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On Nov. 28, the Prime Minister will officially say sorry for decades of discrimination against LGBTQ Canadians who were treated like criminals, lost their jobs or were forced into shame and silence. John Ibbitson meets some of the people who have lived with that legacy to see what an apology means to them

Some received a curt notice that their career in the public service was over. Some were interrogated for days.

Some had police crashing through the door, calling them faggots and queers, and telling them they were under arrest.

Some held friends dying of AIDS in their arms.

Many simply hid, denying who they were, even to themselves, rather than risk any of that.

On Nov. 28, Justin Trudeau will rise in the House of Commons and apologize for the many ways the Government of Canada persecuted and prosecuted sexual minorities. While a few other governments have apologized for criminally convicting people for same-sex acts, no government in the world has come anywhere close to what the Prime Minister will deliver.

Mr. Trudeau will apologize not only to those who were convicted under unjust laws, but to those who lost their jobs in the public service, the military and the police and security services because they were homosexual. He will also introduce legislation to expunge the criminal records of Canadians who were previously convicted of consensual same-sex activity. He will talk about the prejudice that greeted LGBTQ people during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and '90s. And he will commit the federal government to doing all it can to protect sexual minorities, at home and overseas. Ottawa has also agreed in principle to reparations for those whose careers were ruined.

Some will say that this is a mistake, that the present should not be held accountable for the past. But the stories of people who lived through that past bear witness to the need for, and the power of, this apology.

Mary Lou Williams and Emma Smith met as military recruits in the 1980s, and were imprisoned and interrogated during their attempts to leave the military.

Neither Mary Lou Williams nor Emma Smith thought of themselves as lesbians when they met as young army recruits in Kingston in 1986. As the only two women in their course, they were assigned a room together. They became fast friends and then more than friends. One awful night, someone walked in on them when they were in bed together. "We were totally freaked at being caught," Ms. Smith remembers. The Canadian Forces discharged anyone known to be homosexual. Panicking, they went AWOL, returning five days later, at which point they asked for their release from the military. But while they waited for a decision, the environment became so toxic – they were verbally threatened by people in the senior ranks and told they would be separated, with Ms. Williams being sent to Germany – that they went AWOL again, for 11 days. This time they were sent to a military prison in Edmonton, where someone found a note Ms. Williams had sent to Ms. Smith: "Sweet dreams and all that good stuff. Love you more each day." Now they were in real trouble. Each was interrogated: What sex acts do you perform on each other? Who else do you know in the military who is a lesbian? In March 1987 they were released from prison and discharged.

Today, they are married and live on Galiano Island. But their stint in the military haunts them. Ms. Smith has had trouble keeping a job. Both of them have struggled with drinking. Recently they discovered that they qualified for psychological counselling. Therapy has helped them realize they are not alone.

Losing your job because you are gay was hardly something new. For centuries, major institutions and businesses dismissed anyone who was known to be homosexual. But after the Second World War, governments began actively seeking out and purging homosexuals. Not only were such sexual perverts unwelcome, the reasoning went, the Soviets or other foreign powers could blackmail them into betraying state secrets. Ms. Williams and Ms. Smith were just two casualties. Diane Doiron was another.

Diane Doiron got a medical discharge from the military after their repeated interrogations about her sexuality.

Ms. Doiron had known she wanted to serve in the military since she was a little girl growing up in Miramichi, even though she also knew she was gay. In 1986 she joined the Navy, thrilled by the hardships of boot camp, top of her class in basic training, honoured by the top-secret submarine surveillance duties she was eventually assigned to, and determined to keep her private life private.

But things were tense at CFB Shelburne: Five women at the base had been expelled from the Forces because they were lesbians. And one day she was ordered to report to the Military Police Office, where the interrogators were waiting. Do you know what a homosexual is? Do you know any homosexuals? Are you a homosexual? She lied, but it was no use. "I realized I would never have a career in the Navy, no matter how good or how dedicated I was," she recalls.

