Federal government apologizes to LGBTQ Canadians at last

By Justin Ling November 28, 201728 November 2017

Federal government apologizes to LGBTQ Canadians at last
Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash


Justin Trudeau made a formal apology in the House of Commons this afternoon, trying to make amends for decades of harassment and discrimination aimed at LGBTQ Canadians by the federal government.

That apology, and the symbolism behind it, is the bookend of a class action lawsuit launched by hundreds of veterans and former public servants who faced investigations, interrogations, and even firings due to anti-LGBTQ policies held by the federal government for most of the 20th century, right up until the 1990s.

As part of the apology, Trudeau has also tabled legislation to expunge the criminal records of those arrested and prosecuted under anti-gay laws.

What is the LGBTQ purge?

For decades, Ottawa tried to ferret out queer members of the public service. At times, that campaign was made possible by using a polygraph machine designed to identify LGBTQ individuals. In some cases, the Canadian government attempted to rid those public servants of their same-sex attractions.

The government argued that such a campaign was necessary to ensure that those in positions of power and those with access to confidential information could not be blackmailed by foreign governments. More generally, however, homophobia  was behind the campaign.

Scores of public servants were summarily fired and discharged from the military over this period, which didn’t formally end until Michelle Douglas, an out lesbian who had been discharged from the Canadian Armed Forces, filed suit against the Department of National Defence, reaching a settlement in 1992.

But many of the others impacted by the purge haven’t received similar compensation or vindication — until today.

Trudeau’s formal apology for those decades comes with a settlement for that class action, led by Cambridge LLP partner Doug Elliott, to the tune of some $100 million.

Bill C-66

The Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act (Bill C-66), tabled Tuesday, provides a process for those with criminal records arising from their sexual orientation to have their records scrubbed entirely.

The act applies to anyone convicted of gross indecency or buggery, before both charges were repealed from the Criminal Code in 1985, as well as anyone charged under Section 159, the anal intercourse provision that replaced buggery. Section 159 has been repeatedly declared unconstitutional by provincial courts and which is currently on track for repeal thanks to legislation introduced by the current Liberal government.

Section 159

Last November, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould pledged to repeal Section 159, calling it discriminatory and acknowledging that it has been found consistently unconstitutional.

The section of the Criminal Code forbade anal intourse, unless both parties were married, or unless both parties were consenting adults over the age of 21. That, in effect, set up a differential age of consent for gay men. Even still, the section of the code is still used with some consistency.

The Liberals first promised to repeal the section outright in November 2016, under bill C-39, legislation aimed at peeling back so-called “zombie laws,” which are outdated or have been declared unconstitutional. That legislation was introduced for first reading, and has since not budged.

A year later, in March 2017, the government moved to repeal the section again, by introducing C-32 — whose only function was to repeal Section 159. That, too, has not made it to second reading.

It’s not clear what is holding up passage of either bill. When ask,ed earlier this year, the Prime Minister’s Office refused to provide a timeline or clear explanation.

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