William Thorsell is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and a former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail
Simply because he was a practising homosexual, George Everett Klippert was designated a dangerous sexual offender and sentenced to indefinite prison in the Northwest Territories in 1965. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld that sentence in 1967 – this morbid story well recounted by John Ibbitson in these pages on Saturday.
It was an interesting time to come of age in Canada: A new generation would reimagine itself and the country.
Year 1963: Teachers led our Grade 12 boys gym class down metal stairs to a basement furnace room of Strathcona Composite High School in Edmonton for a special presentation. Chairs were set out before a screen in the murky space, and a projector came to life.
The first film was about syphilis. It showed a girl and boy making out in a car behind steamy windows. Next we saw the boy with a rash and spots on his skin, and the word Syphilis! appeared big on the screen. The film ended with horrible shots of deformed madmen and women in a prison hospital, clawing at the walls.
The second was Reefer Madness, another fright movie, about the terrors of marijuana. We knew nothing about marijuana then, but predictions of impotence and a bulbous nose did not recommend it highly.
We boys emerged into the light with heightened fears of sex and drugs.
Homosexuality was never discussed in school, or anywhere else. The subject arose only via criminal cases like Everett Klippert, which hardened the fatwa on further references. The epithet "homo!" was sometimes hurled at someone acting strange. Period.
Contraception was illegal, as were abortions. Prostitutes were "sluts." Beer parlours were segregated by gender. The social atmosphere was judgmental and strict across the board. (We listened to sermons from the premier of Alberta, Ernest Manning, on the radio most Sunday mornings.)
To realize at 17, then, that you were gay presented a puzzle. To be gay was to be a social pariah, a "criminal sexual psychopath" under the Criminal Code, a cast-out from religion and "psychologically disordered" in medical parlance. Goodness.
While Everett Klippert went to jail for being gay, most of the rest of us went to ground, not knowing whether other gay people existed much at all. If we were to function in society, secrecy, hypocrisy and self-discipline would be necessary: No intimacy, no emotional attachments, no play. This led in my case to reams of poetry, fervent commitments to self-control in a diary, and a capacity to be hardhearted with girls – and boys. It was like living in solitary confinement in full public view.
How remarkable was it then that justice minister Pierre Trudeau announced in 1967 that homosexual acts between consenting adults would be legal – removed from the Criminal Code. It seemed a direct response to the Klippert case, and was revolutionary – also not. Social sanctions remained powerful in confining that life until the Stonewall riots in 1969, and the bursting dam of the 1970s.
Mr. Trudeau's legislation also allowed for the sale of contraceptives, and eased the criminal regulation of abortion. Something stands out about that: Mr. Trudeau went beyond public opinion in liberalizing laws concerning sexuality. Parliament decided through the political process to take the lead. It has hardly happened since.
It was the Supreme Court of Canada that overturned the criminal abortion law in 1988. The Mulroney government tried to restore it, but its bill failed in the Senate and abortion reverted to individuals and the medical system's purview.
It was the courts of eight provinces and one territory that struck down prohibitions on gay marriage between 2003 and 2005, forcing Parliament to ratify it in the Civil Marriage Act of 2005 (bottom-up court action).
It was the Supreme Court of Canada that struck down our Gothic prostitution laws in 2013, provoking the Harper government to seek another route to criminalization, whose legal status is not yet clear.
It was the Supreme Court of Canada that unanimously struck down criminal laws against assisted suicide in 2015 – not the politicians now tasked to regulate it, unless they defer to the medical fraternity again, as they did with abortion.
While politicians decriminalized homosexuality on their own initiative in 1969, the courts have taken the lead on major social files since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms prevailed on them to do so after 1982.
And here is a stunning point of continuity: Pierre Trudeau was responsible for the 1969 legislation, and also for the Charter that would force the hands of much less forgiving politicians 20 and 40 years later. Pierre Trudeau is potent, still, on the evolution of social norms and policy in Canada, if not from the mortal front bench in Parliament, from the eternal legal bench down the street.
So it is notable that his son has reverted to political means to address another vexing issue: marijuana.
Some of us were wary of life in prison for being gay in the 1960s, and many more feared seven years in jail then for possession of small amounts of marijuana. So we wedged wet towels against the bottoms of doors and windows to prevent the weed scent from escaping to nosy police during our weekend house parties in Edmonton.
Justin Trudeau is not waiting for courts to force his hand on marijuana. The Prime Minister took the initiative on this file, and is planning to pardon Everett Klippert posthumously for being un-dangerously the man he was – and is. It is very much in the spirit of his father.
Sex and death are looking up in Canada since that high-school basement in 1963, and reefer madness has now earned its name. Rational life feels better.