Some victims of the federal government’s gay purge were so devastated by the experience that even decades later they needed the help of a therapist to fill out forms to receive financial compensation, says the lawyer who led a successful class action.
Several claimants were still so mistrustful of the government after being investigated or fired for their sexual orientation that they worried the compensation process was an elaborate ruse to elicit information that would be used to punish them again, said Doug Elliott, who had to coax eligible people to sign on.
A total of 718 people — fewer than Elliott had anticipated — filed the necessary paperwork for compensation by last month’s deadline under a historic settlement that was finalized in 2018.
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It includes at least $50 million and up to $110 million in overall compensation, with eligible people each expected to receive between $5,000 and $175,000, depending on the gravity of their cases. Some have already received their cheques.
The settlement was a cornerstone of a sweeping federal apology delivered in November 2017 for decades of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.
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Under policies that took root in the 1950s and continued into the early ’90s, federal agencies investigated, sanctioned and sometimes fired lesbian and gay members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP and the public service because they were deemed unsuitable.
Many who kept their jobs were demoted or overlooked for promotions or had security clearances rescinded.
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The campaign was driven by the notion that the “character weakness” of homosexual employees would make them susceptible to blackmail in the tense climate of the Cold War.
“This thinking was prejudiced and flawed. And sadly, what resulted was nothing short of a witch-hunt,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in the apology in the House of Commons on behalf of the government.
When a judge approved the settlement in June 2018, Lt.-Col. Catherine Potts felt vindicated after the years of persecution she endured. “It’s truly a human-rights victory for all of us.”
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The 718 claimants include 628 people who served in the Armed Forces, 78 public servants and 12 RCMP officers.
The group is disproportionately female, reflecting the fact considerable numbers of men died from AIDS and that men generally tend not to live as long as women do. The oldest claimant, who was kicked out of the Air Force in the early 1960s, is now 92.
Elliott had anticipated between 750 and 1,000 people would step forward.
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However, some eligible candidates, including older people who were not active in the gay community, had not heard about the case.
But there was a bigger obstacle.
“The main problem was that people who were aware of the settlement were having tremendous psychological difficulties filing their claims,” Elliott said in an interview.
“We had to go to some extraordinary effort to encourage people to file and to support them through the filing process. Some people had to sit down with their therapists and complete the form in therapy sessions…That was a reasonably common experience for our claimants.”
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Many were wary of the entire process.
“It’s hard to overstate the level of paranoia. A lot of people felt that it was all a trick and a trap, and they were going to lay bare their souls to the government, and the government was going to refuse to pay them and was going to use the information against them somehow,” Elliott said.
“These people are very damaged by their experience, and very mistrustful. Even the very well-adjusted ones live in a state of barely contained anxiety that something terrible is about to happen to them, particularly in the employment context. A lot of them fear that they’re going to show up at work, and they’re going to be suddenly fired.”
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Many lost their jobs at young ages and had not come out to family about their sexuality, making it very difficult to explain what had happened to them.
Most of those purged did manage to get back on their feet eventually, Elliott said. But many went through prolonged periods of unemployment and suffered mental-health problems, addiction or homelessness.
One former Mountie burned his red serge.
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Some never recovered from being shunned by the country they’d once taken pride in serving, Elliott said. “They’ve gone from one precarious job to another or simply been unable to work at all, because they were so shattered by the experience that they basically became unemployable.”
The settlement includes millions of dollars for reconciliation and remembrance measures, including a national monument to be built in Ottawa, a Canadian Museum for Human Rights exhibition in Winnipeg and declassification of archival records documenting the dark chapter.
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Social gatherings are also being organized so purge survivors can meet directors of the commemoration fund. At a recent event in Vancouver, Elliott thanked those present for their service to the country. A woman came up to him afterwards in tears.
“She said that that was the first time anyone had said that to her,” he recalled.
“I cannot tell you the number of class members who have said, ‘I can’t believe someone’s finally listening to me.’ ”