'A battle that we've won': LGBTQ military members get personal apologies

'A battle that we've won': LGBTQ military members get personal apologies

A number of former LGBTQ military members are finally receiving letters of apology from the Canadian Armed Forces — two years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology for decades of "state-sponsored" discrimination.

So far, 406 letters have been sent, with 26 still left to be mailed out, Department of National Defence communications manager Najwa Asmar told Radio-Canada.

That means some former members of the armed forces still haven't received an apology after Trudeau's emotional speech in 2017, when he atoned for historic mistreatment of LGBTQ civil servants and military members.

"I trust that it's coming," said Michelle Douglas, who was fired on the basis of her sexual orientation in 1989 and sued the armed forces in 1992.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, the Canadian government took action against thousands of members of the LGBTQ community — many of whom, like Douglas, were fired or intimidated on the basis of their sexual orientation. 

"My concern, frankly, is for the many who've never had any words spoken to them of apology or [have been given] an excuse," she said. "It's time we get those letters."

'Taking responsibility'

Diane Pitre of Embrun, Ont., received her letter last week. 

Signed by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and dated April 2019, it apologized for "a regrettable segment in the history of our nation."

"It was an acknowledgement from the Canadian Armed Forces that they had done wrong, that they were taking responsibility," Pitre said. 

Pitre joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1977. While going through training, she met her first girlfriend. Both women were eventually investigated, but while Pitre was allowed to remain in the army, her girlfriend was dismissed. 

"They put me in the psych ward for treatment. They investigated me for hours on hours," Pitre recalled.

After meeting another woman, Pitre was finally dismissed in 1980 "for the simple reason as being homosexual." She's since spent nearly 40 years fighting for recognition.

Now, with the letter in hand, Pitre said she's finally got what she wanted. 

"It means that this is sort of a battle that we've won and then we were recognized for it. It was almost like we're good soldiers. We went through it until the end."

Yasmine Mehdi/Radio-Canada

A dream lost

Martine Roy received her apology last week — a moment she'd been waiting more than 30 years for.

"My first reflex was to put the two [letters] next to each other," she said, holding the apology and her discharge letter. "It's shocking. It's day and night."

In her 20s, Roy's dream of a career as a medical assistant in the Canadian Armed Forces at CFB Borden was brought to a sudden halt. 

Roy said she was questioned at length about her sexual orientation by military police. Shortly afterwards, she was given a dishonourable discharge.

"Your release is in accordance with the Canadian Forces' current policy on homosexuals," says the 1985 letter signed by Gen. Gérard Charles Édouard Thériault, then Canada's chief of defence staff.

She tried to appeal, but was unsuccessful. 

"It destroyed me," she said.

'We need to change the culture'

Since the apology, the government has provided $110 million to victims of injustice following a class-action lawsuit that sought damages for LGBT military members and civil servants.

A $15-million fund was established for numerous reconciliation projects that acknowledge "the purge" period, Douglas said — including an exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg in 2023 and a national monument for Ottawa in 2024.

"When you've experienced discrimination firsthand, it makes an activist of you. And you really can't give up until there's some equality ... for everyone," said Douglas, who oversees the not-for-profit managing the fund.

For Roy, formal apologies come second to making sure the younger generation doesn't have to wage the same battle.

"It's not fair to change the laws or apologize nationally. We need to change the culture," Roy said.