Everett Klippert's story: The long, late redemption of a man punished for being gay in the 1960s
John Ibbitson tells the story of a man whose life was interrupted by official injustice, and why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now vowing to issue him a posthumous pardon
Outwardly, at least, his years in prison left remarkably few scars. When Everett George Klippert was finally released in 1971 after spending a decade behind bars simply because he was gay, he moved to Edmonton and found a job as a truck driver. A decade and a half later, as his years as a senior citizen neared, he got married.
"He was my favourite uncle," remembers Katherine Griebel, who lives on a farm in east-central Alberta. In 1980, she asked him to stand beside her at her wedding. His nephew Donald Klippert, who lives in Calgary, remembers a "gentle, jovial, always happy, outgoing" man who refused to dwell on his persecution by a vindictive justice system.
In later years, when gay activists tracked Mr. Klippert down and asked him to tell his story and to march in Pride parades, he refused. He was no crusader.
He was also no saint. He hooked up with teenagers, both when he was a teenager himself and when he was older. He would offer a couple of bucks for the hand jobs that were, typically, all that were offered or on offer. But two psychiatrists who examined him found no evidence that he could be violent or that he was any kind of pedophile. They described him as "courteous," "intelligent," "unusually co-operative," "sensitive," even "docile." He didn't belong in prison, both said.
Nothing that Everett Klippert did remotely warranted becoming the only person in Canadian history to be labelled a dangerous sexual offender simply for being gay – effectively a life sentence, which the Supreme Court upheld in one of the most disturbing rulings in its history.
The outrage over that sentence caused Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau to introduce legislation decriminalizing homosexual acts, remarking "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." A later version of that bill became law in 1969, making Mr. Klippert the catalyst for the first and most important landmark on the road to equality for Canada's LGBT community.
It didn't help Everett Klippert, though. Even after his original sentence was complete, even after the crime he was charged with was no longer a crime, he languished in jail, the victim of a justice system gone completely off the rails. He was finally released on probation two years after the acts that sent him to prison were declared to no longer be a crime.
He died in 1996 at the age of 69, virtually forgotten. Until now.
In response to requests this week from The Globe and Mail for comment on the circumstances surrounding Mr. Klippert's conviction, the federal government has announced that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will recommend a posthumous pardon. "Though dismissed by the Supreme Court in 1967, Everett Klippert's case was instrumental in the government's decision to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults a year later," Cameron Ahmad, press secretary to the Prime Minister, wrote in a statement on Friday.
What's more, said Mr. Ahmad, "the government also intends to review the cases of individuals who were convicted of gross indecency and buggery in past years, in order to determine if a pardon is warranted …
"Canadians know our country is made stronger because of our diversity, not in spite of it."
A BAD TOWN AND A BAD TIME IN WHICH TO BE GAY
Everyone in Calgary who knew Everett Klippert liked him. According to family lore, people would let other buses pass by their stop until the one he drove pulled up. He was gregarious, chatty, popular. No one suspected he was a homosexual, at a time when that label was a crime and a curse.
There were nine Klippert children: Leah and her eight younger brothers. (Three others didn't survive infancy.) Everett, the youngest, was born in Kindersley, Sask., in 1926, but the family moved to Calgary when he was 2. His mother died of kidney failure when he was 6. When his father remarried, Leah became surrogate mother to the brood. She was deeply religious, an evangelical Baptist, and Everett was raised in that strict faith, at a time when Calgary still proudly clung to its rough-hewn cowboy heritage. It was a bad town and a bad time in which to be gay.
Fears of communist subversion and homosexuality in the 1950s – the two, many thought, were inseparable – clashed with the increasingly impatient acolytes of the Beat Generation, who chafed for greater sexual openness. Different countries went in different directions. In 1957, a British commission recommended that homosexual acts committed in private between consenting adults should no longer be a crime. It took 10 years, but in 1967 such acts between consenting males who were 21 or older were decriminalized in England and Wales. (Lesbian acts had never been a crime.)
