The lead plaintiff of an Atlantic Canadian lawsuit against the Department of National Defence says she’s eager to hear an official apology this afternoon in Ottawa.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said 57-year-old Alida Satalic of Dartmouth, N.S., who has travelled to Ottawa to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say Canada is sorry for decades of harassment of LGBT people in the military, RCMP and federal civil service.
“Let’s do it, and admit it and let’s move on,” she said. “As long as it’s a sincere apology.”
Experienced intimidation while training
Satalic joined the Canadian Forces in 1983, originally training as a truck mechanic. As a woman, she said she faced intimidation by instructors and classmates.
“Just name-calling and just, you know, ‘You don’t belong in this trade,’ that kind of thing,” she said.
Satalic said she nearly quit the military, but instead she was trained in a new role as a postal clerk at CFB Trenton.
She felt proud to be part of the Canadian Forces.
“Total pride, of course,” she said. “I was where I needed to be. That’s how I felt, anyway.”
But Satalic’s personal life was a matter of official concern to her employers.
From approximately 1950 until the mid-1990s, it was forbidden for lesbians and gay men to serve in Canada’s Armed Forces. Satalic said she connected with other LGBT people in the military at the time, but everyone had to be careful.
“You had to kind of watch it,” she said. “Watch, look and see who’s around.”
Repeatedly questioned by investigators
She said she had a girlfriend who was not a Forces member, but had to keep that a secret.
“You just don’t talk about it with your colleagues at work.… Everything was a lie, really, in your personal life,” she said.
Satalic said she was repeatedly questioned about her sexuality by members of the military’s special investigations unit (SIU).
She always denied being a lesbian until an interview in 1989, when investigators started quoting statements from her colleagues to whom she had confided about her fears of an SIU investigation.
Satalic was applying for top secret security designation at the time, which she needed to advance in her postal clerk duties.
Forced to opt for medical discharge
She said investigators told her there would be no consequences to admitting her sexual orientation.
“It was a relief. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can be myself finally. They know — it’s great.’ And still have my job and all that,” she said.
Instead, Satalic was told she would no longer be eligible for further training or promotion in the military, and that her only other option was to ask for a medical discharge.
“I opted for release, you know, with prejudice. I didn’t agree, but you know, how could I stay?” she said.
Satalic teared up when she remembered the stress of the repeated questioning.
“The humiliation, you know, some of the personal stuff they would ask you,” she said.
Satalic said the experience changed her.
“I was just kind of an angry person for a while,” she said. “It’s kind of like you were innocent and somebody took that away.”
Rejoined the military in 1994
Satalic spent five years working a variety of clerical jobs before she rejoined the military in 1994, after the official policy of discrimination was discontinued.
“I swallowed my pride and I went back,” she said. “It was pretty good after that — no harassment. You could be who you want to be.”
Satalic has since retired from the military, but the break in service affected the arc of her career as well as her pension.
“You see people that started after you now being ahead of you. That didn’t sit quite right. Why am I paying for this?” she said.
New settlement to provide compensation
Satalic was the lead plaintiff for a class action lawsuit launched by lawyer John McKiggan on behalf of all military members who served in Atlantic Canada from 1969 to 1995.
That lawsuit was merged with other class action lawsuits across Canada that capture RCMP members and federal civil servants who also faced harassment due to their sexual orientation.
McKiggan said the two sides recently struck an agreement in principle to settle those claims.
“Not only does the settlement provide compensation to address the harms suffered by class members, it also provides significant funding to reconciliation measures to help class members heal and to educate Canadians about this chapter of our history,” McKiggan said.
‘I’ll just be glad when it’s over’
Satalic hopes news of the apology will educate the public, especially younger LGBT people, about the discrimination earlier generations faced.
“Lesbian and gay people today, they haven’t had to deal with any of this stuff,” she said. “It’s OK to be who you are now. So it’s going to teach people something,” Satalic said.
“I’ll just be glad when it’s over and we just move on.”
Trudeau will deliver his apology on Tuesday afternoon following question period in the House of Commons.