The Apology from ‘Above and ‘Below.’ Expanded version

By Gary Kinsman, Dec. 5, 2017.  

* A shorter version of this piece was published as “How Canada’s historic apology to LGBT people falls short, ‘We are sorry’ is not enough, queer historian tells Justin Trudeau.”  Xtra! at:

The Apology from Above: Disjunctures In Experience.  

There are two stories. The apology from below and the apology from above. The apology from above actively attempts to submerge the apology from below. I was thrown into the midst of this active social battle over how the apology is to be interpreted in Ottawa last week

Arriving in Ottawa Monday night Nov. 27th I rushed to the reception that Lawyer Doug Elliot one of the lawyers for the class action suit for redress against the federal government and Diane Pitre, one of many in attendance who was purged from the military, organized for participants in the class action suit at the Lord Elgin Hotel. It was great meeting more people who survived being purged during the Canadian war on queers and seeing Svend Robinson, Darl Wood, Orde Morton, Diane Pitre, Simon Thwaites, Martine Roy, Frank Letourneau and many others again.

Doug Elliot, referring to our opening story in The Canadian War on Queers without referencing it, talked about the history of the RCMP surveillance of men having sex with men in the basement tavern of the Lord Elgin in the 1960s. While he mentioned that RCMP operatives would hide behind newspapers to take photos of the men in the bar for identification purposes he forgot to mention that it was common for the men there to turn the tables on the RCMP agents by all turning together and acting like they were taking photos of the police agents. He forgot to mention that this was not only a site of surveillance, but more importantly a site of resistance. This eclipsing of the history of queer resistance would become even more profound the next day.

Elliot went on to tell the people assembled at the reception that “you did nothing wrong, you just wanted to serve your country.” This appeal to Canadian patriotism would also become more intense the next day. This appeal to patriotism and nation and the affirmation of how supposedly wonderful Canada is for LGBTQ2S+ people is what Jasbir Puar and others call homonationalism. Unfortunately some queer left critics of the apology tend to reduce the apology simply  to ‘homonationalism’ ceding this terrain entirely to the apology from above.

What made my experience of the apology so contradictory, was the rupture between the grass roots concerns for an apology developed by groups like the We Demand an Apology Network which I am involved with which is based on the experiences of those directly affected by the purge campaign, and the attempt to transform this resistance from below into an apology from above that actively forgets this history of queer resistance. This apology from above puts in place instead a Canadian patriotic response. This has been accomplished rather successfully in overlapping and different ways  through the exclusion of people who were purged from the government’s own Advisory Council that helped prepare the apology;  through the efforts of lawyers for the class action suit articulating people’s needs to a still heterosexist legal regime;  through the work of the Liberal government; and through much of the coverage and framing in the mainstream media. While many important stories of the purge campaigns were able to be told they were often interpreted as in John Ibbitson’s feature in the Globe and Mail the previous Saturday (Nov. 25, 2017)  which after a series of wonderful interview excerpts  with people directly affected by the purges and other practices of discrimination ended in the following  ‘homonationalist’ fashion:

“with this apology Canada will have gone further to secure and advance the rights of sexual minorities than any other country in the world. In that sense, the apology is really a celebration. There has never been a time and place where it was so okay to be queer.”

The next day — Nov. 28th — I arrived on Parliament Hill and went through two security screenings and surrendered my cell phone and notebook before I could hear the prime minister’s apology to the LGBTQ2S+  communities.

As Justin Trudeau started to read the apology, I had such mixed feelings: elation that it was finally happening, but sadness too for all those who died in the decades before it took place. Patrizia Gentile and I had asked in a 1998 research report for a state apology and compensation.  The Liberal government of the day ignored the request arguing they had already addressed it which they had not.

Around me in the parliamentary gallery sat many people who had been purged by the Canadian government between the 1950s and the 1990s, interrogated then pushed out of their jobs in the public service and the military for nothing more than their sexuality. Many of them cried as Trudeau spoke.

