The purges began in the 1950s, when the Cold War was reaching a fevered pitch.
The RCMP, convinced that gay men and women represented a blackmail threat, systematically entrapped and expelled thousands of Canadians from the public service and the military. They didn’t stop when the Trudeau government partially decriminalized gay sex in 1969 or even when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Instead, the purge continued until the early 1990s.
But it’s only now that the Canadian state is beginning to sort through the pain and misery that it caused.
The federal government’s long-awaited advisory council to help formulate an apology to the LGBT community for historical discrimination has been formed and has begun speaking to Canadians who have been affected.
“I’ve held people’s hands as they cry and tell me what it was like to be purged,” says Randy Boissonnault, the Edmonton MP and special advisor to the prime minister on LGBTQ2 issues, who is chairing the committee. “I’ve talked to people whose friends committed suicide. I’ve talked to people who didn’t have sex for 25 years.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to deliver an apology by the end of 2017. The apology is one of three different tracks that the government is involved with to rectify historical and ongoing injustices to the LGBT community.
Alongside the committee’s work, the federal government is planning to pass legislation to expunge the records of anyone convicted for consensual gay sex before that was partially decriminalized in 1969, as well as equalizing the age of consent for anal and vaginal sex.
Survivors of the purges from the public service and military have also filed a class-action lawsuit demanding compensation from the government.
Boissonnault says that the advisory committee’s work is focused on what form and scope an apology should take, including what should be covered by the apology and who should be apologized to.
“You only get one opportunity to do something this important well and we want to do it well the first time,” he says.
The We Demand an Apology Network, a group which has been pressuring the federal government for years to address this issue, recently made a presentation to the committee, asking for a clear, official, public state apology and for the government to make documents about the national security purges available to the public.
One member of that network declined to join the committee when asked, criticizing the contract and confidentiality agreement that committee members must sign.
Gary Kinsman, the co-author of The Canadian War on Queers, which details the gay purges, wrote in a letter to the secretariat that the veil of secrecy must be lifted.
“One of the distinctive features of the Canadian national security campaigns against queers has been its very high level of secrecy,” he wrote. “To have this maintained during the process of the preparation for an apology continues these practices when they need to be ended.”
Boissonnault says he understands any apprehension members of the LGBT community have with regards to government secrecy, but that participants in the process need to know that what they tell the committee will remain confidential.
Boissonnault is urging any members of the LGBT community who have been discriminated against or who want to provide advice to the committee about the scope and tone of the apology to contact his office.
“This is the time for members of the community to find their voice and be heard,” he says.