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Justin Trudeau offers 'long overdue apology' to Canada's LGBTQ community

The Canadian Prime Minister offered a broad apology for the country's past "state-sponsored, systemic oppression and rejection" of LGBTQ people.
Image: Canada's PM Trudeau wipes away tears while delivering an apology to members of the LGBT community on Parliament Hill in Ottawa
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wipes away tears while delivering an apology to members of the LGBTQ community who were discriminated against by federal legislation and policies. The apology was delivered in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on November 28, 2017.Chris Wattie / Reuters

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday offered an apology in the House of Commons to members of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit community (LGBTQ2).

“Today, we offer a long overdue apology to all those whom we, the Government of Canada, wronged. We are sorry. We hope by acknowledging our failings we can make the crucial progress LGBTQ2 people in Canada deserve. We will continue to support each other in our fight for equality because we know that Canada gets stronger every single day that we choose to embrace diversity,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau’s broad apology for “state-sponsored, systemic oppression and rejection” included acknowledgement of the suppression of “two-spirit Indigenous values and beliefs” and “abusing the power of the law, and making criminals of citizens.”

At the same time, the government introduced legislation to expunge the criminal records of those convicted of having consensual same-sex activity. Canada decriminalized homosexuality in 1969, yet records of the convictions remain. The bill earmarks 4 million Canadian dollars ($3.11 million) over the next two fiscal years to carry out the destruction of these criminal records.

Trudeau also announced an agreement had been reached in a class-action lawsuit for 110 million Canadian dollars ($85.80 million) to be paid out to former civil servants and members of the military who lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation. A ban on lesbian and gay military service persisted until 1992.

A national security "purge"

Martine Roy was 19 and serving as a medical assistant in the army when she was first interrogated by the Canadian Armed Forces.

“I was asked very personal questions like, “Who did you sleep with?” and “How often do you have sex?” I felt exhausted, scared and humiliated. At that moment I lost all sense of my self-worth and self-respect. I left the interrogation with an uncertainty and fear that I had never experienced before,” Roy wrote in a testimonial.

Eighteen months after being interrogated, she was discharged because of her sexuality. “It has really, really affected me more than I thought,” Roy told NBC News. “For a long time I stopped myself from … embracing who I was.”

Lynne Gouliquer, a sociologist at Laurentian University in Ontario, explained that Roy’s experience was not unique. Thousands of members of the military and civil service were fired from their government jobs from the 1950s to 1990s as part of a “purge” associated with Cold War anxiety.

“These people not only lost their jobs, they were interrogated, like spy movies, humiliated. They were criminalized and thrown out the back door,” Gouliquer explained.

Gouliquer, whose research concerns sexuality and gender in the military, said these individuals were “hounded and interrogated to divulge their partners and their friends names."

"It was horrible," she added.

Gouliquer and Roy are part of the We Demand an Apology Network — a group of Canadian activists, academics and individuals affected by government-sponsored homophobia. Formed in 2015, the group helped put pressure on the government to take action on this issue.

“We want the Canadian public to know what happened,” Gouliquer said. “Canada is not perfect. There were horrible things done in the past, we need to keep that in our consciousness. We know there is still discrimination at may levels.”

"A long time coming"

The text of the apology was crafted by an advisory committee composed of representatives from the Canadian government and LGBTQ advocacy organizations, including Egale Canada Human Rights Trust Executive Director Helen Kennedy, who said the apology has "been a long time coming."

Kennedy said Tuesday's apology was an important “acknowledgement of LGBTQ2 identities and LGBTQ2 lives,” but, she added, “there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of the systemic changes.”

“We have huge amounts of work still do here in Canada. We have very high rates of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness, housing is a big issue, unemployment, access to health care … We have a blood ban in effect for men who have sex with men," she explained.

Like Gouliquer and Roy, Kennedy sees the apology as a beginning, rather than an end, to the issue of state-sponsored oppression of LGBTQ people in Canada.

“The apology is the first step in healing,” Kennedy said.