Trudeau apologises for federal persecution of gay public servants

By on 04/12/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has apologised for federal persecution of gay public servants (Image courtesy: nathanmac87/Flickr).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has formally apologised for the systematic persecution of gay, lesbian or transgender people in the Canadian public service over several decades.

Thousands of Canadians were fired from the military, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the public service under a Cold War national security drive that spanned more than three decades.

In an impassioned speech to Canada’s House of Commons last week, Trudeau described the purge as a “collective shame” and a “tragic act of discrimination suffered by Canadian citizens at the hands of their own government”.

Please forgive me

“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 lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ2) communities,” he said.

Two-spirit people are members of Canadian indigenous communities who identify themselves as belonging to a “third gender”.

“The goal was to identify these workers throughout the public service, including the foreign service, the military and the RCMP and persecute them.”

Trudeau said the thinking of the day – that homosexuals would automatically be at increased risk of blackmail by Canada’s adversaries due to their purported “character weakness” – resulted in nothing short of a “witch-hunt”.

“The public service, the military and the RCMP spied on their own people, inside and outside of the workplaces,” he said. “During this time, the federal government even dedicated funding to an absurd device known as ‘the Fruit Machine’ that was supposed to measure homosexual attraction.”

Let me go

Trudeau said some suspects were taken to secret locations at night for interrogation about their relationships and sexual preferences. They were hooked up to polygraph machines – or lie detectors – and “had the most intimate details of their lives cut open”.

“Women and men were abused by their superiors and asked demeaning, probing questions about their sex lives,” he said. “Some were sexually assaulted. Those who admitted they were gay were fired, discharged or intimidated into resignation. They lost dignity, lost careers and had their dreams – and indeed their lives – shattered.”

The speech, which was delivered partly in English and partly in French, was met with four standing ovations as Trudeau repeatedly apologised and committed the government to redressing past wrongs, his eyes filling with tears before he made a final declaration.

Making redress

“For the oppression of the lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender queer and two-spirit communities, we apologize,” he said. “On behalf of the government, Parliament, and the people of Canada: We were wrong. We are sorry. And we will never let this happen again.”

Afterwards, the prime minister was hugged by several gay lawmakers.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Canadian government tabled legislation that will allow the criminal records of people convicted of sexual activity with same-sex partners to be permanently destroyed.

The federal government has also reached agreement with those involved in a class-action lawsuit related to the gay purge, pledging more than C$100m (US$78m) in compensation to the complainants.

Helen Kennedy, executive director of Gay rights group Egale Canada, which held a reception and special viewing of the speech at the Ontario Legislative Assembly in Toronto, said it was a “historic moment” for LGBTQ2 communities. “This is a long-awaited moment and a very emotional moment to be honest,” she said.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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