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The Canadian federal apology for gay arrests, firings is coming — by the end of 2017

‘This is a limited victory,’ activists say

MP Randy Boissonnault, the Liberal government’s special advisor on LGBTQ2 issues, speaks to reporters on May 17, 2017 outside the House of Commons. Credit: Dylan C Robertson/Daily Xtra

The federal Liberals are pledging to apologize by the end of 2017 for the Canadian government jailing and firing people suspected of homosexuality, after activists started decrying a lack of action.

The Liberals will start community consultations shortly, but they’re leaving questions of compensation to ongoing class-action lawsuits. They also haven’t indicated how or when officials will review or expunge convictions for consensual gay sex.

MP Randy Boissonnault, the Liberal government’s special advisor on LGBTQ2 issues, announced to reporters on May 17, 2017, that “our government will apologize before the end of 2017” for the “programs and policies that contributed to injustices and discriminations against LGBTQ Canadians.”

“We’re going to work closely with members of all facets from the LGBTQ community to make sure that our apology is comprehensive and that it takes into account a broad range of the stories and the lived experience of Canadians,” Boissonnault said.

Delays and concerns

“It’s very important to separate the apology from what’s taking place with the class action suits and with other policy initiatives like pardons and expungements,” Boissonnault said.

That separation concerns the We Demand an Apology Network, which has documented hundreds of people who were purged from the military and public service over suspected homosexuality.

“This is a limited victory,” spokesperson Gary Kinsman said in a May 18, 2017 statement. “We are demanding a firm commitment to an associated redress process.”

The group is now asking Pride committees across Canada to “to question the participation of the Prime Minister, or his representatives, in Pride parades given the delays in an official apology and the lack of action on a redress process and pardons.

“Why should the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party get the free promotion that comes with marching in our parades when they have yet to come through on their basic commitments to the LGBT communities?”

Boissonnault’s announcement came on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. But his remarks also followed Egale Canada advocates lamenting a lack of action since the group published its Just Society report on June 13, 2016, seeking an apology and compensation.

When Boissonnault hinted an apology would come by the end of his mandate in October 2019, Egale switched from a cautious tone to outright criticism. In an April 24, 2017 open letter, executive director Helen Kennedy said “the government has had more than enough time to respond.”

She noted that activists first demanded an apology in April 1998, and pondered: “How much time does the Government need to do the right thing?”

Class-action suit proceeding

Meanwhile, class-action lawsuits filed in October 2016 are proceeding, seeking at least $600 million in compensation for LGBT Canadians pushed out of the military and public service. The Cold War-era purge continued into the 1990s, as police investigated public servants and soldiers suspected of being gay as threats for blackmail by communist spies. These campaigns persisted after the 1969 partial decriminalization of homosexuality.

Constitutional lawyer Douglas Elliott, who is representing claimants outside of Quebec, tells Xtra that he’s discussing, with government lawyers, “a framework” for offering appropriate compensation, including how they’d find the right people, and if individuals and/or groups would receive the money.

“It’s moving quicker than just about any other case I’ve been involved in,” Elliott says, but noted the Egale report had sought other things, like changes to police training and anti-discrimination policies in health services. “It’s kind of baby steps because we’re only going to be dealing with one issue.”

In January, public servants in some departments received emails asking them to preserve documents that “relate to or refer to sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” as well as employment records of people dismissed or harassed on those grounds.

Meanwhile, a similar case filed by Halifax lawyers on Dec 7, 2016, was later merged with Elliott’s suit on April 11, according to court documents. None of the cases deal with people criminally charged for consensual same-sex acts. Documents obtained by Xtra in November 2016 suggest public servants have been ready for months to start clearing roughly 6,000 records, and estimated it would cost $4.1 million.

Elliott also said an apology will resonate with the people he represents, but advised against an overly legalistic statement, like the one the Toronto Police Service offered in June 2016 over the 1981 bathhouse raids. “If an apology misfires, then it’s actually worse than no apology at all,” Elliott says.

“What’s important is a real community consultation process, and that doesn’t mean photo-ops and selfies, which seems to have been a lot of what’s been going on since Mr Boissonnault’s been appointed,” Elliott says. 

“This apology is too important to do it as a public-relations gesture. They need to get it right, and we’re here to help them. There’s lots of people in the community who are prepared to help them get it right — we want them to succeed.”

Elliott suggests the Liberals should echo the Australian state of Victoria, which included victims and LGBT groups in the parliament for its apology. He wants the Conservatives and NDP to also apologize, as they held government or the balance of power while these policies persisted. “They failed to protect us from discrimination as well.”

Elliott says the apology should include some sort of physical statue, research grant or documentary “as a warning to future generations.” He says that many people remain surprised that Canada imprisoned and fired people for being gay, with many initially expressing disbelief.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that sense of disbelief can over time can translate into actual disbelief, and people denying that these historical events ever took place.”