It was moving to hear the prime minister finally take responsibility for the Caandian war on queers. Some of the language was clearly shaped by the submission of the We Demand an Apology Network to the Advisory Council and the vital advocacy work of Svend Robinson on that body who made sure that our important concerns were addressed.

In important ways, Trudeau’s apology didn’t go nearly far enough. And after a while hearing “we are sorry” over and over again rang hollow and lost all meaning.

But it was also a very white apology, it did not go nearly far enough in addressing the colonization of Indigenous nations. It was only an apology to Canadian citizens in a language defending Canadian borders against Indigenous nations, and refugees, migrants and undocumented people, many of whom are people of colour.

In the only attempt to account for how and why the purge campaign happened Trudeau stated: “You see, the thinking of the day was that all non-heterosexual Canadians would automatically be at an increased rate of blackmail by our adversaries…” But the purge campaign was not the result of the “thinking of the day,” and certainly not that of gay and lesbian activists in the 1960s and 1970s who challenged such views. Instead it was actively put in place by the Canadian state national security and policing regimes when we were targeted as national security risks for suffering from a “character weakness.” It was these state agencies that threw queer and gender non-conforming people outside the fabric of the ‘nation’ making us into national security risks. This experience puts in question national security when it is an attempt to otherize any group of people including currently with Muslim and Arab identified people.

There are also many appeals to the nation and to patriotism in the apology including “You are patriots” directed to those people impacted by the purge campaign as they attempt to incorporate us back into the mainstream of a still heterosexist, transphobic, racist and sexist ‘Canada.’ And we forget at our peril what we learned from being expelled from the fabric of the nation about the character of Canadian state relations.

To make this very clear the apology announcement was immediately followed by a Liberal government reception at the Cartier Square Drill Hal — an active military installation. Some people purged from the military I talked to expressed anxiety about going there given the violence done to them by the military but the government decided to have it there to make links with the military as a patriotic and militarist institution explicit. To top it off some people leaving the reception were handed military recruitment flyers!

The apology itself is symbolic with many nice words but not much substance. The substance is in the agreement in principle in the class action suit which will bring about some redress for the people who were purged who are still alive. This also underlines how people had to go to court to get any justice from the government. People who were affected by the purge campaign will have to decide whether this agreement is good enough for them. One area I am concerned with is the public release of the state documents that organized this purge campaign which we have only been able to get very partially released so far. It is vital that the secrecy and historical silencing surrounding the purge campaign be overcome. Unfortunately, the agreement leaves the release of these documents up to a nebulous meeting of “experts.”

Substance is also in the expungement legislation that was introduced that Tuesday morning (Nov. 28th) which has many limitations. This includes that the bawdy house legislation under which hundreds of men in the 1970s and 1980s were charged is not covered; indecent act another charge used against men having sex with men is also not included;  the age of consent used is 16 which is higher than the heterosexual age of consent set at 14 for most of this time period; and that the onus is on the individual to take the initiative to apply including proving it was consensual activity which can be very difficult to do given the state of records and documents in court cases.

The Apology From Below: A History of Resistance.

But there is another better history for the apology. And it is this history that the apology from above tries to make us forget. The apology did not simply come from the goodness of journalist  John Ibbitson, Justin Trudeau or the Liberal government as some have suggested. This is instead the story of decades of queer resistance to the purge campaigns which creates the social basis for this official apology. This goes back further then the actions of the men turning the tables on RCMP surveillance at the Lord Elgin in 1964 which itself was part of a broader non-cooperation practice with the RCMP that forced  the security police to change their tactics against us. It includes the We Demand demonstration on Parliament Hill in 1971 which called for an end to the purges and was itself put under the surveillance of the RCMP given that our movement in the 1970s was seen by the Canadian state as a threat to national security.