Canada in the 1950s and sixties went in the opposite direction. Laws prohibiting buggery and gross indecency – homosexual acts short of intercourse – had long been on the books, but the government of John Diefenbaker decided that wasn't enough. Before 1961, a person could be designated a dangerous sexual offender and subjected to preventive detention – in effect, a life sentence – if he was "likely to cause injury, pain or other evil to any person, through failure in the future to control his sexual impulses." (Although the crime of gross indecency was made gender-neutral in 1954, there does not appear to be any evidence of a woman being charged with the crime.) The Diefenbaker government toughened the law, adding: "or is likely to commit a further sexual offence."
In other words, under the new wording, if the sexual offence that put you in prison was one you were likely to commit again, you could rot in jail forever.
This caused Everett Klippert no end of hurt. He never had the slightest doubt or discomfort about the fact he preferred men to women. "Some people are revolted at the idea of having homosexual relations, while I am revolted at the idea of having heterosexual relations," he would tell a court psychiatrist in 1965.
After completing Grade 8, Everett, as he was known inside the family (at work he went by George), worked for a time at a dairy, and then for eight years as a bus driver for Calgary Transit. In those days, according to Kevin Allen, lead researcher on the Calgary Gay History Project, upper-income homosexuals might meet at the bar of the famed Palliser Hotel, and then head back to someone's house, to avoid detection by the police. Mr. Klippert, according to later court testimony, preferred to attend boxing and wrestling matches, and visited local swimming pools. He also allowed young men on his bus for free, and even slipped them a $2 bill now and then in exchange for their favours later on.
In 1960, when he was 34, Mr. Klippert's sexuality caught up with him. The father of a teenager he was hooking up with learned of what was going on and notified the police. Mr. Klippert, desperate to avoid embarrassing his family, confessed to 18 counts of gross indecency – basically all the names in the little black book that police found.
"Klippert faced the court with bowed head," a local newspaper reported, "elbows on the dock rail and face hidden in his hands." The four years that he spent in prison as a result were torment. Mr. Klippert later told a court psychiatrist that other inmates made life "considerably rough and difficult for him." How far that harassment went he never said.
A NEW LIFE UP NORTH, BUT A FAMILIAR INJUSTICE FOLLOWS
After his release in 1964, Mr. Klippert headed north, to escape the shame he had brought on his family and himself in the eyes of the community. He landed a job as a mechanic's helper in Pine Point, NWT, then with a population of about 400 and growing fast, about 100 kilometres from Hay River. Pine Point was a company town, built in the 1960s to service the giant new Cominco open-pit mine. (When the mine shut down in 1988, the town was abandoned, its buildings either removed or demolished.)
Mr. Klippert's reputation followed him; Calgary Police alerted the Pine Point RCMP detachment that a sexual offender was arriving in their midst. Mr. Klippert was warned by police to watch himself, but it was no use. Mining towns have a lot of men and few women, and Mr. Klippert found willing partners. He had a car, and younger guys loved to go for a ride in it. They'd find a remote road, have a beer and get to talking, and the talk would turn to sex, and if Mr. Klippert thought the other man would say yes, he would propose they masturbate together. According to court transcripts, it never went further than that.
One day, someone set a fire on the verandah of the highly unpopular mine manager's house. According to a 2002 episode of the television show History's Courtroom that examined the Klippert case, RCMP Corporal Jim Armstrong figured that arsonists were deviants and homosexuals were deviants, and so Mr. Klippert might be the arsonist. On Aug. 16, 1965, Cpl. Armstrong brought him to the police station for questioning.
It didn't take long to establish that Mr. Klippert had nothing to do with the arson. But then the talk turned to the people he was hanging out with. "I don't know how we got onto this subject at all," Cpl. Armstrong said in 2002. "I don't recall. But we did, and everything started coming out, and I just sat and listened to him – and started writing."
Douglas Sanders, a lawyer and pioneer in the gay-rights movement, heard a different story when he interviewed Mr. Klippert in prison: The police threatened to charge him with arson unless he would confess to gross indecency.
Mr. Sanders noted, through an e-mail exchange, that although some of the people Mr. Klippert had been involved with were teenagers, "their ages were irrelevant, since the charge was gross indecency between males of any age."
He believes that "the males were willing partners (and probably looking for some cash or perks). The medical evidence said there was no harm involved."
