4 min

Community won’t let go

Police chief owes apology to elders

INCREDIBLE MESSAGE OF PEACE, Lesbian activist Elaine Carol says an apology doesn't cost anything and police could send an incredible message of peace to the community by apologizing for past bad treatment of lesbians. Credit: Daniel Collins

Momentum is building in the gay community’s drive for a police apology. The idea for an apology stems from a trans man named Jessie MacGregor who first raised it publicly at city hall’s Stonewall commemoration, Jun 25. MacGregor, who identified as a “baby butch” lesbian in the 1960s, is still angry about the way the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) routinely raided the gay bars of that era and harassed the queers inside. “I’ve been waiting since 1965 to be apologized [to] by the Vancouver police for their violation to the community and to myself,” he told a packed gallery at the Stonewall event.

The police knew everyone by name in those bars, MacGregor later told Xtra West. They would come in and put people in chokeholds, check them for drugs and alcohol, and even force the lesbians to partially undress so they could make sure they were wearing women’s underwear. “To me it just smacked of constant harassment.”

Despite MacGregor’s public request, the police have yet to apologize.

Const Sarah Bloor, the VPD’s media spokesperson, says she won’t engage in a “public debate” on the issue. While she initially refused to further address the matter without a formal complaint, she later downgraded that requirement to a letter to Chief Constable Jamie Graham. (That means that if MacGregor or anyone else from the gay community wants to write the chief a letter detailing their experiences and requesting an apology for the force’s past behaviour, they just might get an answer.)

Many members of the gay community would welcome a police apology.

“An apology doesn’t cost anything,” says lesbian artist and anti-censorship activist Elaine Carol. “And this apology would send an incredible message of peace to the community.

“It’s that whole idea of redress,” she adds.

Though Carol herself has never been harassed by the VPD, she says it’s important to recognize that others have, and to acknowledge what the elders of the gay community have endured.

A police apology “would speak volumes and would maybe cement some of the work that people like Jim Deva have been doing in building bridges to the police and to community policing,” she says.

The VPD’s own former liaison to the gay community agrees.

Roz Shakespeare, who created the force’s gay programs coordinator position and helped ensure its survival and prioritization, says offering an apology could be a good opportunity to build bridges and “interact positively with the gay community.”

The force could offer a broad apology, she suggests, something that would acknowledge the past without opening itself up to legal liability for the actions of specific individuals. She even has a tentative wording in mind: “It’s a part of our history that we may not be proud of and we’re sorry that it happened. On behalf of the department, we apologize to all gays and lesbians who suffered during that time.”

Times have changed, she points out, but until people heal from the past, they can only build so much trust.

“Letting go of the past is part of the healing process. If we could assist with the healing process in some way…” she trails off. “I think it [an apology] would go a long way towards connecting with the community again.”

The co-founder of West Enders Against Violence Everywhere (WEAVE) agrees. “Whenever wrongs have to be redressed there needs to be an apology,” says Ron Stipp. “If the police actually want to show” that they care about the gay community, “then it should be easy for them to apologize.”

Stipp wants a verbal apology from Chief Graham. “Ideally, I think he needs to accept the fact that our community was harassed, persecuted and hurt by the actions of the police department years ago.

“And we need a commitment from our chief that this will never happen again,” he adds.

“I don’t think that’s asking much at all.”

It’s like the government offering reparations to Japanese Canadians for interning them during the Second World War, Shakespeare notes.

Just last week, the BC Liberals expressed their “profound regret” to another minority community, the Doukhobors, for forcibly removing their children and sending them to a former tuberculosis sanatorium in New Denver in the 1950s. This time, the government stopped short of offering an actual apology for fear of opening itself up to a civil lawsuit.

But governments apologize all the time, Stipp says. And a police apology now would show “goodwill towards our community”-especially since relations between the VPD and the community still aren’t problem-free.

When asked to elaborate, Stipp points to the VPD’s “inability to deal with bashings in our community, unwillingness to put police [officers] on our streets and unwillingness” to listen to the community’s concerns and implement the community’s suggestions.

An apology won’t solve all those problems overnight, he says, but “it would be a great start.”

Councillor Tim Stevenson says he’d be willing to put the community’s request to the police chief if someone writes him a letter. He, too, compares the situation to apologies offered to other minority communities in the past. Stevenson points in particular to the United Church’s apology to the First Nations in the late 1980s.

That apology helped start the healing process between the church and aboriginal people, he says-and it wasn’t even based on specific incidents. The church simply acknowledged that wrongs had been committed.

“I think the same holds here. To me, it would be really helpful if the police force realized that even though time has gone by” it would help the community to acknowledge that people suffered.

Of course, the police force is not the church, he notes. “I think it will take a lot of time” for the police to offer an apology.

Still, Stevenson encourages anyone in the community who has “suffered at the hands of the police force” to write Chief Graham a letter and forward a copy to him at city council. That will give him “something tangible to talk to the chief about,” he says.


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