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Canada’s first openly gay senator dies at 83

Laurier LaPierre, 1929-2012

"We need to discuss the essential value of expressing the totality of our bodies, of our attractions and desires," Laurier LaPierre wrote in Xtra in 2009. Credit: Paul Galipeau

Laurier LaPierre, the outspoken journalist and Canada’s first openly gay senator, died at age 83 on Dec 17.

LaPierre became forever associated with one of the most famous media moments in Canadian broadcasting history as co-host of the controversial current affairs show This Hour Has Seven Days.

The show, first aired in 1964, became famous for brazenly featuring topics that were considered risqué and occasionally offensive to viewers, including footage of the Vietnam War, interviews with white supremacists, and even a sit-down talk with Nathan Leopold (one half of the child-killing duo Leopold and Loeb).

LaPierre would be singled out for criticism for his behaviour during an interview with the mother of Steven Truscott (a man wrongly convicted of murder). LaPierre was seen wiping away tears after the interview concluded, drawing charges of unprofessionalism and bias by media critics.

This Hour Has Seven Days was cancelled amid a firestorm of controversy in 1966, but LaPierre didn’t slow down. He ran for federal Parliament in 1968, vying for a seat to represent the Lachine, Quebec, riding for the NDP. He was defeated and returned to work as an academic, author, journalist and activist.

In 1988, LaPierre publicly declared his sexual orientation at an event on Parliament Hill and thereafter became an increasingly vocal advocate for the rights of gay citizens across the country.

After then-prime minister Jean Chretien appointed him to the Senate in 2001, LaPierre often spoke out for the rights of aboriginals, too, suggesting he had always felt they had been done wrong by all levels of Canadian government. He also advocated for cultural organizations and believed very strongly in Trudeau’s vision of a bilingual Canada, from coast to coast to coast.

“He was an excellent interviewer,” Patrick Watson says of his late friend and This Hour Has Seven Days co-host.

“There was a profound intuitiveness between us as co-interviewers. He was a profoundly generous and extremely funny man,” Watson tells Xtra from his Toronto home. “We have been great friends ever since working together — this feels like a huge loss.”

Watson says he didn’t know LaPierre was gay when they first worked together, but LaPierre told him on a flight to Vancouver in 1969. “It’s odd to think back now because it seems like I’ve always known, but I didn’t.”

To this day Watson defends LaPierre’s show of emotion during his interview with Truscott’s mother. “Oh, that was just another case of stiff-headed management at the CBC who didn’t understand what we were doing. There were constant battles with the administration then, because we were rocking the boat and doing something different. Laurier was a tremendous interviewer.”

While in the Senate, LaPierre became a staunch advocate of Bill C-250, to protect gay people from hate propaganda. In 2004, he sent emails to an avowed Christian who opposed the bill, stating, “You people are sick. God should strike you dead!” and “In a book that is supposed to speak of love and you find passages of hatred. You should be ashamed of yourself of reading such books!” LaPierre would ultimately apologize for sending the emails.

In 2009, LaPierre wrote for Xtra, recalling the elation he felt when Pierre Trudeau decriminalized sodomy in 1969.

“Free at last,” LaPierre wrote. “That’s how I first felt when I heard the news.”

But he was quick to add that “unfortunately, the feeling did not last very long . . . At first, we all thought the bill had decriminalized homosexuality . . . However, it soon became clear that [it] had only decriminalized certain limited actions.”

“We’ve come a long way since Trudeau partially decriminalized gay sex 40 years ago,” LaPierre wrote. “We have built community, come out in droves, connected with each other, demanded and obtained equal rights. We even won the right to marry.

“But we are still not totally free. We are still limited in the expression of our sexuality.”

“Gay kids today are adjusting and coming out more easily,” he noted, “but many teachers still think like Queen Victoria, and many young people still grow up with the message from parents, teachers and religion that sex is sinful and gay sex is worse.”

If our society is to truly liberate sexuality, gay and straight, we have to talk about sex, LaPierre said. “We need to discuss the essential value of expressing the totality of our bodies, of our attractions and desires.”

In 1994, LaPierre was made an officer of the Order of Canada. His books include Quebec: A Tale of Love, The Apprenticeship of Canada, 1876-1914 and Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Romance of Canada.

LaPierre is survived by his long-time partner, Harvey Slack, two sons from his first marriage, and several grandchildren.