Over the years, homosexual acts short of intercourse have gone from being illegal at any age (at the time Mr. Klippert was charged) to an age of consent of 21 in 1969, of 14 in 1988, and then back up to 16 in 2008. For anal intercourse, the current age of consent is 18.
In any case, Mr. Klippert was no pedophile, something homosexuals were often suspected of at the time. A court psychiatrist who examined him concluded that age was not a factor in Mr. Klippert's sexual encounters. "His preference was for people who were responsive, that is, people who shared his enthusiasm about the endeavour," Ian McDonald testified.
The only question I had in my mind was how soon we could get this man out of the penitentiary and his treatment started.John Sissons, a judge whose ruling almost led to a life sentence for Mr. Klippert
A CALL FOR PROPER CARE – AND A BRUTAL COURT DECISION
Whatever the motivation, Mr. Klippert signed a confession that afternoon saying he had had sex with four different men on several occasions. (Those other men were not charged.) That night, Cpl. Armstrong drove Mr. Klippert to Hay River. The next day, he pleaded guilty to four counts of gross indecency. A week later, a judge sentenced him to three years in prison. He had received little or no legal representation.
But that wasn't enough for David Searle, who was a Crown attorney in Yellowknife at the time. "We'd had a number of people attracted to the North because of its isolation, seeing an opportunity to engage in similar conduct," he recalled in a recent interview.
At the time of Mr. Klippert's conviction, Mr. Searle had recently prosecuted a case involving pedophilia, although he confirmed to The Globe that the age of any of the men Mr. Klippert had had sex with was not a concern of the Crown.
For Mr. Searle and his superiors, what mattered was that the four new counts followed the 18 previous ones, which suggested a pattern. "This was conduct to be discouraged."
Three months after Mr. Klippert began his sentence, the Crown applied to have him designated a dangerous sexual offender and subject to preventive detention.
As required, two psychiatrists examined Mr. Klippert. Both agreed that he had not a violent bone in his body. They also agreed that, upon release, he would likely go in search of men for sex – which qualified him as a dangerous sexual offender under the revised, 1961 version of the statute.
Yet, the two psychiatrists argued that prison was the wrong place for Mr. Klippert. In those days, the psychiatric profession regarded homosexuality as a mental illness that could be treated, largely through estrogen therapy. But few such programs were in place in prisons. The psychiatrists urged that Mr. Klippert be released on strict parole, so that he could receive proper care.
John Sissons, who was then the sole judge of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories, was known for his sympathetic and innovative approach to justice with aboriginal defendants. He agreed with the Crown that Mr. Klippert was a dangerous offender, under the new definition, but also agreed that he needed treatment, not prison.
"The only question I had in my mind was how soon we could get this man out of the penitentiary and his treatment started," Justice Sissons declared in his judgment. Under an indefinite-detention order, he reasoned, Mr. Klippert would be subject to regular reviews and could receive both treatment and early parole. He assured Mr. Klippert that he might well be on the outside even more quickly through preventive detention than by simply completing his sentence.
But nothing like that happened. Someone threw away the key. When Mr. Klippert took his case to the Northwest Territories Court of Appeal, the judges dismissed it in a three-paragraph oral ruling, although they expressed "our hope that some steps can be taken to bring aid to the person, who seems to be in a sad way."
Mr. Everett's sister, Leah, who was working as a legal secretary for the Calgary city solicitor, wouldn't give up. She remained fiercely protective of her brother. Using her legal training, she filed leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada on Everett's behalf, and the Court agreed to hear the case.
Brian Crane was then a young lawyer whose work regularly took him to the Supreme Court. He was given the job of defending Mr. Klippert. "I thought I had a decent shot," he recalls, five decades later. How could the Court uphold a new law making it possible to label a man a dangerous sexual offender when everyone agreed he was not the least bit dangerous? "I thought it was fundamentally wrong."
