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Groups pressure Canadian feds for official apology

Egale Canada wants judge to hear from LGBT people before suggesting remedies

From left, constitutional lawyer Douglas Elliott, Egale Canada Executive Director Helen Kennedy and former navy officer Todd Ross stand at a press conference in Centre Block, to present a report demanding apologies and compensation for government firing and discrimination. Credit: Dylan C Robertson/Daily Xtra

Advocacy groups are pushing the federal Liberals to follow through on their promise to right historical wrongs against Canadian LGBT people. Some are calling for action before the end of Pride month.

On June 13, 2016, Egale Canada published an extensive report documenting “unjust convictions” and military persecution, and potential methods to compensate those affected. The group wants the government to appoint a judge to hear from LGBT people for a year before suggesting legal remedies.

Two days earlier, the We Demand an Apology Network put out its own report asking for the government to do more than an internal review of criminal files.

“No more piecemeal solutions; we want a comprehensive resolution to the problem of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia,” says constitutional lawyer Douglas Elliott, who helped draft Egale’s report. He says the government must also pay back millions to those pushed out of the public service and the military.

“They have stolen that money from our community and it should be returned. I don’t care how much those pensions cost the federal government; they have no right to hang onto it.”

Egale is calling for the government to “accept this report in principle” before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marches in Toronto’s Pride march on July 3.

At the group’s press conference in Ottawa, former navy officer Todd Ross recounted coming out for the first time in 1990 after 18 months of military questioning.

“As I sat on a chair, in front of a stranger, hooked up to a machine, facing a two-way mirror, recording device, I tearfully admitted I was gay. I came out to a stranger and a polygraph machine. At that moment I felt like an empty shell. That this admission would be with me forever, and that being gay would be part of my record and my dreams had ended,” Ross said, his voice trembling.

Ross opted to leave the navy because he would likely lose his security clearance. “I received a paper that said ‘honourable discharge.’ I did not feel any honour,” he said.

Egale’s review frames Canada’s historical and existing anti-gay laws as part of a colonial process that attempted to erase indigenous traditions like two-spirited people.

The group notes that existing laws like Criminal Code section 159 — which forbids orgies and puts the age of consent for anal sex two years higher than the general consent age of 16 — has been used to charge 22 people in Ontario between 2008 and 2014.

Egale wants the government to avoid a drawn-out inquiry and instead start a year-long, independent review led by former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci, who has agreed to be a mediator.

“Somebody needs to be the shepherd, to see that it’s done in a reasonable and efficient way,” Elliott said. He noted that Canada can learn from apologies and compensation systems set up in Germany and Australia in 2016.

On Feb 28, the Canadian government announced it would review convictions of gay men charged prior to 1969 with gross indecency or buggery, to determine whether each case merits a pardon. Days later, the military said it was considering apologies for soldiers it kicked out due to homosexuality. On April 8, Trudeau’s spokesperson told Daily Xtra the effort would also include a review of the Criminal Code’s anal-sex provisions.

The We Demand an Apology Network is urging the government to look beyond people purged from the military and public service. That group argues many homosexuals resigned after seeing colleagues lose their jobs, while others who stayed were likely denied career advancement.

“So far it appears that this investigation is based on departmental reviews of their own files. This will only scratch the surface of the problem,” reads the report. “This is an urgent matter since many who were purged and affected by these campaigns have died and more will soon be lost.”

Gary Kinsman, a spokesperson for the network, has detailed such allegations in the 2010 book The Canadian War on Queers. His research suggests officials in the public service and military had each documented more than 800 employees as possible homosexuals requiring surveillance or dismissal.

In April, Daily Xtra reported that three major advocacy groups studying an apology had not heard from the government. As of June 10, all three groups said they still haven’t been consulted.

“We’re taking the time to approach it responsibly, and we remain committed to ensuring we find a solution,” Trudeau’s spokesperson Cameron Ahmad told Daily Xtra.

The Liberals have since garnered praise for raising a rainbow flag on the Hill for an afternoon, and putting forward a bill to formalize human-rights protection for trans people. “All of that is part of our commitment to equal rights,” Ahmad said.

“We share the same values and objectives, and will work with Egale to end discrimination and further guarantee equality for all citizens. We will carefully review the recommendations in their report.”

Editor’s Note, June 20, 2016: An earlier version of this story referred to Gary Kinsman as a leader of the We Demand an Apology Network. He is actually a spokesperson.

This story is filed under News, News & Ideas, Activism, Canada