Over and over again she was ordered to the Military Police Office; over and over again she was interrogated, until finally she had a complete breakdown and was hospitalized. Eventually she received a medical discharge.

Diane Doiron lives today in New Brunswick, retired after years as a photojournalist. "I have had a great career," she says. "But I have spent my life on anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, just to try to stay above water." She has had trouble maintaining relationships. "After what they put me through, for me, sharing is almost impossible. I can't trust somebody enough to open up that way."

Under judicial order, the military lifted its ban on homosexuals in 1992. But that came too late for Mary Lou Williams, Emma Smith, Diane Doiron and thousands of others – no one knows for sure how many – who, over four decades, were purged from the military, public service, RCMP and CSIS because of their sexuality.

"They took away my right to serve my country," says Ms. Doiron. She cannot forgive or forget.

Orde Morton left External Affairs in the 1960s after officials there told him his sexuality left him with no chance of promotion in the foreign service.

While many of those purged were in the military or police, others worked directly in the public service. One was Orde Morton. At 77, Mr. Morton speaks with the measured, gracious tones of someone who spent his life in the foreign service. Except he didn't.

The son of the famed Canadian historian W.L. Morton, Mr. Morton was educated at University of Manitoba and Oxford, joining External Affairs in 1964, when he was 24. He had always known he wanted to be a diplomat. "It had a certain glamour," he remembers. "It offered a chance to see the wider world while doing something that would be useful."

Progress was swift: a few months in Ottawa, then a stint in Canada's embassy in Brazil, then back home, where he joined a panel reviewing Canada's foreign policy in Latin America. Everything pointed to a promising future in the department, until that day in 1969 when he was asked to meet with a security official in the department's library. "I knew instantly what it would be about."

We heard about the men you were friends with in Rio de Janeiro, the official told him. We know of your friendship with the Swedish diplomat. "I think he used the word 'tendencies.'" Mr. Morton remembers. He was told he had no hope of promotion at External Affairs. "The whole thing was over in 20 minutes."

Mr. Morton returned to Oxford, where he obtained a PhD, and had a rewarding career at the Bank of Montreal writing speeches and managing government relations. He also organized the bank's archives and art collection.

Still, there was always a lingering sense of regret. "I've done things that were useful, but that were not central to what was going on," he explains. He had dreamed of an opportunity to help shape Canada's foreign policy. Instead, "I have always felt as though I were on the outside looking in … I've had a sense of being peripheral."

All because of some friends in Rio.

Tony Fay was charged in an infamous 1981 raid on Toronto bathhouses, though the charges were later dropped.

In 1969, under public pressure, Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government legalized consensual sex between two men over 21 conducted in private. Any other gay sex, however, remained illegal, as Tony Fay and hundreds of other men discovered at 10 p.m. on Feb. 5, 1981.

Mr. Fay was just finishing his shift as supervisor at the Richmond Street Health Emporium. The shift was perfect for a kid who'd fled North Bay for Toronto after years of bullying – "queer, fag, I got a lot of that" – and who needed a job that allowed him to take morning classes in tourism management.

The bathhouse was packed – all two-hundred-plus rooms and lockers occupied, with a waiting list – when the police stormed in. They used crowbars to smash through doors, even though the general manager offered to give them the keys. "They called us queers, fags." The men in towels were charged on the spot with being found in a bawdy house; Mr. Fay and his co-workers were taken to 52 Division (today it is 51 Division) to be charged as keepers of a bawdy house. At 25, he was terrified of being left with a criminal record that could mark him for life.

To make matters worse, the Toronto Sun published the names of the staff members at the four bathhouses the police raided that night – Operation Soap, they called it. Fay's phone rang off the hook with abusive, threatening callers. "I got every sicko calling me up to tell me what a sinner I am, that I'm going to hell and should be hung…"

But fear turned quickly to fury at the fact that more than 300 men had been charged for what should never have been considered a crime. The next night, several thousand gathered at the corner of Yonge and Wellesley streets to protest the harassment by police. "No more raids!" they chanted. "Gays have rights!" as they marched to 52 Division.