In those days, a panel of five judges typically heard cases. On the 7th of November, 1967, the Supreme Court upheld the sentence of preventive detention on a 3-to-2 vote. Gérald Fauteux, writing for the majority, said that it was perfectly clear that, even though Mr. Klippert posed no threat to the public, he must be held in prison, for life if necessary, because "he was likely to commit further sexual offences of the same kind with other consenting adult males." Whether the law was unjust, given that this life sentence had been imposed for an act that was no longer even a crime in England, "is not for us to say; our jurisdiction is to interpret and apply laws validly enacted."
During his time on the Supreme Court (1991 to 2004), Mr. Justice Frank Iacobucci wrote opinions that advanced and protected the rights of homosexuals as fully equal members of society. But, he observes, in 1967 the Court didn't have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a constitutional touchstone. "They didn't have the tools," he said in an interview. As a result, "regrettably, the Court was less likely to second-guess the legislature."
Chief Justice John Cartwright wrote the dissent, backed by Mr. Justice Emmett Hall, whose 1964 report had laid the foundation for universal public health care. The 1961 revision, he argued, should be interpreted to mean that preventive detention applied to all those likely to reoffend and to cause harm to others. If the majority ruling were logically applied, "every man in Canada who indulges in sexual misconduct … with another consenting adult male and who appears likely, if at liberty, to continue such misconduct should be sentenced to preventive detention, that is to incarceration for life," the Chief Justice pointed out. "… No one, I think, would quarrel with the suggestion that it would bring about serious overcrowding."
A NEW LAW FOR CANADA, A NEW LIFE FOR EVERETT KLIPPERT
Throwing men in jail for years for having sex with other men was one thing; throwing them in jail for life was something else. When the Supreme Court upheld the 1961 dangerous-sexual-offender wording, Canada suddenly became the country with the most draconian laws against gay sex in the developed world.
The Toronto Star called the ruling "a return to the Middle Ages," according to a contemporary article on the decision written by Douglas Sanders. The Winnipeg Free Press editorialized: "It is possible to deplore such activity without treating its practitioners as if they were monsters." Even the Calgary Albertan ventured that "the spectre of a possible life sentence seems to us a little severe."
Mr. Klippert himself became more militant, telling Mr. Sanders during the prison visit: "If I meet someone on the outside now, and he asks me, I'll say, 'Sure, I'm a homosexual, what about you?' I'm not going to be ashamed of it any more."
Bud Orange, then Mr. Klippert's Member of Parliament, raised his plight in the House, arguing, "It's ridiculous that any man … would be put into jail because they are affected by [a] social disease. I hope the ridiculousness of this situation forces the government to make a move in this regard."
It did. One month after the Supreme Court ruled, Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced a massive omnibus bill that, along with easing restrictions on abortion, implementing the .08 limit for impaired driving, and permitting lotteries, also legalized consensual homosexual acts committed in private between two males who were at least 21 years of age.
It was while defending the bill that Mr. Trudeau told reporters that "there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." It was an inspired line – which, no doubt, is why he borrowed it from a Globe and Mail editorial from the week before.
The bill died when Mr. Trudeau, by then prime minister, called an election. During the leaders' debate, New Democrat Tommy Douglas argued for the decriminalizing of homosexuality. "Instead of treating it as a crime, and driving it underground, we ought to recognize it for what it is: It's a mental illness, it's a psychiatric condition which ought to be treated sympathetically by psychiatrists and social workers." As with the sentiments of Mr. Orange, at the time this was considered progressive.
After the landmark Liberal victory in 1968, the new justice minister, John Turner, reintroduced the omnibus bill, which became law in June, 1969. But it would take until July, 1971, before Mr. Klippert was finally released from prison, three years after his original sentence had expired. No one has an explanation for the delay.
Remarkably, he then went on to live a perfectly happy life, seemingly untraumatized by his years in prison. He got a job in Edmonton driving big trucks – there was nothing he liked more than driving big trucks and big cars. He might show up to visit his nephews and nieces with a guy he was seeing, though it was never the same guy twice. In the mid-1980s, around the time he retired, Mr. Klippert married Dorothy Hagstrom, who was six years older than he was. According to his nephews and niece, Ms. Hagstrom had some money from a previous marriage; both of them had health issues and were in search of companionship.
