Trudeau talks of Canada's shame in decades-long 'gay purge'

Nov 30, 2017

This week on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized. He spoke of the "shame" Canada brought on itself by persecuting gays and lesbians and members of the LGBTQ community. That official policy of harassment and bigotry came to be known as the "gay purge."

"These aren't just in practices of governments long forgotten," Trudeau said. "These happened systematically in Canada with a timeline more recent than any of us would like to admit."

A historic moment in Ottawa, this puts Canada right in the forefront of thinking about how to come to terms with homophobia and years of LGBTQ persecution.

This persecution was harrowing. People lost their careers, their lives were destroyed and this was official policy in Canada right through 1992.

"Those arrested and charged were purposefully and vindictively shamed," Trudeau said. "Their names appeared in newspapers in order to humiliate them and their families."

Justin Trudeau's full remarks before the House of Commons

After Trudeau's formal apology, there was a big, long, bipartisan standing ovation. Martine Roy, a former Army medical worker who was investigated and purged from the military with a dishonorable discharge in 1984, said the purge ruined her life, but this moment of reconciliation was huge for her.

"Some very good apologies, I have to say," Roy said. "They were really from the heart and they were not political, partisan or anything; everybody did get their apology. But we have to give to Justin - which is so good - we felt them; it was long due."

Canada parts ways with U.S. policy

Policy-wise, this brought up U.S. President Donald Trump's effort to re-impose a ban on transgender men and women in the military.

People in Canada are incredibly aware right now of the policy directions being taken in the United States on everything from immigration to healthcare to things like gay and lesbian and transgender rights. Roy talked about this outside Parliament.

"To be told after - when you're there to protect your country - you're no good for your sexual orientation or your identity - gender identity - is insane," she said. "Do I ask Donald Trump who he sleeps with and how he does it and why he does it? I don't. So why is the reverse allowed?"

Earlier in the states, there was a fear during the Cold War that closeted gays and lesbians might be more susceptible to manipulation by the Soviet Union. There is no evidence that anything like that happened, but it led to efforts to oust people, who were serving honorably, from public service.

Apologies that go beyond the LGBTQ community

Canada will offer compensation to Roy and others who were persecuted. The government is also going to step up anti-homophobia campaigns. However, this is not the only apology Trudeau has issued in recent weeks.

This has been an interesting cultural moment for Canada. A relatively new Prime Minister, Trudeau also apologized for Canada's treatment of indigenous and first nations native peoples, in particular the policy – and this again was a policy echoed in the United States - of essentially kidnapping native children.

They were taken from their families, forced into boarding schools. There was an aggressive effort to strip these children of their cultural identity and their religious faith. There was also a shocking pattern in U.S. and Canadian boarding schools of physical and sexual abuse. This continued into the late 1970s.

One thing that is fascinating about this is that these apologies are not sparking a conservative backlash in Canada. Remember in the states, whenever President Barack Obama spoke even in broad terms about past wrongs done, it regularly sparked an uproar among conservatives and Republican leaders. That has not happened in Canada.

Canada's Conservative Party has embraced these moments of reconciliation and the Conservatives even issued their own apology to the LGBTQ community. Taken altogether, this is a very different conversation in Trudeau's Canada when compared with Trump's United States.