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Martine Roy with her baby girl, Cascia Roy-Paul, at home in Montreal. Martine was forced out of the armed forces when her superiors found out she was gay.Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

Martine Roy arrived at the meeting in high spirits that cold, snowy Ottawa day in December, 1983. The 20-year-old was enjoying life as a medical technician in the army, and had just been approved for a new job – with an upgraded security clearance – in the section that monitored foreign communications. It would be a significant promotion for the young private.

Do you know why you're here? one of the officers asked her. No, Ms. Roy replied. We know that you engage in homosexual activities, he told her. Not only will you not be working in communications, we are expelling you from the military. You have nine days to pack up and leave.

"I was way gone," Ms. Roy recalls 33 years later. "Frustration, resentment toward authority, everything. It took me 10 years to get out of that."

A young woman, dismissed in disgrace from the Canadian Forces simply because of who she was – it made her feel worthless. For years, she couldn't hold down a job or a relationship. Even today – with a career at IBM, a partner and a daughter who arrived last October – thinking about that day hurts.

"I still get that tremor in my voice," she says, and indeed her voice is trembling. "I'm always amazed that it still gets to me. But it was the humiliation. … I felt that it was my fault, that I was dirty, that I was a bad person."

Ms. Roy was one of thousands of government workers who were harassed, punished and often fired as part of a concerted effort by the federal government over four decades to purge the public service and military of homosexuals.

Many lost their jobs. Many more had their careers red-circled – denied advancement because their sexuality supposedly made them a security risk. Some quietly departed rather than face exposure and censure. Some committed suicide over it.

A recollection by Fiona (she is not further identified) is found on a website called the We Demand an Apology Network. It was created by a group of former public servants and members of the military who are calling for an apology from a federal government that harassed, persecuted and humiliated them simply because of the people they loved.

"He was traumatized. … They [Canadian military] made him believe that he was a pervert," Fiona recalls, "… that he could never be trusted with anything or anyone. … He said [in his note] that he'd ruined our mother's life, his life, everyone's life, and he could no longer live with that."

"I believe the government has a political, legal and moral obligation to redress and repair what was done to these victims," says Paul Richard, whose career as a Finance Department economist was derailed in the 1980s, he believes, because it became known that he was gay.

Mr. Richard spent 20 years fighting depression and thoughts of suicide before launching a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission that ultimately failed because too much time had passed.

Whether and how the federal government should apologize to public servants and military personnel who were fired or whose careers were sidelined because of their sexuality "is something we take very seriously," Cameron Ahmad, press secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, told The Globe and Mail. "The door is not closed to any option."

Mr. Trudeau has already promised to posthumously pardon Everett Klippert, who was labelled a dangerous sexual offender in the 1960s simply because he was gay. The government is also looking at whether and how other men who were convicted of gross indecency before homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969 might also be pardoned.

That review now also includes the question of historical discrimination based on sexuality in the public service and military, Mr. Ahmad said. "We are studying the issue," he said.

In the 1950s, with the Cold War rapidly escalating, bureaucrats and politicians in Ottawa feared that homosexuals, especially those in the foreign service and military, could be subject to blackmail by Soviet agents, and in any case were unreliable. In response, the government launched the first of a series of campaigns aimed at identifying and rooting out public servants and the members of the military who were homosexuals.

"Thousands of lesbians, gay men and those suspected of homosexuality were directly affected by these campaigns," Gary Kinsman, a sociologist at Laurentian University, and Patrizia Gentile, a historian at Carleton University, say in their book The Canadian War On Queers.

Through access-to-information requests, they were able to determine that by the late 1960s, officials had at one time or another opened 9,000 files on people who were suspected of being homosexual. What is not known is how many investigations led to demotions or dismissals, or what files were never unearthed or delivered.

"We only have fragments of this story," Prof. Gentile said in an interview, pointing out that many of the files they did examine were heavily redacted.

While the military conducted its own investigations within the armed forces, the RCMP was tasked with investigating suspected homosexuals in the public service. Both took enthusiastically to the task.

In 1960, the Mounties reported that there were 59 suspected homosexuals working at External Affairs, as the foreign service was then called, and 363 in the public service over all. Two years later, the number was up to 850.