"Everett just doted on her," remembers Rick Klippert, a retired dentist now living on Vancouver Island, who delivered the eulogy at his uncle's funeral. They bought a mobile home that Everett loved to drive around and show off. When he visited Rick's clinic in Edmonton to have his teeth worked on, his bad puns cracked everybody up.
"He was happy, he was jovial," Rick Klippert remembers. "He loved everything." His past was just something no one spoke of.
He was especially kind to his niece Katherine Griebel, buying her a typewriter so that she could make money typing up students' essays, and once driving her to Vancouver so that she could visit some friends, on condition she agreed to stop smoking. By the Calgary city limits, he had relented.
"He was so warm, so helpful," Ms. Griebel remembers. "He'd give you the shirt off his back." He'd learned leatherwork in prison and bought a sewing machine, although no one can remember what he sewed. When he went to visit Leah, the two would work quietly together in the garden.
"He was born 50 years too soon," Ms. Griebel observes. "Look at how open homosexuality is now. What a disservice to a beautiful human being."
"The designation of Everett as a dangerous sexual offender is patently ridiculous," says Donald Klippert. "You couldn't ask for a nicer, more gentle person. He wouldn't harm a fly."
Everett George Klippert passed away in 1996, of kidney disease, like his mother. His ashes are buried on Katherine Griebel's farm, beside Leah.
REMEMBERED WITH A PARDON, AND DEPICTIONS ON STAGE
Douglas Elliott, a lawyer and veteran campaigner for gay rights, is still angry that Pierre Trudeau didn't have Everett Klippert pardoned once gay sex became legal. Mr. Klippert was, after all, the only person sentenced to a maximum of life in prison simply for having sex with men. That sentence prompted Mr. Trudeau to introduce the bill legalizing homosexual acts. Mr. Elliott believes it was unconscionable that Mr. Klippert, who was indirectly responsible for that landmark legislation, languished in prison for years after it was passed.
But although that Trudeau government failed to act, this Trudeau government is clearly determined to do so.
In its statement released to The Globe – following the newspaper's briefing of PMO officials on the Klippert case – press secretary Ahmad not only promised that the Prime Minister will recommend the posthumous pardoning of Mr. Klippert, and that his government will review other cases of individuals convicted of crimes similar to his.
He also added that, "As Canadians, we know that protecting and promoting fundamental human rights must be an imperative for governments and individuals alike – and this includes gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. … The fight to end discrimination is not over, and a lot of hard work remains."
Douglas Searle, the former Crown attorney, says that he supported the first Trudeau government's decision to make consenting homosexual acts legal. As for a pardon for the dangerous-sexual-offender designation he brought against Mr. Klippert: "It wouldn't offend me if he received a pardon."
News of the planned pardon will doubtless be welcome to those who have struggled to keep the story of Everett Klippert alive. Among them are Mr. Allen, who has compiled materials for the gay archives in Calgary, where a local theatre company is working on a play about Mr. Klippert's life.
Ben Nind, an artist based in Yellowknife, has also written a play; workshops and public readings are planned for April. When Everett Klippert confessed to Cpl. Armstrong, Mr. Nind believes, "he was so exasperated by the ridiculousness of the situation that he just went 'I'm just going to lay it out on the table. I've already been there; we're going to just go through this charade one more time. And I'm going to let you deal with this, because this isn't my problem – this is your problem.'"
Mr. Klippert was no crusader for gay rights. He was just a man who sought out other men for sex, and then foolishly refused to lie about it – or at least to ask for a lawyer. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court's notorious decision to uphold a law that sentenced him to prison for life just for being gay generated so much indignation that the federal government made homosexual acts legal in Canada six weeks before the Stonewall riots launched the gay-rights movement in the United States.
Forty years, less one month, after Everett Klippert began his second prison sentence for having sex with men, same-sex marriage became legal in Canada. And today, the federal government is ready not only to pardon Mr. Klippert, but to consider a pardon for all gays who suffered under unjust laws.
"Everett Klippert was a working-class guy, very ordinary, not heroic in any way," observes Mr. Elliott. "But he is a great martyr for our cause, however accidental."
With research by Stephanie Chambers
John Ibbitson is writer at large for the Globe and Mail.