The charge against Tony Fay was eventually dropped and he found a job at a gay-friendly tourism company. Today, he works as a bus driver, living alone in an apartment with the ashes of a former companion who died of AIDS in 1992.

Operation Soap helped galvanize the gay-rights movement. "The community didn't come together as a community until after the bathhouse raids," Mr. Fay believes. "What came about was good. How it came about was not good."

Wayne Fitton has been HIV-positive since 1988, and saw firsthand the discrimination people faced during the AIDS crisis.

Nineteen-eighty-one was a dark year for another reason. On June 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported on five previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles who had come down with a rare strain of pneumonia and other infections that suggested their immune system had been compromised. Immediately, the CDC was flooded with reports of other, similar, cases. Every case proved fatal. Eventually, the new disease was given a name: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – AIDS. The disease was transmitted sexually, or through intravenous drug use, or through transfusion from a contaminated blood supply. By 1985, a blood test could determine the presence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the precursor to AIDS. But there was no cure, and the disease usually killed within a year of its onset. By 1995, AIDS had become the leading cause of death for people between ages 25 and 44 in the United States. In Canada, an estimated 25,000 people have died since the disease was first detected.

Because Wayne Fitton's father was an alcoholic, Wayne took on the role of helping raise his sisters. By his early twenties, he was running an office filled with people more than twice his age. Later, he cared for his younger sister, who was dying of cancer. Though he didn't know it, his past would serve as preparation for that day when he saw his friend John in downtown Toronto in 1985.

They had been best friends, but had grown distant after John took up with a boyfriend and a crowd Mr. Fitton didn't care for. So it came as a shock to see John – flesh-and-bone thin, pale, sick. "He looked just terrible," Mr. Fitton recalls.

John had AIDS. His boyfriend and his friends had abandoned him. He was alone. "'I know this is a lot of ask of you, but I need some help.'" Mr. Fitton recalls John asking him. "I said, 'Absolutely.'"

With another friend, Mr. Fitton cared for John at home for the next four months, until he died. Afterward, he joined the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), where he and others counselled and cared for people living with HIV and dying from AIDS. He has worked for AIDS-related groups ever since.

At times things seemed surreal. Seemingly healthy people would suddenly become emaciated skeletons, walking through the Church Street Village, perched on the famous Steps near Church and Wellesley. Mr. Fitton remembers a co-worker showing him the results from 1991: 147 people who had used ACT's services had died that year, some of them ACT volunteers. Mr. Fitton knew most of them.

"It became normal," he remembers. "It's what you did. You'd have meetings every morning and talk about who's doing this and who's doing that and who died yesterday."

An AIDS diagnosis could mean losing your job and being evicted from your home, because there were few human-rights protections for sexual minorities. To qualify for prescription subsidies, many had to sell their possessions and go on welfare. Partners, who had no legal standing, were sometimes forbidden by family members from seeing their loved one in hospital. Some doctors and nurses refused to go into the rooms of AIDS patients. Volunteers would feed and care for them. Many of those volunteers were lesbians. There were countless acts of heroism and cowardice. And funerals. So many funerals.

Many gay men went back into the closet rather than become targets of hatemongers who called them plague-bearers and sinners.

But there were positive side effects: Community organizations such as the ones Mr. Fitton joined not only delivered treatment but advocated for research funding and home care and, most of all, respect. The first sympathetic portrayals of gay characters appeared on film and television. The AIDS-related deaths of Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury brought home the reality that there were many more homosexuals in society than some people thought.

In 1996, a combination of new drugs known as antiretrovirals finally began to bring the disease under control. People living with HIV could reasonably expect not to develop AIDS. Today, a single pill taken once a day keeps the disease at bay, and some young gay people treat becoming HIV-positive as simply an annoyance.

