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Canada can help heal LGBT community by correcting mistakes of the past

Mourners attend a candlelight vigil in Toronto on Sunday, June 12, 2016 to honour victims of the mass shootings in Orlando.

Christopher Katsarov/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canadians have a choice. We can let grief and anger over the killings in Orlando overwhelm us. Or we can act.

How can we act? By embracing the recommendations of a report released Monday that would right past wrongs and offer a future of greater dignity and equality for sexual minorities in Canada.

Egale, the national advocacy group for Canada's LGBT community, has been working flat out since February on a report for the Liberal government on discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and those who identify as transgender.

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That report arrived in the wake of the hate-filled terrorist attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 mostly young men and women dead and dozens more wounded and injured.

"We have heavy hearts today, in our community, right across the world," Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale, told a press conference on Parliament Hill.

But "what happened in Orlando puts more spotlight on the injustice and the homophobia and transphobia and biphobia that we currently face as a community."

Grossly Indecent: Confronting the Legacy of State Sponsored Discrimination Against Canada's LGBTQ2SI Communities offers 209 densely written pages chronicling discrimination against homosexuals and other sexual minorities in Canada: men who were convicted of gross indecency in years past simply because they sought out sex with other men; women and men who were cashiered from the public service and the military because their sexuality made them unemployable in the eyes of government.

"I came out to a stranger and a polygraph machine," Todd Ross remembered, reliving the day in 1989 when he told a military interrogator while taking a lie-detector test that he was homosexual. "At that moment, I felt like an empty shell."

The report's authors want Justin Trudeau to offer an apology and restitution to all those who suffered at the hands of the federal government because of their sexuality.

The Prime Minister sent an encouraging sign Monday, promising in a statement to "work with Egale to end discrimination and further guarantee equality for all citizens."

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The statement concludes: "We will have more to say in the near future." How near? The Prime Minister will march in the Toronto Pride Parade on July 3. It would be extraordinary if he did not respond before then.

But there is an obvious objection to paying too much attention to the Egale report. It addresses past wrongs, brings up old grievances. The Orlando shootings grip us today. How safe now are people living in gay villages, going to gay bars, just walking down the street holding hands? Is Islamist terrorism a specific threat to homosexuals, or should that community be seen as simply part of the mix of Western values and liberties that violent fundamentalists so despise? How do complaints about past discrimination compare to the trauma of the attack on the Pulse nightclub?

In response, Ms. Kennedy pointed out that homosexual kids today still die by suicide at higher rates than heterosexual kids. About a quarter of youth on the street identify as LGBT.

"We're not competing for attention," with Orlando, she insisted. "We're united as one. And you can't look at one without looking at the other."

The report recommends a one-year review to address, not only compensation for past wrongs, but also discriminatory laws still on the books, such as the law that sets a higher age of consent for anal intercourse (18) than for most other sexual activity (16).

As for the question of redress, yes, people who were cashiered from their jobs because they were homosexual may well deserve the pensions they lost as a result. But a more lasting restitution could involve funding new programs for, say, young people at risk on the street, or at risk of ending up on the street.

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"We can't let ourselves give up in the face of injustice and violence," Douglas Elliott, a lawyer who led the team writing the report, said at the press conference. "We have to keep fighting for justice."

Creating a more hopeful future for sexual minorities in Canada by correcting the mistakes of the past and addressing the challenges of the present is how we can honour the LGBT community both in Orlando and here.

We can do it for them, and for ourselves. Why wouldn't we?

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