Whether in military or civilian life, the pattern was similar: Suspected homosexuals were interrogated, asked in great and intrusive detail about their sex lives and urged to name others in exchange for lenient treatment. Officials would visit friends and co-workers of those under investigation to ask what they knew about the person's private activities. Officers would hang out near bars or cruising grounds known to be frequented by gays, looking for suspects.

In the military, Administrative Order 19-20 declared: "Service policy does not allow retention of sexual deviates in the Forces." In practice, how sensitive your position might be, and what your superior officer thought about such things, went a long way in determining whether you were dismissed or quietly tolerated as a homosexual.

As Prof. Kinsman and Prof. Gentile discovered in their research. some of the investigatory methods were simply ludicrous.

The "fruit machine," developed at Carleton University in the early 1960s, was supposed to be a sort of lie detector for homosexuality. Subjects sat in something resembling a dentist's chair, and then viewed pictures of naked men while a machine measured pupil dilation, pulse, perspiration and the like. Even by the standards of the day, the machine was notoriously unreliable. There is no evidence anyone lost their job because of it, although a group of students at Carleton University is looking for an apology from the university administration and some kind of memorial.

Reserve Lieutenant Brenda Barnes was one of the first women in the navy assigned to bridge watchkeeping for minor vessels. In her early 20s in the mid-1980s, she had a girlfriend and was coming out to family and friends. The navy offered her a secure income with decent pay during unsteady economic times.

But as far back as her first year in officer training, in 1984, co-workers had complained to their superiors about her sexuality, and she was brought in for questioning. "I talked my way out of it," Ms. Barnes recalls, adding that her superior officers protected her, even though the fact that she was a lesbian became an open secret.

But in 1989, with her security clearance about to be reviewed and renewed, Ms. Barnes retired from the navy, unwilling to subject family, friends and co-workers to the inevitable questioning. "I didn't want to put people through that. I didn't want to put myself through that. I didn't want people to lie for me," she says. Besides, she was tired of waiting every day for the special investigations unit to show up at her door.

"It became unbearable," she says. "It was time to go."

Today, Ms. Barnes lives in Whitehorse, where she serves as executive director of a non-profit organization that encourages young women to pursue careers in trades and technology.

The most famous example of persecution involved John Watkins, who was Canada's ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1956 and later assistant under-secretary of state for external affairs. In 1964, he was detained for questioning by the RCMP and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which accused him of being a homosexual and a Soviet spy. He died of a heart attack during the examination.

Persecution of gays in the public service and military diminished gradually. After 1969, homosexual acts between consenting adults were no longer criminal, lessening the potential for blackmail. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms advanced the cause of sexual equality (although the Supreme Court of Canada would not affirm Charter rights for sexual minorities until 1999, with M vs. H). Investigators reported that suspects became increasingly hostile in interrogations and unwilling to snitch on other homosexuals.

In the military, things came to a head in 1989, when Michelle Douglas was discharged from the Canadian Forces under what was known as an "administrative release," the typical means of ejecting a homosexual from the military, which stipulated that a member of the Forces could be dismissed for being "not advantageously employable due to homosexuality."

Ms. Douglas launched a lawsuit, which was settled in 1992 after the Canadian military abandoned its policy of discriminating against homosexuals.

The Globe and Mail asked the Department of National Defence and the Treasury Board to examine how many members of the military or public service might have been dismissed because of their sexuality. However, departmental officials said it was impossible to produce a number.

One alternative would be to offer a blanket apology from the government of Canada to all of those who suffered discrimination in their careers in the federal public service or military because of their sexuality. But such an apology could have legal and financial implications, which is why the government continues to study the file.

Prof. Gentile said the government should offer that apology. "It would put on the record that the government of Canada put forward policies that were discriminatory, No. 1, but, No. 2, had a direct, traumatic impact on people's lives," she said. "Governments in a democratic system are supposed to protect citizens, not to become a source of misery and trauma."

Ms. Roy believes that an apology would bring closure, for herself and for others. "It was horrible … but there were others so much more affected than me," she says. "They destroyed the lives of a lot of people."

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