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Michelle Douglas, in Ottawa on Oct. 23, 2017, was discharged from the Canadian Forces in 1989 ‘due to homosexuality.’

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

The order to Michelle Douglas from her superior officer came as a surprise. There is a case we have to investigate in Ottawa, he told her. We're leaving right now.

But as they approached Toronto Pearson International Airport, the car turned into a hotel parking lot. "I knew immediately what was going to happen," Ms. Douglas remembers. She wouldn't be interrogating anyone. Instead, she herself was about to be interrogated.

Ms. Douglas was discharged from the Canadian Forces in 1989 for being "not advantageously employable due to homosexuality."

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But she fought her dismissal, taking the military to court. Twenty-five years ago this week, the Federal Court of Canada ordered the Canadian Forces to cease its discrimination. "It was a turning point," says lawyer Clayton Ruby, who argued the case on her behalf. "And we suspected at the time that it was going to be a turning point."

Later this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will offer an apology on behalf of all Canadians for past discrimination against public servants and members of the military because of whom they loved.

On that day, says LGBT-rights advocate and former MP Svend Robinson, "I hope they have Michelle Douglas sitting front and centre."

Ms. Douglas was raised in Ontario and Nova Scotia, the daughter of a senior public servant at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. At university, she prepared for a career in the military or RCMP, and upon graduation applied to both. "The military called me first."

Top-of-her-class smart, after about two years of service as an air force lieutenant, she was invited to join the special-investigations unit.

It was a plum assignment tailored to her interest in law enforcement. She would be one of the first women appointed to the unit as an officer.

But there was a problem. The unit investigated allegations of homosexuality among Canadian Forces personnel.

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And Ms. Douglas had fallen in love with a woman.

Young and ambitious, she took the assignment anyway, keeping her head down and her private life private. But someone must have said something, because mere weeks after joining the unit, everything came crashing down.

At the hotel, she was interrogated for two days. She denied being homosexual, wouldn't speculate on whether so-and-so might be, and refused to take a polygraph. She worked hard to project a sense of confidence and calm, but inside she was a wreck, and the relentless hostility in the office after the interrogation only made things worse.

Finally, she agreed to the polygraph. But just as it was about to begin, she confessed: "You win. I am gay. What do we do now?"

Not long after that she was discharged, and not long after that she listened to Mr. Robinson, then an NDP MP, give a talk at Ryerson University about the struggle for gay rights.

She approached him afterward and told him her story. As it happens, he was searching for someone who had been discharged because of their sexuality and who would would be willing to take the military to court.

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"I was looking for someone really special, someone who was an outstanding soldier," he recalls. "The person who would take on the military had to be exceptional."

As soon as he met Ms. Douglas, "I knew immediately this was a special woman." He took her to see Mr. Ruby.

At first, Ms. Douglas was reluctant as she discussed the case with Mr. Ruby. "She was afraid," he remembers. "She'd never done this kind of stuff."

Eventually there came a moment when he declared: "Okay, Michelle. Do you want to pursue this, or do you want to let it go?"

"When I said 'yes,' I surprised myself," she recalls.

The military fought her for three years and there were setbacks along the way.

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But on Oct. 27, 1992, the military settled: Ms. Douglas was awarded $100,000 and the Federal Court of Canada ruled that men and women could no longer be barred from the military because they were homosexual.

"It was huge," Mr. Robinson recalls – a landmark legal ruling that would lead to equal benefits for same-sex couples in 1999, same-sex marriage in 2005, and today's relatively open and inclusive society.

For Ms. Douglas, life has been good.

Her family was completely supportive when she came out. She has spent almost three decades doing rewarding work in the public service, while also becoming an advocate for LGBT rights. She and her partner have been together almost 10 years.

But there are scars.

"I am still very cautious. I worry that I could be subject to dismissal at any time," she confesses.

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"Of course it's absurd. But there is still a degree of insecurity."

And there is indignation, verging on anger.

"I should have had a distinguished career path in the military," she said. "Instead, on bald discrimination, this was the basis for my dismissal. It's just shocking."

She looks forward to hearing the Prime Minister offer an apology to her and others like her who were wronged in the past.

"I think the government has a duty in reflection to acknowledge past wrongs," she believes. "That is important. It's part of the Canadian values fabric to do so.

"We're better as a country when we acknowledge the past."

John Ibbitson outlines the three issues he thinks will dominate the fall session of parliament, including the contentious topic of cannabis legalization.
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