Righting historical wrongs

September 18, 2019
718 former military, public service, and RCMP employees have applied for compensation for the LGBT purge.
Photo: Mitchel Raphae

Key Points:

It was an ordinary Monday morning in June 1985 when Staff Sgt. Wayne Davis was called into the office of his commanding officer at the Ontario headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Toronto. 

“I was simply called into the admin and they said, ‘You were seen in a gay bar on the weekend. Why were you there?’ And I guess I was just tired of it all, tired of being in the closet, tired of watching my back all the time. I just had no energy for it. So I said yes, I was in a gay bar because I’m gay. And they said, ‘Oh, well, the policy is we don’t have gay members in the RCMP, therefore, you can resign or be fired.’ Period.”

At the time, Davis says, he chose to resign to maintain his dignity. He left the office and his 17-year career with the RCMP that afternoon. Unlike many other members of the public service and military who lost their jobs from the 1960s to 1990s, due to their sexuality, or perceived sexuality, Davis says he probably wasn’t being followed or investigated but rather got caught up when fellow RCMP officers doing a standard drug sweep in Toronto bars on the weekend saw and recognized him.

“I’ve always liked to believe that it was just water cooler talk that just floated to the top and then once it got to the top there’s nothing they could do about it. I hate to think that it was one of those guys that I knew coming into the office on Monday morning and running upstairs to tell the commanding officer that they’d seen me in a gay bar and they better be getting rid of me. So I like to believe that story, that’s part of your coping.”

Davis admits his story is clear cut. He was in, then he was out. But hundreds, even thousands, of other members of the Canadian military, the RCMP, and the federal public service were not so lucky when they got caught up in what has become known as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) purge. 

The Purge

Until the early 1990s, few Canadians had any inkling their government was systematically discriminating against homosexuals, who were defined by the government’s security apparatus as suffering from a “character weakness” that could open them to blackmail “enemy” agents. A 1992 article by Canadian Press reporter Dean Beeby, based on the release of explosive government documents, showed the RCMP had, in 1959, “launched a massive hunt for male homosexuals” in Ottawa. The “hunt” forced many government employees into living a double life for fear of being sanctioned, fired, transferred, or denied opportunities. They, and often their families, were surveilled and questioned by the RCMP in efforts to get names of other suspected homosexuals.

Until well into the 1990s, young men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces suspected of being homosexual were harassed, investigated, and often dragged off in the middle of the night, hooked up to lie detector machines, and interrogated for days in shadowy locations by members of the Military Police’s Special Investigations Unit. As a result of these invasive and traumatic interrogations, many of them — under Canadian Forces Administrative Order (CFAO) 19-20 – Homosexuality – Sexual Abnormality investigation, Medical Examination and Disposal — were kicked out of the forces. Their careers, and lives, were ruined before they’d barely begun.

For decades, a few brave individuals tried on their own to get redress, apologies, or answers from the government and the military, but to no avail.

The first to openly challenge her expulsion from the forces for being a lesbian was Barbara Thornborrow. In May 1977, she’d been investigated by the SIU and was given an ultimatum to admit she was gay and be released or agree to see a psychiatrist. She refused and went public with her story, including showing up on Parliament Hill during hearings on the Human Rights Act. Shortly after that, Thornborrow was let go as “not advantageously employable,” the notation used frequently on official military discharge papers in these cases. A group of lesbians in the navy in Newfoundland was also purged that year. Despite the publicity of these events, nothing changed.

Martine Roy was subjected to multiple humiliating and degrading SIU interrogations and strung along for years until one day in December 1984, she was called in to the office at Canadian Forces Base Borden, where she was training to be a medical assistant, and told she had nine days to pack up her stuff and get out. She was a sexual deviant and was being discharged for homosexuality, she was told. Roy returned home to Quebec, broken. For years, she struggled with drug addiction, underwent intensive therapy, had difficulty maintaining relationships, and lived with the constant fear and anxiety of rejection for being her real self.

Todd Ross joined the Canadian navy in December 1987, when he was 18, and served aboard HMCS Saskatchewan as a Naval Combat Information Operator. Beginning in January 1989, he too found himself being surveilled by the SIU. After an 18-month investigation, sobbing and hooked up to a polygraph machine, still somewhat in denial of his own sexuality, Ross admitted he was gay. Only 21 and feeling he had no options, Ross agreed to leave the navy and was discharged on June 20, 1990. Traumatized, ashamed, and alone, Ross tried to take his own life.

