The forthcoming federal apology to Canadians who were persecuted by the government in the past because of their sexuality has been a long time coming, but more still must be done to prevent future discrimination, say the largest federal public service unions.
On Wednesday, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, the federal government’s special adviser on LGBTQ2 issues, Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault (Edmonton Centre, Alta.), announced the government’s intention to formally apologize to Canadians who suffered because of their sexuality, including public servants and members of the military, sometime in 2017. Mr. Boissonnault will be launching consultations across Canada to better inform the government about how to properly conduct the apology.
“Our members have been waiting a long time for an apology … historically, the federal government when working with the public service has been a hostile place for GLBT people,” Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Atlantic regional executive vice-president Jeannie Baldwin told The Hill Times. She said the union, the largest in the federal public service, is glad the government is acknowledging the role federal legislation, programs, and policies have played in the discrimination and injustices faced by LGBTQ Canadians, but added there’s still work to be done to make sure the public service is a welcoming place for all LGBTQ workers.
“Hopefully the government will consult us,” she said. “You can’t make decisions for individuals who are not at the table.”
Between the 1950s and 1990s, thousands of gay and lesbian public servants were fired or demoted from their jobs following investigations into their personal lives. Human rights advances in the years since have increased the overall acceptance of LGBTQ people in Canada.
“It’s still an education … I don’t know that everyone 100 per cent embraces the GLBTQ community,” said Ms. Baldwin.
Mr. Boissonnault, who was the first openly gay MP elected in Alberta, acknowledged in a May 17 interview that while the culture has improved in the federal government—citing some departments’ equality initiatives and awareness campaigns—he agrees there’s more to be done.
“It’s better today, it’s not perfect … I’ve seen changes in my lifetime. Can it get better? Yes … That’s why we have more work to do,” he said.
While Mr. Boissonnault is one of a handful of openly gay MPs and Senators on the Hill, an openly transgender MP has yet to be elected federally.
Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPSC), said that PIPSC welcomes the news of consultations “aimed at righting a wrong that has been left unresolved for far too long,” in an email response to The Hill Times.
“Though we hope to see an apology without too much further delay, we also welcome the learning opportunity these consultations could provide by sharing these often tragic stories of discrimination. We hope all Canadians can learn from them,” Ms. Daviau said.
Mr. Boissonnault said he plans to listen to the perspectives and experiences of past and present public servants as part of the consultation process, but wouldn’t go into detail on the plan. “All the mechanics of that apology, the people we need to work with, all of the details, will be forthcoming as we determine them,” he said.
The Globe and Mail reported on May 17 that the apology is “likely” to be delivered in the House of Commons in the fall, following summer consultations, citing a government source speaking on background.
PSAC is calling for the federal government to include LGBTQ identity in its employment-equity considerations when hiring staff. Currently, the federal government’s Employment Equity Policy applies to four groups: women, visible minorities, indigenous people, and people with disabilities.
“They are part of the equity group. Every union recognizes that, but the government doesn’t when it comes to hiring practices within the federal government,” Ms. Baldwin said.
When asked about the idea, Mr. Boissonnault said he is considering it, and is speaking with colleagues about the suggestion.
Separate from the promised apology, the federal government is examining pardons and record expungements of those charged with gross indecency before homosexual acts were decriminalized in 1969. There could also be compensation for public servants and military personnel.
A class-action lawsuit against the federal government by public service and military members is seeking an apology and compensation for members of sexual minorities who were forced out of their jobs and discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
Mr. Boissonnault said the government is working on the legislation required to address the pardons, and added that the possibility of compensation, including pensions, will be left with the Department of Justice, as the case works its way through the courts.
NDP MP Randall Garrison (Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, B.C.) told reporters on May 17 that he didn’t expect there would be significant extra costs for the federal government to pay back what the public servants are owed, because “the military budgeted to pay pension to these people. They paid into the pension programs, so the question of compensation quite often is not a real cost to the government, because the money that they’re owed is actually sitting there in pension funds,” he said.
A motion from Mr. Garrison, which was unanimously supported at the House National Defence Committee last year, asked Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.) to have the military ombudsman, “revise the service records of LGBTQ members of the Canadian Forces who received dishonourable discharges from the military based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The unions have also raised their desire to see Bill C-16, the trans rights bill, pass without further delay. It received clause-by-clause consideration on May 18 at the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which left it unchanged. It will now be sent back to the Upper Chamber for third reading and a vote. It passed the House in November. Government representatives in the Senate have accused Conservative Senators of delaying the bill’s movement, which members of the Conservative caucus have denied.
“It will educate the public, and employers in particular, on their obligations and responsibilities,” said Ms. Baldwin of Bill C-16, if it passes as it was proposed.
Mr. Boissonnault also highlighted Bill C-39, the government’s bill to clean up the criminal code, which includes removing Section 159 of the Criminal Code, regarding anal intercourse. The government introduced it separately as Bill C-32, but it hadn’t received any debate by the time it was rolled into Bill C-39. That bill has also yet to be scheduled for debate since being tabled in March.
Mr. Boissonnault also launched the online presence of the new LGBTQ2 Secretariat on May 17, after working to get staffed up and establish office space after receiving funds from the 2017 federal budget.
The budget earmarked $3.6-million over three years for the creation of the LGBTQ2 Secretariat within the Privy Council Office to help develop and co-ordinate government work on issues related to sexual minorities.
Mr. Boissonnault said that in addition to the coming consultations on the apology, the LGBTQ Secretariat will be looking into how gender identity information is collected by the government, and how to strengthen “formal and informal” LGBTQ networks in Canada.
The staff in his new office will be the points of contact for the government on LGBTQ issues, and will produce the federal government’s LGBTQ-related communications.
“We’re taking a whole-of-government approach to issues that can help improve the lives of LGBTQ Canadians,” said Mr. Boissonnault.
Meanwhile, critics continue to call on the government to do more to help persecuted LGBTQ communities internationally. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) in a May 17 statement urged the government to use “all diplomatic channels to deliver Canada’s strong rebuke” of arbitrary detainment, torture, and killing of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) issued a statement on May 17, calling the situation in Chechnya “reprehensible.” Last month, Ms. Freeland called for Russian authorities to investigate these attacks and to protect anyone in Chechnya who could be at risk because of their sexual orientation.
In Wednesday’s statement, Ms. Freeland also said the Canadian government is seeking to co-chair the Equal Rights Coalition, a network of 33 governments that look to protect the rights of LGBTQ people worldwide.
“We must and will continue to raise LGBTI rights whenever and wherever necessary, reminding those who discriminate that human rights are universal and indivisible and apply equally to all human beings,” she said.