The power of an apology
For the Canadians who suffered during the government's efforts to purge the public service and military of homosexuals, the Liberals' planned apology is more than a symbolic gesture, John Ibbitson writes, it holds real meaning
Michelle Siu/for The Globe and Mail
This piece was originally published in August of 2016. On Sunday, Justin Trudeau revealed he would be issuing an apology to LGBTQ Canadians on Nov. 28.
In 1977, Diane Pitre had everything to look forward to. At only 19, the young supply technician had a good job in the military and a long career ahead. Until the day the military police arrived and asked her about her girlfriend.
"Interrogation several times a week, at night in undisclosed areas by men that made you feel like a nobody, and this for months," she recalled this week of what followed. Her expulsion from the service for being homosexual at the end of this misery made her feel worthless, ashamed.
Even now, almost 40 years later, "not one day goes by that I don't think of this." That's why Ms. Pitre joined an online group of people who were forced out of the military or public service because of their sexuality called We Demand an Apology. As early as this fall, she will get it.
Justin Trudeau's decision to apologize formally on behalf of all Canadians to those who were persecuted and prosecuted because of who they loved is a mostly symbolic gesture.
What matters in the here and now is the reforms that will accompany that apology: making the age of consent uniform, regardless of the type of sex people practice; clearing the records of those who were criminally convicted of gross indecency simply because they were gay; scrapping antiquated laws that still target sexual minorities, even if those laws are rarely enforced; providing training to police, lawyers, judges and border guards on issues surrounding sexual minorities; examining whether and how to compensate those who still suffer today because of opportunities lost through past injustice.
Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail
Combined, the reforms that the Liberal government plans to enact over the coming months and years are among the greatest advances for sexual minorities in this country's history, and place Canada at the forefront of countries addressing this issue.
Yet the apology is likely to be the most visible, and perhaps most contentious, act. After The Globe and Mail posted word of the government's intention to issue an apology, the Twittersphere, Facebook feeds and comment threads were virtually unanimous: Government cannot become a serial apologizer for every historical misdeed. Citizens today should not be held responsible for wrongs they did not themselves commit. Imposing today's more progressive values onto previous times is patronizing and distorts the flow of history.
These commentators "didn't have to live with this all their life," Martine Roy replies.
The Globe wrote in April about Ms. Roy's experience of being dismissed from the Canadian Forces as part of a series of stories about people who were convicted of gross indecency or fired from the military or public service simply because they were homosexual.
Most people have no idea, Ms. Roy said on Friday, what it is like "to get kicked out of a job that you really liked, that you worked hard for, because of your sexual orientation –and they go out of their way to make you feel bad about who you are and what you did – that affects your family and your friends and your self-esteem. I had to fight the rest of my life to keep that self-esteem."
Charla Jones/For the Globe and Mail
Either you know what it is like to be taken from your home and interned in a camp for years simply because the government fears you might be a traitor, or you do not. Brian Mulroney apologized for the Japanese internment in 1988.
Either you are living with the consequences of being separated from your family and community and sent to a distant school, where your race and heritage were belittled and you may have been physically or sexually abused, or you are not. Stephen Harper apologized for First Nation residential schools in 2008.
Either you can imagine what Todd Ross went through, or you cannot. At 19, strapped to a polygraph machine, sobbing, Mr. Ross came out to himself and his interrogator by admitting he was gay, after which he was discharged from the navy.
Now, Justin Trudeau will apologize for Ottawa's persecution of homosexuals.
After Mr. Ross was expelled from the military, he was so depressed he thought about suicide. "I didn't see a vision forward for myself," he recalled this week. "But I just kept pushing through."
Now 47, happily partnered, with a job as a consultant, he celebrates the apology to come.
"It feels that I can put a chapter of my life behind me, knowing that the government is taking this action."
Gary Kinsman, a professor emeritus at Laurentian University who has written about sexual-identity issues throughout his career, believes an apology would help to inform the present by shining a light on the past.
"What happened was very serious," he reminds us. From the end of the Second World War until the late 1980s, the policy of the government of Canada was to search for alleged homosexuals in the military and public service, interrogate them, get them to confess, get them to incriminate others and then fire them. (Although the offensive slackened in the general public service in the 1980s, the military abandoned the policy only in 1992.)
Thousands of people lost their jobs or lost any hope of real advancement in what was left of their career.
For men accused of having sex with other men, the sentence could involve years in jail. One man, Everett Klippert, was designated a dangerous sexual offender and sentenced to life in prison because he refused to stop having sex with men. That sentence, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1967, led the federal government under Pierre Trudeau to decriminalize homosexual acts between two consenting adults, even as persecution of homosexuals in government and military continued unabated.
Some lost their partners. Some became depressed, some developed addictions, some committed suicide.
"What's so important is that this isn't remembered by a lot of people," Prof. Kinsman points out. "… It has been covered over, erased. And yet it is a very important, and very bad, part of Canadian history. It has to be recognized. And one way to do that is through a formal government apology."
When a prime minister rises to apologize for the actions of past governments, he or she is saying not that we are better than that now, but that we should have been better than that then. That even then, voices were warning that this was wrong, but we ignored those voices and so people suffered. In that apology, we promise to listen to voices who warn us today of injustice: against women, against racial minorities, against sexual minorities.
Those voices remind us of the queer youth who still are at risk of suicide from bullying, of an estimated 40 per cent of street kids who are LGBT, of the risk of acquiring HIV that is still out there.
The most vexed question surrounding an apology to Canada's queer community for past wrongs involves the issue of compensation. Should we offer payments to those who spent a lifetime carrying around a criminal record, who could not cross the border or take certain jobs or join certain organizations because they were caught kissing another man?
What of the pensions to which those who were forced out of the military or public service would have been entitled?
Were some people so traumatized by being hounded out of their job that they have never fully recovered? If so, what do we owe them?
In fact, few, if any, who suffered discrimination because of their sexuality want money. Ron Rosenes received the Order of Canada in 2015 for his years of advocacy for people living with HIV/AIDS. But 35 years ago, he was one of almost 300 men who were charged with being found in a common bawdy house during the infamous 1981 bathhouse raids by Toronto police. The protest over those raids, for which Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders apologized earlier this year, galvanized the gay-rights movement in Canada.
Although he welcomes the forthcoming apology, Mr. Rosenes said he has no desire to be compensated for the trauma of being rousted from a bathhouse, charged and paraded before a judge as a young gay man.
"I'm not looking to get the $50 back that I was fined," he jokes, "though if they give it to me with interest, I might be interested." But "grievous wrongs should be righted." Making things right, for Mr. Rosenes, involves training for police, and programs in schools "to produce the shifts in cultural norms that we would all like to see."
But it is still hard for Ms. Pitre. Even hearing the national anthem can bring back humiliating memories. "It was a lifetime dream to serve my country," she explains.
But she believes the apology will help. Whatever it may mean to others, it will mean a great deal to her.
"I just want them to recognize that they were wrong, and to apologize for the wrong that was done."