The national security campaign against LGBT members of the civil service waned by the mid 1980s but the injustices that ended so many careers continued in the military for another decade. Transformation of the military’s policies eventually came in the form of Michelle Douglas, a promising young air force lieutenant and only the second woman to join the Military Police unit that ironically conducted the purge investigations. Suspected of being homosexual, Douglas, like others, was taken to a non-military location for interrogation by two SIU officers. In 1989, after days of intensive questions and polygraph tests, she admitted she was a lesbian, was stripped of her security clearance, and forced to leave the military for, again, being “not advantageously employable.” With the help of then MP Svend Robinson and lawyer Clayton Ruby, she sued the military for violating her Charter rights. On the eve of her trial in Federal Court, the government settled with Douglas for $100,000. Faced with the lawsuit, the military finally revoked CFAO 19-20, its policy banning homosexuals, in 1992. Several similar suits were quietly settled the following year. The government never apologized to them or offered any kind of restitution.

While by 1992, gays and lesbians were no longer banned from serving (a few years earlier changes were made so LGBT soldiers could not be forced out but also would not be eligible for training or promotions if they stayed), it would still be years before they would feel comfortable being open about their sexuality.

After essentially being kicked out of the RCMP for being gay, Davis went on to a long career in the federal public service. The people who first hired him in government knew he was gay but officially the public service had no policy prohibiting the employment of gays and lesbians. In his 35 years working for the government, Davis says he was never harassed. “Perhaps it’s because I was never a field worker. I was probably isolated from it by being the boss most of the time.… I was mostly in a position of control, I controlled your human resources, or I controlled your finances.”

Others weren’t so lucky and say perceptions around their sexual orientation held them back. Former Department of Justice lawyer Mark Berlin says while he had “some great jobs, in my mind … I still believed for many years, and indeed to this day, that there were certain opportunities and positions that were not provided to me simply because I was gay.”

A former officer with Canada Border Services Agency in the Maritimes — who prefers not to have her name used — suffered bullying, abuse, and sexual harassment from her colleagues and bosses for more than 30 years. In early 2016, she was diagnosed with PTSD and her doctor advised her not to return to work. Realizing she could leave with a partial pension and not wanting to deal with the toxic environment any longer, she decided, “I’m done. I’m going to retire and move on with my life. And that’s what I’m trying to do.” She says she stayed in the job so long because there were so few positions in the area that paid well and she needed the money to help look after her elderly parents. She was never “out” but that didn’t stop the abuse and the perceptions of her that she feels kept her from advancing in her career.

The Class Action

Individuals and various groups tried for decades to get redress, explanations, and apologies for the way they were treated. Despite many hurdles and complications, a class action lawsuit against the government of Canada was eventually launched in March 2017 with Martine Roy, Todd Ross, and Alida Satalic, all former members of the Canadian Armed Forces, as the representative plaintiffs. Lawyers involved in the negotiations noted that the Trudeau government was already looking to right historical wrongs, including amending the Criminal Code and expunging old convictions. In addition, the feds had set up a new LGBTQ2 Secretariat within the Privy Council Office and MP Randy Boissonnault was appointed as a special adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the full spectrum of LGBTQ2 issues, all in parallel with work on a formal apology for the state’s historical discrimination. As such, the class action was settled relatively quickly with positive outcomes for class members and the government. The Federal Court approved the final settlement in June 2018.


The $145-million settlement is the largest for redress of historical harms to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community in the world. The unique, multi-faceted settlement had the potential to affect thousands of public servants, and members of the CAF and RCMP who were discriminated against, persecuted, or fired between 1955 and 1996 due to their real or perceived sexual orientation. The window for making claims closed in April 2019 with the final number of claimants at 718. The vast majority are from the CAF, with 78 affected civil servants, and just 12 Mounties. The numbers, Davis says, seem low to him as early estimates were that the purge likely touched about 9,000 people. “But a lot of people died of AIDS, a lot of people went back in the closet and don’t follow these things. I’m not saying we’re disappointed, but the numbers do seem low for 40 years of discrimination,” he says. Compensation for most class members will be between $5,000 and $50,000 and in the most egregious cases can be as high as $125,000.

Cut-and-dried cases like Davis’s have mostly been paid out but the more complicated claims that included sexual or physical assault as well as psychological harm are still being adjudicated by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie DesChamps. “I do not have precise figures, but a very high percentage claimed at level 3, meaning they were dismissed or forced to resign,” says class counsel Douglas Elliott. “A high percentage have advanced claims at level 4, which involves sexual or other assault, or serious mental distress.”


The night before the Nov. 28, 2017, apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the plaintiffs’ lawyers held a reception for class members at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa. “That was a very poignant event,” lawyer Douglas Elliott recalls. “Most of these people had never met each other before. [Retired colonel Michel] Drapeau, who is helping us, observed to me: ‘I’ve never seen so many broken people,’ and observed to my friend Todd Ross, that it felt like a room full of ghosts because it was mostly women … and the AIDS epidemic was visible because, of course, during those years, most of the government employees were men. And yet we had mostly women that were in that room.”

“For the oppression of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirit communities, we apologize. On behalf of the government, Parliament, and the people of Canada: We were wrong. We are sorry. And we will never let this happen again.”

— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, House of Commons, Ottawa, Nov. 28, 2017 [full text of the apology]

“[It was] probably the most moving experience of my life …  I didn't get apologies. I'm very much ‘Well, what's done by the injustice, that apology is really meaningful.… It’s certainly changed my opinion of why we need to be apologizing for things that have been done injustly in the past.”

— Wayne Davis, Former RCMP officer

“[The] only two places I've really felt accepted for who I am in my life that I didn't have to pretend was at [my new] church and when I was at the House of Commons. I felt like everybody, we were all equal. Never felt that way before.” 

— Former officer of Canada Border Services Agency

“By of my life. You know when you work so hard, and then something, everything, it’s going to happen, and it happens.… It was a moment that I am never going to forget, hat I’m very very proud of. And I’m very very happy that it was delivered by Justin Trudeau and not by Harper or anyone else. It really helped me to heal and take away that shame that was still in my pocket … that feeling of [being an] imposter I’ve been through all my life.”

— Martine Roy, LGBTQ2 activist

Former member of the Canadian Armed Forces


Beyond Monetary Compensation

From the start, class members needed recognition of the injustice they suffered. Non-monetary components such as individual apologies, including to the families of purge victims who had passed away, amendments to employment records to reflect unjust dismissals, as well as education and memorialization were integral. “We want the lessons to be learned, not to forget,” says Roy. Senior brass in the military, RCMP, and the Privy Council sent apology letters to members of the class. Those in the military and RCMP will also receive the Pride Citation, an honour to reflect their service to Canada.

The education and memorialization aspect is key and as such the non-profit LGBT Purge Fund was created to oversee the $15-million portion of the class action settlement that will cover the building of a monument in the National Capital Region; creation of an exhibition on the stories of class members for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights; making non-personal, historical records of the purge publicly available; and diversity training for federal employees.

The fund has six dedicated volunteer directors including Davis, Douglas, Roy, Ross, Elliott (the only non-class member) and Diane Pitre, another former member of the CAF who fought long and hard for answers and redress. All of them have gone on to do great work in their communities and in support of LGBTQ rights.

The projects have a timeline of only a few years to implement, says Douglas, who is just about to retire from a long and successful career with the Department of Justice. She notes, “given that literally at this moment, we have no paid staff. These are enormous projects to implement. For now we are building our capacity.” Douglas reiterates that the fund’s projects are “part of justice being done” and that their focus is on “the way we can use to the best effect the money that we have to memorialize and to do big legacy projects that will stand for time and remind people of this time period in Canadian history.”

Some smaller work has already begun and it’s also proving to be personally enriching for board members. Davis recently attended an international LGBTQ policing conference with officers from 40 police forces in 20 countries. It was “basically my first contact with RCMP and police organizations since I left 30 years ago. It was very healing because I was able to think ‘what am I feeling here? Am I angry? Am I upset?’ Then I realized I was feeling nostalgic because I used to be a cop.… That was very healing for me to know that there was not a lot of anger and bitterness.” He is also working with the RCMP to provide input on its diversity training related to LGBTQ members. “It’s been a positive experience for me from a personal perspective,” he says.

In his November 2017 apology in the House of Commons, the prime minister promised to address laws that had unfairly affected the LGBTQ community. Introducing a law for expunging historically unjust convictions and providing for destruction of those records was one aspect. The other was repealing laws, such as the “buggery law,” s. 159 of the Criminal Code.

Bill C-66, which created the expungement procedure, became law in June 2018, but is considered “terribly flawed” by many in the queer community. The former sodomy and gross indecency provisions were included but others such as the bawdy house law — often used to target users of bathhouses — were not, says Tom Hooper, who teaches in the law and society program at York University. “That’s the first problem. They didn’t include the offences for which LGBTQ people were accused and convicted. But the other problem is, the application process was made so difficult, that I’m assuming that many people don’t see it as worthwhile to apply for the expungement.” In the year after the law passed, the Parole Board of Canada got only 17 expungement applications, six of which were ordered, a Parole Board spokeswoman told Sage. Hooper says the RCMP had suggested in parliamentary hearings up to 9,000 people could be affected.

The third problem is a legal, but critical, technicality. “The bill only includes people who received a conviction, and then were sentenced as a result of that conviction,” says Hooper. “And what we see in the queer community and our criminalization … is that most of the time, people who were before the courts, they were given a conviction, and then some sort of discharge in the sentence.”

Early efforts at repealing portions of the Criminal Code that unduly targeted the LGBTQ community failed but an omnibus bill, Bill C-75, which received Royal Assent just this past June, has been well received. Initially it did not include all the sections that were used against the LGBTQ community but “as a result of our interventions, the Justice committee agreed to include the repeal of the bawdy house law and the vagrancy” provisions, says Hooper, adding support for repealing the provisions was unanimous among the political parties. “So this was a significant victory for our community, I think having these old laws repealed. And this also paves the way for them to be added to the expungement bill.” 


This article appeared in the fall 2019 issue of our in-house magazine, Sage. Please download the full issue and peruse our back issues!