Historic apology to LGBTQ2 Canadians

Ahead of this week’s historic apology to LGBTQ2 Canadians, there was a significant development for Canadians who had been drummed out of the Canadian Forces because of their sexuality.  Led by Elliot Lake lawyer, Doug Elliot, a class action lawsuit reached a settlement to bring about reparations for hundreds of Canadians who had their professional careers destroyed by policies that may seem arcane now, but ruined the lives of these patriotic Canadians.  The settlement reflects the fact that the consequences of Canada’s policies are carried by the victims to this day and was a big part of the reason that the government made an historic apology in the House of Commons this week.

By acknowledging the harm that was done to LGBTQ2 community from official policies and laws that targeted Canadians because of their sexuality, Canada hopes to turn the page on a period of our history that was defined by unequal rights, prejudice, and a profound lack of understanding. Until very recently, the Canadian LGBTQ2 community endured systemic oppression, persecution, violence, and even criminalization.  The discrimination was both societal and official.  Canada only decriminalized same sex activity 50 years ago and the careers and lives of thousands of Canadians were ruined by phobias as well as government policies and campaigns that singled out people because of their sexuality.

From 1950-1960 the government persecuted LGBTQ2 workers. The public service, military, and the RCMP spied on Canadians inside and outside of the workplace in what can only be considered a witch-hunt. Suspects were treated like criminals, interrogated, and abused by their superiors about their sex lives. Anyone who admitted to being gay was fired, discharged or intimidated into resignation.

The official apology was the result of years of hard work by activists who fought back against social prejudice.  People like Michelle Douglas who, 25 years ago, fought her dismissal from Canadian Forces on the basis of sexual orientation and won a judgment outlawing dismissal from the Forces for that reason.  James Egan and John Nesbit who fought in the courts for recognition of equal spousal pension rights, and won, when sexual orientation was added to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a prohibited ground for discrimination in 1995. Former NDP MP, Svend Robinson, Canada’s first openly gay Member of Parliament, who brought about the inclusion of sexual orientation to the hate crimes section of the Criminal Code with a private member's bill that became law in 2004.

Alongside the apology, the government introduced a bill to expunge the criminal records of gay men who engaged in consensual sexual activity with same-sex partners. New Democrats have been asking for this for years and it is hard to understand why measures to counter this injustice were not in place decades ago. It is important to remember that this bill is not only symbolic; every day, gay men with unjust criminal records are prevented from travelling or volunteering, and face discrimination when it comes to employment.

Canadians can hope that this apology will mark more than simply turning the page on this regrettable part of our history. Instead, it can be a springboard for action both in Parliament and in Canadian society. We can begin by removing the last vestiges of institutional discrimination such as the ban that prevents gay men from donating blood. We must also work to eradicate the prejudice that lives in our communities and affects our siblings, children, parents, friends, and neighbours.  We consider ourselves a just, compassionate society and these are the challenges that go hand in hand with that.