Trudeau’s gay legacy

He fixed up Canada's sex laws and created multiculturalism

I hope you’re not sick and tired of all the coverage of Pierre Trudeau’s death. I for one think it’s wonderful and inspiring, because I expected today’s cruel Canadians to respond with a “Ho hum, and where’s my tax break?”

It’s worth noting his impact – direct and indirect – on the lives of Canada’s gay men and lesbians.

Trudeau was instrumental in decriminalizing homosexuality in the 1960s – as summed up in his famous 1967 sound-bite, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” As justice minister in 1967, and as prime minister in 1969, Trudeau helped put an end to silly laws which criminalized gay sex. Many such laws still exist and are enforced in the US.

Politicians since Trudeau haven’t had the balls to legislate on matters of equality and justice. But despite their cowardice, Trudeau’s legacy has allowed us legal victories in the past two decades.

As politicians ignore simple legislative changes which would deal with gay issues, we are left to engage in lengthy and expensive court battles. The courts, in turn, defer to a Trudeau invention: the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms.

Critics argue that the judges are playing activists, making decisions against the wishes of ordinary Canadians. But equality and justice are not to be decided by popularity contests; they are rightly set out in the charter as fundamental principles – principles designed to protect minority rights.

When politicians refuse to do the right thing, thanks to the Charter, the courts have the tools to do so themselves.

The charter and Trudeau’s policy of official multiculturalism are the best expressions of his vision of a country where people respect and encourage one another’s differences. This vision is reflected in the clichés of the time: Canada became known as a mosaic, in contrast to the US melting pot – where everyone’s differences are mythically dissolved into one big stew.

These different approaches may account for the different terrain of gay and lesbian politics in Canada and the US. US gay activists are engaged in a massive public relations campaign to win over the hearts of middle America. Their agenda is decidedly assimilationist, and activists spend significant energy ensuring that wholesome images of gay people make it onto US sitcoms. When was the last time you heard of Canadian gay activists vetoing CBC scripts?

Instead, our struggles often pertain to the distinctiveness of gay culture. Our censorship battles with Canada Customs and our continuing defence of bathhouses – like the recent Pussy Palace – are examples of our cultivation and protection of our distinct culture and traditions.

Critics of official multiculturalism have said that it encourages us to withdraw into our own groups, losing any understanding of other groups, or any sense of common purpose with broader society.


Certainly, gay men and lesbians face challenges when we fail to educate others about our culture, and when we forget about mutual respect.

Diverse religious groups, often divided by arguments over which is the one true religion, are joining forces against the apparently undisputed one true evil: homosexuality.

Fundamentalist Christians in British Columbia have joined forces with Chinese Canadian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh groups in their fights against gay books and gay clubs in schools. And in Toronto, fundamentalist Muslims have been at the centre of a campaign against gay-positive education.

Thankfully, many practitioners of these varied faiths have been quick to distance themselves and their religions from anti-gay prejudice. But there is no question that we are seeing the beginnings of religious coalition politics. The Canadian Alliance party is actively recruiting in these communities, with a multi-faith family values platform and promises of funding for religious schools.

We have long and often arrogantly believed ourselves immune from the powerful forces of fundamentalist Christians in the US. Now we are faced with a uniquely Canadian phenomenon, and one borne directly of Trudeau’s vision of Canada – a mosaic of intolerance.

I suspect these groups will find that they don’t like each other any more than they like us, and that their coalition will end as Trudeau, quoting TS Eliot, once feared Canada would – not with a bang, but a whimper.

David Walberg is Editor-in-chief for Xtra.

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Power, Faith & Spirituality, Toronto

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