How Canada tried to purge its queers

'It really does punch a hole in the master narrative of Canada being nice': Kinsman

Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile want to launch their book The Canadian War on Queers at Ottawa’s Lord Elgin Hotel in March. It’s there, Kinsman says, that gay men began to turn the tables on RCMP surveillance officers taking photos from behind newspapers.

Kinsman and Gentile’s new book documents the government security apparatus used to root out gays and lesbians from Canada’s military and civil service starting in the 1950s, as the world emerged from World War II and the Cold War began.

The state decided that gays and lesbians had character defects that made them susceptible to communist infiltration, Kinsman and Gentile discovered in official documents and interviews.

In short, the Canadian government decided that queers could not be trusted.

With the Burgess-Maclean spy scandal having taken place already in Britain and the McCarthy communist witch-hunts unfolding in the US, Canada was tied to its primary allies in anti-Soviet paranoia. The ensuing witch-hunts in Canada, the authors write, cost thousands of people their careers, their homes and their families — and in some cases led to suicide.

“It really does punch a hole in the master narrative of Canada being nice and better than the United States,” Kinsman tells Xtra West. “It’s obviously a horrendous story, but it’s also a story of resilience and survival.”

While queers working in the RCMP, the military and the Department of External Affairs were the main focus of the stings, those outside the public service were also targeted if they were connected to industries dealing with sensitive contracts.

In their research, Kinsman and Gentile found repeated tales of surveillance, illegal searches, interrogations and attempts at blackmail by police who attempted to force queers to out others so they could be targeted as well.

A 1959 memo from Don Wall of the federal Security Panel (which reported to the cabinet and had members from the RCMP, the Privy Council Office and the Department of National Defence) describes homosexuality as the “character weakness that was most frequently exploited by Soviet intelligence.”

Another Security Panel memo from the same year conceded “there were no cases of a homosexual having committed an act of treason under threat of blackmail.”

But that did not stop the witch-hunts.

A lieutenant commander with naval intelligence, Harold was forced out. “It was the immediate and devastating collapse of not only my career but a philosophy and way of life which had taken most of a lifetime to build,” Harold says in the book.

And then there was the fruit machine.

The Canadian War on Queers describes “an Orwellian-like project” whereby a machine would monitor eye movement, pulse and sweat reactions to a series of racy or art pictures shown to suspected homosexuals.


The project, headed by Frank Robert Wake, a Carleton University psychologist, was approved in 1963 by the Security Committee in the presence of then-justice minister Donald Fleming.

While the purges hit many government areas, historian Howard Mackenzie says the Department of External Affairs lost people with valuable skills and knowledge. And that, he says, affected policy formation regarding the Soviet Union.

Even the 1969 decriminalization of gay sex between consenting adults in private didn’t remove homosexuality from suspicion.

By May 1977, little had changed as Private Barbara Thornburrow struggled with discrimination in the military.

When Gays of Ottawa and Lesbians of Ottawa Now turned up at a Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs discussion on the Human Rights Act, then-justice minister Ron Basford said national security justified excluding sexual orientation from the legislation.

The claim that queers could be blackmailed was still being used.

“That’s ridiculous,” Thornburrow said. “If I am open about it, how can I be blackmailed?”

In less than a month, she was discharged as “not advantageously employable.”

Gloria Cameron suffered the same injustice in the navy the same year.

After a nine-hour interrogation about official secrets, she was found loyal to Canada but was proven to be a lesbian. She too was purged.

When she appealed, the chief of defence staff, General JA Dextraze, told her: “It is deemed necessary to discriminate against those who, having admitted or demonstrated behaviour traits such as homosexuality, might impose them on others, particularly youthful members…

“Despite the admissions you have made openly and notwithstanding that your loyalty to Canada has not been questioned, a potential hazard to security remains,” Dextraze said.

Five years later, NDP MP Svend Robinson asked the same standing committee why queers could not join the RCMP.

Replied commissioner Robert Simmonds: It is not in the “interest of law enforcement or the image of law enforcement.”

Simmonds further told the committee: “We have a pretty firm backing from the people of Canada… to not accept people like that knowingly into the police organization.”

Ironically, say Kinsman and Gentile, the state’s security campaign against queers contributed to the emergence of the gay liberation movement in Canada.

“Some gay men and lesbians challenged the basis of the security campaigns by placing their erotic, emotional, and social ties to their friends and other queers above the interests of Canadian security,” Kinsman and Gentile write. “In contrast to state attempts to morally problematize queers, expanding gay and lesbian networks in the 1960s provided the basis for an ethics of resistance.”

The emerging liberation movement was hardly exempt from RCMP surveillance.

Demonstrations in Vancouver and Montreal were watched, and the 1971 launch of Xtra’s predecessor The Body Politic was considered “so significant the entire issue was included in RCMP files.”

Such scrutiny was part of a long tradition of surveillance of groups deemed a threat to national security, including the Housewives Consumers’ Association and the ladies auxiliary of the Mine Mill union, not to mention early feminist singer Rita MacNeil, the book notes.

Surveillance was soon replaced with outright raids.

“In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the expansion of gay and lesbian community formation clashed with the sexual policing as raids and attacks replaced RCMP surveillance,” the authors say.

As the community grew and gained strength, voice and visibility, it challenged and undermined the homophobic security campaigns.

Kinsman describes the history of Canada’s war on queers as a cautionary tale of how the government treats those it perceives to be a threat to national security.

It’s a tale that’s still unfolding today, he says, as authorities react to perceived terrorists and even Olympic protestors.

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