A former navy lieutenant who was forced out of the Canadian Forces because he is gay says he’s happy the federal Liberal government will soon fulfil a campaign promise for an official apology.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Sunday that he would formally apologize on Nov. 28.
“I’m very relieved. We’ve been waiting for it for two years. And in fact it surprised a lot of us it took this long,” said Frank Létourneau, a former navy lieutenant in Halifax.
Rule on the books until 1995
Létourneau resigned his navy commission in 1970 after military police presented him a dossier of evidence indicating he was living a secret life as a gay man.
At the time, it was forbidden for gay men and lesbians to serve in the Canadian Forces, a policy that remained on the books until 1995.
Létourneau was honourably discharged, and quickly found work in economic development with a Nova Scotia Crown corporation.
“Other than seeing ships come and go from my office window, which gave me a certain sense of melancholy, I got on with a new life, and made new friends and lived a much more relaxed life than I had before,” he said.
But many other Canadian Forces members suffered graver consequences, according to a Halifax lawyer who launched a class-action lawsuit on behalf of military members who served in Atlantic Canada who were investigated, harassed and purged from the military between 1969 and 1995.
“I can’t tell you details of particular claims, but I’ve had female members tell me that they were sexually assaulted by male members, and rather than report it they actually allowed it to happen and allowed people to talk about it because it provided them with protective coloration,” said John McKiggan of the firm McKiggan Hebert in Halifax.
“Other members told me about being hooked up to a polygraph test and then asked horribly intrusive questions about their sexual habits,” he said.
McKiggan said military members suffered economic losses as well as psychological consequences such as PTSD.
The class action McKiggan launched has since been combined with others from across Canada.
The unified claim now captures all military, RCMP members and federal civil servants from 1969 to the present day.
The year 1969 is legally significant because it was the year homosexuality was legalized in Canada.
Apology and acknowledgment
Létourneau hopes the federal apology includes an acknowledgment that federal officials were breaking the law by harassing LGBT people after that date.
“The law of the land had changed. Homosexuality had been removed from the Criminal Code. But yet, people were still being persecuted and dismissed for their sexual orientation,” Létourneau said.
The apology announcement comes as McKiggan and other lawyers continue to negotiate financial compensation for LGBT survivors of Canadian federal government discrimination.
McKiggan said a court date has been set in February 2019 to certify the class-action lawsuit.
“I think it’s fair to say that we are hopeful that this matter can be resolved without the need for litigation,” he said. “The struggle we’ve been having is coming to an agreement on what’s an appropriate measure of compensation.”
McKiggan won’t reveal what financial demands survivors are making, but he says the scope of the lawsuit is immense.
Tens of thousands of potential claimants
McKiggan said roughly a million served in the military, RCMP and federal civil service during the claim period. He says current social science estimates a pool of 30,000 to 50,000 potential claimants.
McKiggan notes that a recent class-action lawsuit involving 3,000 female RCMP members who were subjected to sexual harassment at work was settled for a maximum $ 100 million.
“It seems unlikely that we’re going to be here to resolve this claim for less than what Canada has already offered to members of the RCMP. And given the potential number of class members involved, the numbers could be quite a bit larger,” he said.
Létourneau said he’s not concerned that the apology is moving ahead before the government has agreed to financial compensation scheme.
For now, he said, an apology is enough.
“It would still be a start. And at that stage if it did not look as though it would go any further, then the class-action suit would have even more importance,” Létourneau said.