowing people to be violent towards gays,” Moore says.

She points to the “gay panic” defense. The term refers to the habit of gaybashers to claim unwanted sexual advances provoked the beatings. As late as 2006, defence lawyers were still using a thinly-veiled version of this argument before juries — although with mixed results.

“I think it’s naïve to assume that a system that acted for years as incredibly repressive and violent towards queers could easily shift to protect a community it used to brutalize,” says Moore. “The onus for change doesn’t rest with the law, because the law doesn’t change people — people are changed by other people.”

In 1992, a survey of gay youth conducted by PTS found that more than a third of the respondents, most of whom were university students, said that they always or often limited their activities out of fear for their personal safety.

But things have changed since then.

The StatsCan report on victimization released last February showed that although members of the queer community are still more likely to be victims of violent assault than straight people, they now feel equally as safe.

“I’ve interviewed people all across Canada — police officers, prosecutors, victims and activists — and many of them point to that case as the turning point,” says Janoff. “They may not know his name, but they know his story, and that shook us out of our complacency.”

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A little less conversation, a little more action

COMMUNITY / Almost 20 years after the formation of the Ottawa Police Liaison Committee, the organization is still having trouble moving policies from the sheets to the streets

— sidebar by MJ Deschamps

After the 1989 murder of Brosseau, it became evident that something drastic needed to happen in order for gays to feel safe from harm in Ottawa.

Two years after Brosseau’s death, on Jul 26, 1991, the Ottawa-Hull Lesbian and Gay Task Force on Violence submitted this list of 12 proposals and recommendations to the Ottawa Police Department in regards to the way homophobic crimes were being handled:

  1. Police documentation of anti-gay and lesbian motivated violence.
  2. Immediate rectification of internal paper flow problems acknowledged by Gay Community Liaison Officer on July 17.
  3. Police to install a dedicated phone line for reporting anti-gay and lesbian motivated violence.
  4. Police to send three participants (one department representative, two members of the gay and lesbian community — one woman and one man) to international conference on anti-gay and lesbian violence to be held in Berlin in September.
  5. Public announcement of concern and warning by the Ottawa Police Department stating the possible dangers associated with recent violence.
  6. A public statement by the Chief of Police condemning violence targeted against gay men and lesbians and people based on sexual orientation.
  7. Ottawa Police Department to approach other North American police departments to obtain information about policing strategies in place dealing with anti-gay and lesbian motivated violence (suggested departments include Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Boston).
  8. Ottawa Police to assist in delivering pamphlet (community police stations etc.)
  9. Initiate a joint relationship between Ottawa and Hull Police Departments to address common problems concerning anti-gay and lesbian motivated violence.
  10. Ottawa Police Department to participate in subsequent Lesbian and Gay Pride Parades.
  11. Increased police presence at areas of recent gay bashings in Ottawa-Hull (ie: bars at closing)
  12. A statement by the Ottawa Police Department recognizing the special needs of the gay and lesbian community similar to that issued by the Toronto Police Commission recently.

While those on the committee demanded that most of these proposals be in place well before 1992, 17 years later, the Ottawa Police Liaison Committee (which emerged from the Task Force) still hasn’t been able to check everything off the list.

James Bromilow, chair of the Police Liaison Committee, says that while most of the demands that had to do with paperwork or the distribution of informative pamphlets were eventually answered to some degree, things like increased police presence around areas where gay bashing was known to take place, for example, never really happened.

“Police focus their attention based on reports, but a lot of people still do not report as much as they should,” says Bromilow.

“People generally don’t report things that are incidents, and not full-blown crimes, but they should, because it could provide very useful information for the future.”

He believes that the failure to report incidents comes from a fairly recent history of police enforcing discriminatory laws.

“Police will have to be patient in their efforts to gain our communities’ trust for the first time,” says Bromilow.

There has at least been an evident increase in the number of queer officers serving the community, which strangely enough, was not a concern in the original list of demands.

When asked if he thinks its time for the liaison committee to write up a new list of demands for the police then, almost two decades later, Bromilow shakes his head.

“We’re working on developing partnerships with the police now rather than facing off with them like we did in the past,” he says.

“We do have to be in their face sometimes, but now that they take our issues more seriously, our job today is to provide them with the best quality information as we can.”

Bromilow says that the support the liaison committee is lacking now is from the community, and from racial minorities who are also queer.

“I think that as a community we’re not as uniform as we used to be, because things have been fairly good for awhile,” says Bromilow.

“We just have a lot more different issues now that we need to address — a gay Asian man coming out, for example, is right now facing dangers that I would have faced 20 years ago.”

“While things may appear better on the surface, we have to make sure that parts of our community aren’t falling through the cracks.”

Bromilow says that the number one focus of committee right now is to raise awareness about the committee itself.