John Watkins didn’t live to see it.
The former Canadian ambassador to the USSR died in a Montreal hotel room in 1964 while the RCMP interrogated him about his sexual orientation.
Neither did Warren Zufelt, a 34-year-old civil servant who was arrested by the Ottawa police in 1975 for participating in a gay “vice ring.” He jumped to his death after the police and the newspapers published his name, job and home address.
There are thousands upon thousands of LGBT Canadians, many of whom suffered humiliation, neglect and violence at the hands of the Canadian state, who didn’t live long enough to see their country take some ownership over what it did to them.
So when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to the floor of the House of Commons on Nov 28, 2017, to deliver a half-hour long apology to queer and trans Canadians, some of the most victimized people are the ones who weren’t around to hear it.
“To those who were left broken by a prejudiced system, and to those who took their own lives, we have failed you,” Trudeau said. “The number one job of any government is to keep its citizens safe, and on this we have failed LGBTQ2 communities, individuals, time and time again.”
Trudeau’s words were the culmination of a years-long effort by activists, politicians, academics, journalists and survivors to get the Canadian state to take ownership of and acknowledge decades of homophobic practice.
“It is with shame and sorrow and deep regret for the things we have done that I stand here today and say: we were wrong. We apologize. I am sorry. We are sorry,” Trudeau said.
Michelle Douglas, who 25 years ago won a suit against the Canadian military after it fired her because of her sexual orientation, was sitting in the gallery as the prime minister laid out the wrongs that were done to people like her. So was Cheri DiNovo, who petitioned outside of Parliament in 1971 for equal rights for LGBT people.
Trudeau’s apology touched specifically on the criminalization of gay sex before 1969, the repression of two-spirit cultural practices, and police raids of bathhouses that resulted in the arrests of hundreds of people.
But the bulk of the apology dealt with the purging of thousands of LGBT people from the military and the public service from the 1950s all the way until the 1990s.
“You were not bad soldiers, sailors, airmen and women. You were not predators. You were not criminals,” Trudeau said. “You are professionals. You are patriots. And above all, you are innocent.”
In addition to the apology, the government also settled a class-action lawsuit from LGBT people who were purged, for $145 million, and has introduced legislation to expunge the criminal records of people who were convicted for having consensual gay sex.
The apology marks a break for Trudeau from his father’s legacy. It was in 1972 that then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau defended the government’s policy of denying security clearances to gay people.
Beginning in the 1940s, the RCMP and military intelligence began to try to uncover the identity of gay people in the military and public service. The rationale was a belief that gay people were more vulnerable to blackmail, despite the fact that there’s no evidence any gay Canadian has ever committed treason because they were blackmailed.
Instead, they were blackmailed by their own government and threatened with court martials or criminal charges if they didn’t betray the names of their friends and lovers.
The RCMP used the infamous “fruit machine,” a device that falsely purported to be able to prove someone’s sexual orientation and ended up collecting thousands and thousands of files on Canadians for being gay. They surveilled activists and gathered information on anyone who was open about their sexual orientation.
The purges continued until the 1990s.
This is the sixth official apology for historical injustices that the Canadian government has issued. Previous apologies covered Japanese internment, the execution of Canadian soldiers in World War I, the Chinese head tax, residential schools, the Komagata Maru incident and a separate apology for residential school survivors from Newfoundland and Labrador.
All party leaders, including Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who voted against the trans rights bill, applauded the apology to LGBT people.
Guy Caron, the NDP house leader, also urged the government to lift the gay blood ban and end the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure.
“This would be a good time to stop doing things that the government might have to apologize for in the future,” he said.
For Gary Kinsman, co-author of The Canadian War on Queers, which documents the purges, the apology was bittersweet.
“I both want to celebrate and maybe even dance a bit, but I also want to really cry,” he says. “I want to cry because of all of the people who have passed away and never got this apology, when this apology should have happened decades ago.”