Opinion
6 min

How Canada’s historic apology to LGBT people falls short

‘We are sorry’ is not enough, queer historian tells Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (seen here in 2013) apologized to Canada's LGBT community on Nov 28, 2017. Credit: Taha Ghaznavi/Flickr Creative Commons

I arrived on Parliament Hill and went through two security screenings and surrendered my cell phone and notebook before I could hear the prime minister’s historic apology to the LGBT community on Nov 28, 2017.

As Justin Trudeau started to read the apology, I had such mixed feelings: elation that it was finally happening, but sadness too for all those who died in the decades before it finally happened.

Around me in the parliamentary gallery sat many people who had been purged by the Canadian government between the 1950s and the 1990s, interrogated then pushed out of their jobs in the public service and the military for nothing more than their sexuality.

Many of them cried as Trudeau spoke.

It was moving to hear the prime minister take responsibility for the Canadian war on queers. But in some ways, his apology didn’t go nearly far enough. And after a while hearing “we are sorry” over and over again rang hollow and lost all meaning.

In Trudeau’s brief account of what caused the purges, he simplistically settled for attributing them to “the thinking of the day.” But in fact it was the government at the highest levels — through its security panel and national security policing — that imposed this thinking; they decided that we suffered from a “character weakness” that posed a risk to the nation.

Many gay and lesbian activists in the 1960s and 1970s actively disputed this view, but by then it had become state policy to expel us from the fabric of the nation and to defend the dominance of heterosexuality.

No doubt the government was reluctant to acknowledge its active creation of this way of thinking, as that could raise critical questions about national security now, whether it’s used against queer people or other marginalized and otherized groups, as is happening currently to Muslim and Arab people.

RCMP officers watch over LGBT demonstrators on Parliament Hill, June 30 1975. Credit: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives

For that matter, it was also a very white apology, and did not nearly go far enough in addressing the impact of colonization on Indigenous nations and the costs to their pre-colonial gender and sexual practices that could include three to four genders. This was an apology to Canadian citizens in a language defending Canadian borders against Indigenous nations, as well as refugees, migrants and undocumented people, many of whom are people of colour.

There were many appeals to Canada and to patriotism in the apology, as Trudeau called the people who were purged “patriots” and attempted to incorporate us back into the mainstream of a still heterosexist, transphobic, racist and sexist Canada.

But we forget at our peril the lessons we learned from being expelled from the fabric of the nation.

Perhaps less than ironically — and certainly insensitively to some — the apology was followed by a Liberal government reception at the nearby Cartier Square Drill Hall. For some of the people purged by the military, this choice of military venue gave them pause. They expressed anxiety to me about going there, given the violence done to them by the military.

To top it off, some people leaving the reception were handed military recruitment flyers!

Gary Kinsman, who attended the government’s apology and reception at Drill Hall, says the real story here lies in decades of queer resistance to the purges. Credit: Nick Lachance/Xtra

So although the apology contained many nice words, it was largely symbolic to me, without much substance.

The substance is in the agreement in principle to settle the class-action suit, which will bring about some redress for people who were purged. Those directly affected will have to determine whether this agreement is adequate to meet their needs.

The substance will also come from the expungement legislation that was introduced the same day as the apology, offering to erase past criminal convictions for consensual gay sex — but this bill has limitations of its own.

Convictions under the bawdy house laws, which were used as the basis for police raiding gay bathhouses and bars, won’t be covered, for example. So men convicted by one of the central laws used to criminalize consensual gay sex in the 1970s and 1980s will have no recourse under this legislation to seek expungement of their convictions.

But the real story of this apology doesn’t come from above — from Justin Trudeau, or the Liberal government, or their flawed promises of expungement and overwrought statements of regret.

The real story here comes from below — from the bottom up. This is the story of decades of queer resistance to the purge campaigns.

The real story stars people like the gay men in the basement tavern of the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa in 1964 who resisted RCMP agents taking photos of them. Rather than running for cover, these men turned the tables on the RCMP by moving together and acting like they were snapping photos of the agent. They refused to cooperate with the RCMP and this refusal grew in Ottawa in the early 1960s, forcing the RCMP to develop new strategies to get information on homosexuals to purge.

The real story here is the hundreds of courageous queer and trans people who assembled on Parliament Hill in 1971, in the midst of the purge campaign, to call for an end to the purges. Not surprisingly, the protesters who participated in the We Demand demonstration were also put under RCMP surveillance themselves as risks to national security.

Hundreds demonstrate on Parliament Hill in 1971 to demand rights for LGBT people. Credit: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives

The real story includes the 1970s protests in Montreal and Ottawa against the repression of lesbian and gay establishments; the advocacy of the National Gay Rights Coalition and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition in the 1970s against the national security campaigns; and the people who went public with their struggles against the purge, including Gloria Cameron, Barbara Thornborrow, Darl Wood, Michelle Douglas, Darryl Kippen (who died in 2016), and Paul-Emile Richard.

The growing number of people coming forward to talk publicly about being purged, and to push for justice, coalesced into the formation of the We Demand an Apology Network in 2015, which collectively pushed for a state apology, redress and expungement.

So, yes, Trudeau’s apology is an important victory for this history of resistance, since it finally means Canadian state agencies are taking responsibility for what they did.

And for those who were purged, if hearing this apology brings them some measure of relief, their feelings must be validated and affirmed.

But let’s not forget that this apology is part of a long arc of resistance.

It’s important to remember this resistance from below — especially as the apology from above invites us to forget our history and simply accept joining into a society marked by social inequality and injustice.

Community members protest in the streets in 1981, after Toronto police raid several gay bathhouses. Credit: Pink Triangle Press

Worse, the apology’s appeals to patriotism and loyalty to nation may try to mobilize some of us against those continuing to face oppression here and around the world.

The government, much of the mainstream media and, unfortunately, currents within our own communities want us to forget this history of resistance, and the critical perspectives it raises about national security, not only when it is used against queer, trans and two-spirit people but also against other groups.

Rather than allowing ourselves to be incorporated as patriotic citizens into Canada as it currently exists, we need to continue to transform society to ensure not only freedom for queer, trans and two-spirit people but also for all oppressed and exploited people, including those considered “threats” to national security today.

There is still so much work to be done. Like getting rid of the gay and “African” blood bans; ending the criminalization of HIV-positive people and sex workers; opening the borders to not only queer and trans refugees and migrants but to all people fleeing persecution and hardship; abolishing the Criminal Code sections that continue to criminalize our consensual sexualities, like anal sex; ending all practices enforcing the two-gender binary and the oppression of trans and non-gender conforming people; ending the homelessness and poverty that impacts queer, trans and two-spirit people as part of their broader communities; ending the colonization of Indigenous sexual and gender practices and developing nation to nation relations with Indigenous nations; ending all forms of racism, including anti-Black racism and racist policing; and so much more.

While we pause to celebrate the apology we won from below, we need to resist the socially organized forgetting of the official story of the apology from above.

The movements for queer and trans liberation in the context of broader social justice must continue.