Mr. Fitton, who has been HIV-positive since 1988, wishes the young would take the disease more seriously – "You do not want this beast in your body" – and hopes they remember the thousands who perished before antiretrovirals became available.

"I love to engage with the new generation," he says. "But a lot of them have no idea what it was like."

Arsham Parsi fled from Iran in 2006 and has worked to bring other LGBTQ people to Canada.

For older members of the LGBTQ community, the last two decades have been something of a miracle. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled in M. v H. that same-sex couples were entitled to the same legal rights, such as pension and health benefits, as other couples. In 2005, Canada became the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. The Internet and new sex-ed curricula taught young queer folk that they were not alone. And that word, "queer," which was once a schoolyard insult, has been reclaimed by the community to encompass all sexual and gender minorities.

An entire generation of LGBTQ youth have grown up with little of the stigma, prejudice and hatred that previous generations experienced – the first trauma-free queer generation.

But if Justin Trudeau's apology closes a door, it also opens a window on LGBTQ communities that are still at risk at home and abroad.

Arsham Parsi arrived in Canada in 2006 when he was 25, fleeing from Iranian authorities who were out to identify and arrest the young activist over a website he had created. Immediately upon arrival, he began working to bring other LGBTQ people from Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East to Canada; he has helped more than 800 people come here over the past decade.

It gives him such pleasure, he says, to encounter an LGBTQ refugee who, only a few years ago, arrived in Canada frightened and confused. "And now, five years later, I see them on the other side of the street and they are with someone, and they are laughing. It makes me very happy."

Mr. Parsi believes that Ottawa should have procedures and resources in place to remove sexual and religious minorities at suddenly heightened risk in any country and bring them to Canada. Earlier this year, the federal government brought in more than 30 gay refugees who had fled a pogrom of arrest and torture in Chechnya. Mr. Parsi would like to see that program become permanent.

Not all native-born LGBTQ Canadians grow up safe and secure. Victoria Watson is 18 and transgender. Although her mother was supportive, there were disagreements at home, so she moved in with her grandmother, and then with her girlfriend, who is also transgender. But things went south, and Ms. Watson ended up living in Barrie, Ont., working as a prostitute and addicted to drugs.

Earlier this year she arrived in Toronto, trying to get her life back on track. But at the shelters she stayed at, staff were sometimes hostile and other street kids threatened her.

When you're on the street or in a shelter, "we are at the lowest of our lows," she explains. "And a lot of times, when people are at the lowest of their lows, they will attack someone else, to try to make themselves feel higher, and LGBTQ are the easiest to attack, because even with all the progress, we are still misunderstood."

Today Ms. Watson is off drugs, in transition housing and finishing high school. But her experiences leave her convinced that all levels of government must do more for sexual minorities at risk. "I can't get over how terrible the shelters are for kids who are LGBTQ," she says. Egale, a national organization that advocates for sexual minorities, is building the first shelter and transitional housing dedicated to LGBTQ youth. But everywhere, supply does not meet demand.

Victoria Watson: ‘LGBTQ are the easiest to attack, because even with all the progress we are still misunderstood.’

Those who have lived through darker times welcome the apology they are about to receive. Orde Morton sees it as "an exercise in public education, to let Canadians know that these things happened, which were incompatible with what we now like to think were Canadian values."

"They damaged so many people's lives," says Emma Smith. "It's something that I don't think anybody gets over."

For Tony Fay, the apology affirms "that I'm a real person, and that they screwed up back then." Wayne Fitton hopes the apology will encourage all Canadians "to accept, promote and embrace justice and well-being for all people."

Though there is still much to be done, with this apology Canada will have gone further to secure and advance the rights of sexual minorities than any other country in the world. In that sense, the apology is really a celebration. There has never been a time and place where it was so okay to be queer.


Special feature: The lasting legacy of Ottawa’s reprehensible treatment of gay public servants