By Maureen McEwan
The pioneering scholar whose work exposed the persecution faced by the LGBTQ community in post-war Canada says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent apology for decades of “cruel and unjust” discrimination by the federal government doesn’t go far enough.
Trudeau issued the apology — which has been widely praised by most LGBTQ advocates — in the House of Commons on Nov. 28. The official statement of sorrow and regret was interrupted several times by standing ovations.
But Gary Kinsman, an emeritus professor of sociology at Laurentian University and leading LGBTQ rights activist, called the speech “vague” in some instances and added that “there’s still a lot of things that need to be apologized for and addressed.”
Trudeau stated that, “from the 1950s to the early 1990s, the Government of Canada exercised its authority in a cruel and unjust manner, undertaking a campaign of oppression against members, and suspected members, of the LGBTQ2 communities.
“The goal,” he continued, “was to identify these workers throughout the public service, including the foreign service, the military, and the RCMP, and persecute them.””
During the Cold War, LGBTQ community members who worked for the government were surveilled, faced discrimination, and it is estimated that hundreds — if not thousands — were terminated on the grounds that they posed a “national security risk.”
Kinsman was in Parliament’s public gallery for the speech, sitting among public servants who had been persecuted and purged in the 1950s and ’60s. It was Kinsman’s landmark 2010 book, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation, that fully exposed the nature and extent of the mistreatment that prompted Trudeau’s historic expression of remorse.
While the speech was better than he’d expected, Kinsman said there was also much missing.
“A lot of it was very vague. And, I have to say, personally speaking, that eventually the ‘I am sorry’, ‘we are sorry’, sort of became meaningless,” said Kinsman, a member of the LGBTQ “We Demand An Apology” network.
In particular, Kinsman said that the government’s decades-long and highly orchestrated surveillance operation in Ottawa and elsewhere was not specifically addressed. Between the 1960s and 1980s, for example, at a downstairs Lord Elgin Hotel pub that served as Ottawa’s unofficial gay bar — just a few minutes’ walk from the House of Commons — undercover RCMP officers were assigned to spy on those who frequented the gathering place and file reports on their activities.
In The Canadian War on Queers, Kinsman and co-author Patrizia Gentile interviewed dozens of former Ottawa civil servants and others who detailed the government surveillance operations and other forms of persecution targeting the LGBTQ community.
“There was somebody in some police force or some investigator who would be sitting in a bar,” said one witness in the book, identified only as David, about the Lord Elgin surveillance. “And you would see someone with a . . . newspaper held right up, and if you . . . looked real closely you could find him holding behind the newspaper a camera, and these people were photographing everyone in the bar.”
Kinsman, also the author of the influential 1987 LGBTQ social history Regulation of Desire, said the scenes that played out for years in the downtown hotel and other sites frequented by gay men deserve specific acknowledgement by the government.
“There’s been no apology for those types of surveillance and entry into community spaces,” said Kinsman. “There’s been no apology, as I said, for the widespread surveillance of the lesbian and gay movement all across the Canadian state on so-called ‘national security grounds’ in the 1970s. So there’s still a lot of things that need to be apologized for and addressed.”
He added that the government needs to release more files and documents from those decades, that a class-action lawsuit filed by victims — in response to which an agreement-in-principle has been reached — needs to be resolved promptly and generously, and that more stories must be told.
“The important thing is that this cannot be forgotten.”
Other community members have said that they felt that the apology was sufficient and “sincere.”
Barry Deeprose is a retired public servant in Ottawa who worked largely for the Department of National Defence. He’s been an activist in the LGBTQ community since 1979 — a founder of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa and Pink Triangle Services, he’s now a member of the Ottawa Senior Pride Network
Deeprose said he thought the apology was “thoughtfully written” and “pitch-perfect” in tone. But he said it did miss one crucial element.
“I think the only thing it didn’t capture is the real fear of queer people in the public service, in those decades – the ’60s and the ’70s, and even up through the ’80s, that at any moment they could lose their employment,” Deeprose said.
Deeprose arrived in Ottawa in 1975 and was a self-described “out, fully accepting gay man.” As a result, he said he was often warned by people to be careful.
“Everyone seemed to know somebody who knew somebody who was fired,” he said.
Deeprose had only been to the Lord Elgin a few times, but explained that it was a regular meeting place for the gay community in those days. Thus it was a place for “overall spying” on their community, he added, and that people had “very legitimate reasons to be afraid.”
“I certainly for a time felt stressed — or fear. And then I realized that I simply could not cover my truth for the sake of a job.”
But when asked if there were still apologies to be made, Deeprose said that he was satisfied with Trudeau’s statement and wanted to avoid “apology fatigue.”
“I think we can move on at this point,” he said. “I think most of us, personally, have. And then for new generations, in the gay community, it’s a non-issue.”
But for earlier generations, it remains a significant issue, Lyle Borden argues. Borden, also a member of the OSPN who retired after a career in the federal public service, recalled how the Lord Elgin was one of the most important and possibly original gathering sites for the gay community in Ottawa.
“It was a meeting place where mostly gay men were able to congregate, and to be with one another, and to feel safe in an environment,” Borden said.
“Because of that, when the witch hunts began by the government, it was certainly a targeted area,” he added.
Borden said that it was a “real witch-hunt” because the government primarily targeted public servants who had no access to confidential documents or top-secret information during the Cold War. Many of the people targeted worked in mid-to-lower level public service positions and were persecuted simply because of hate, rather than a perceived “national security risk.”
If they weren’t terminated, often public servants faced intimidation or demotion, or were overlooked for promotion at work after being identified as homosexual.
“The environment was made so caustic that they could not stay,” said Borden.
The result was not only the loss of a job, usually, he added. Public servants could also lose their families, friends and neighbours, leaving them with little hope.
“These people lost everything,” he said.
The legacy of the historical surveillance campaigns is still felt today, said Borden. He explained that the OSPN works across the city with many seniors who experienced the persecution first-hand as public servants. He spoke about the deeply-rooted fear and “tremendous anger” that they continue to feel.
While Borden thought the apology was sincere and “all-encompassing,” he said he is continuing to work with the OSPN to address remaining historical concerns among retirees and offer support moving forward.
“That fear is still there — fear of family, fear of association, because they were brought up, they were adults during this period, and that fear of losing everything is still very inherent to them.”