It includes  the protests in Montreal and Ottawa that forced the sex police to back off in their repression of lesbian/gay establishments, partially justified  on national security grounds, in the 1975/76 pre-Olympic ‘clean-up’ campaign; the advocacy of the National Gay Rights Coalition/ the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition in the 1970s against the national security campaigns; and those who went public with struggles against the purge campaigns including Gloria Cameron, Barbara Thornborrow, Darl Wood, Michelle Douglas, Darryl Kippen (who died in 2016) and Paul- Emile Richard.  Vital support for many of these people was provided by NDP MP Svend Robinson who consistently raised questions against the purge campaign on government committees and in the House and who questioned Brian Mulroney about the purge campaign in 1992.

Later the growing number of people coming forward to talk publicly about their experiences of being purged and to push for justice, especially from the military, led to the formation of the We Demand an Apology Network in 2015. This Network pushed for a state apology, redress and the expungement of criminal code convictions for consensual same-sex activities.

When the government announced in spring 2017 that the apology would happen within their mandate which could mean as late as 2019 the We Demand an Apology Network along with EGALE (who also issued the Just Society report in 2016) issued a media release saying this was unacceptable. This was followed up by We Demand an Apology Network starting to approach Pride Committees across the country raising questions about the blank cheque given to Justin Trudeau to walk in Pride parades when he was  not coming through on meeting our important demands. Within a week the government committed itself to the apology by the end of 2017. This was part of that long arc of resistance and this is what we need to remember in seeing this apology as coming from below and not from the top down.

Not read in the official from above way the apology is an important victory for this history of resistance which is why the feelings of those who were purged when hearing the apology must be validated and affirmed. With all its limitations this is something we won.

They want us to forget this history of resistance and the critical perspectives it raises about national security not only when it is used against queer, trans and two-spirit people but also against other groups that of course always include queer and trans people. Rather than accepting being incorporated as patriotic citizens into Canada as it currently exists we need to continue to transform society to ensure not only freedom for queer, trans and two-spirit people but also for all oppressed and exploited peoples.

This also reminds us of the many things remaining to be done. This includes getting rid of the gay and “Afican” blood bans; ending the criminalization of HIV+ people (although there was a bit of shifting on this on Dec. 1st this year on the federal and Ontario levels) and sex workers; opening the borders to not only queer and trans refugees and migrants but to all people fleeing persecuetion and hardship; ending the criminal code sections that continue to be used to criminalize our consensual sexualities including abolishing the anal sex provision, the bawdy house laws, and obscenity practices that discriminate against queer materials; ending all practices enforcing the two-gender binary and the oppression of trans and non-gender conforming people; ending the homelessness and poverty that impacts on many queer, trans and two-spirit people as part of their broader communities; ending the colonization of Indigenous sexual and gender practices and developing nation to nation relations with Indigenous nations; the ending of all forms of racism including anti-Black racism and racist policing; the ending of the heterosexist and transphobic terror that all too many queer and trans young people still face in the schools and on the streets;  and so much more.

While we celebrate the apology we won from below we need to resist the socially organized forgetting of the apology from above. The movements for queer and trans liberation in the context of broader social justice movements must continue.

Gary Kinsman is a long time queer liberation, AIDS and anti-capitalist activist currently involved in the We Demand an Apology Network and the AIDS Activist History Project. He is the author of The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, co-author with Patrizia Gentile of The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation and co-editor of We Still Demand! Redefining Resistance in Sex and Gender Struggles. His website is  

Some References

The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, The Pink Agenda, see

EGALE, Canada Human Rights Trust, “The Just Society Report, Grossly Indecent, Confronting the Legacy of State Sponsored Discrimination Against LGBTQ2SI Communities,”

John Ibbiston, “How will LGBTQ Canadians take Trudeau’s apology? Eight views on Canada’s injustice,”

Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, Homonationalism in Queer Times, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

Steven Maynard, “To Forgive and Forget? Homonationalism, Hegemony, and History in the Gay Apology,”

The We Demand an Apology Network, “The We Demand an Apology Network submission on the urgent need for an official state apology and redress for those affected by the anti-gay/anti-lesbian purges in the public service and the military,”.

The We Demand an Apology Network, “Points Needed in an Apology,”