Canada has allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military since 1992 — but what about those who were discharged before them?
That’s what NDP MP Peter Stoffer wants to know. In response a resolution from the Quebec wing of the party at their last convention, Stoffer made a request in the House of Commons for the Canadian government to change the records of those “discharged with ignominy” for homosexual conduct to honourable discharges, and for the government to apologize to those individuals.
“We sent the information off to both ministers, asking them to investigate this,” Stoffer says, referring to the ministers of national defence and veterans affairs.
The request was to find those affected “and basically say to them that we apologize for what we did, change the word ‘dishonourable’ to ‘honourable,’ and allow them any retroactive benefits that they would have been entitled to as veterans,” says Stoffer. “It’s wrong now to do it, and it was wrong then too.”
Both ministers have said that they would look into it, with Defence Minister Peter MacKay taking the lead. Three months have passed since Stoffer’s request, but when asked about any progress, department officials merely say that the issue “has been taken under consideration.” The minister’s spokesperson added “I won’t be able to speculate on the outcome.”
Despite not hearing from Stoffer about the issue, Liberal veterans affairs critic Judy Sgro, who is also vice-chair of the veteran’s affairs committee, feels the time has come for such an action.
“It does sound like a just way of dealing with the issue,” says Sgro. “It certainly wouldn’t be acceptable today, so it would certainly make sense to try to go back to correct that.”
“From a human rights perspective, and an emotional perspective, for someone who’s living with a dishonourable discharge — I think that has a pretty big impact on their life,” says Sgro. “I would hope that the government is seriously looking into coming forward with a report that would reverse that.”
It was the book One of the Boys by Paul Jackson, a history professor at McGill University, that the Quebec wing of the NDP based their resolution on.
“World War II was the birth of policies that would be followed later on in the post-war era,” Jackson says. “A lot of that infrastructure was set up — the military police, the idea of a sexual psychopath and all of the categories that followed from it — that was set up during the war and carried on after the war.”
According to Jackson, those servicemen given a discharge with ignominy were initially ineligible for their “war gratuities” — bonuses based on time in the service and where one served — after the war was over, as well as access to the Veteran’s Charter, which enabled educational opportunities at a time when the university system was expanding, access to funds to start businesses, and so on.
While it was later decided that denying access to those with such discharges was contrary to the legislation, it was unlikely that many of those who were initially turned away came back again, especially when many of such decisions were made by individuals based on their own prejudices.
For officers of the period, treatment was worse. Many of them were convicted in military courts and unable to get the records of those convictions quashed, even in the Trudeau era.
One of the challenges that will be faced, should Stoffer’s request go ahead, is determining the number of those given discharges with ignominy. According to Jackson, it’s nearly impossible to determine, given that Canada had a conscription army in the Second World War, and had more than a million people in the service.
Combing through court martial and psychiatric records would be one way, but it seems a daunting task, especially considering that many of those veterans affected would now be in their late eighties and nineties.
Stoffer suggests that the apologies and record changes be made for those who come forward.
“If [the government] chooses to do it that way, they would have apologized publicly and openly, and I think that would do a tremendous good,” Stoffer says. “And then anyone who wishes to say ‘I’m an elderly veteran, I was discharged, I need help with my home and prescriptions,’ or whatnot, then maybe they could get some assistance.”
Stoffer adds that he doesn’t think any particular restitution should be made to families, calling it “far too bureaucratic and far too costly.”
“The most important thing out there in any of these things when it happens, be it the Japanese internment, be it the residential schools for aboriginal people, is the formal apology, to say what we did was wrong, and we’re sorry.”
Stoffer admits, however, that he is not a lawyer, and doesn’t know if an official apology could open the government up to other liabilities.
Stoffer adds that recently, the government changed the records of 19 men executed for cowardice and desertion in the First World War, owing to recent acknowledgement of post-traumatic stress disorders, and that this situation should be no different.
Sgro agrees, but feels that it should be on more than just a voluntary basis — especially considering that some of these affected veterans would not wish to revisit that traumatic period of their lives.
“It would only be right for [the Forces] to go back and check out those ones who were discharged dishonourably because of the fact that they were gay, and at least notify the family even if the gentleman isn’t here any longer,” says Sgro.
“So long as they’ve got a record of you, it’s always going to show a dishonourable discharge. So if you’ve got great-grandchildren doing some research, that’s what they’re going to find, and I don’t think that would be a very nice thing to find out.”