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Advocates frustrated by federal inaction on apology to gay Canadians

Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault, who is special adviser to Mr. Trudeau on LGBTQ issues, insists the government remains committed to implementing the Just Society Report’s recommendations.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Those leading the fight for an apology for homosexuals who were persecuted by the Canadian government in the past feel increasingly frustrated over federal inaction, months after action was promised.

But the MP in charge of the process insists the government is moving as fast as it can.

The question is whether "fast as it can" is fast enough to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's self-imposed deadline of apologizing for past wrongs and fully correcting current injustices before the next election in 2019.

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"People have been waiting an awfully long time for justice…and there is no discernible progress," Gary Kinsman said Sunday. The Laurentian University professor belongs to the We Demand an Apology Network, which has campaigned for years for an apology and redress for people who were dismissed from the public service and the military because of their sexuality.

"I'm frustrated," said Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, a national organization that advocates for sexual minorities. Under Egale's auspices, a committee published a report last June, called The Just Society Report, that advocated for a broad suite of reforms to address past discrimination of homosexuals, as well as the current pressing needs of sexual minorities.

"Everything the government needs to do is in that report," Ms. Kennedy said Sunday in an interview. "We don't need to reinvent the wheel."

Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault, who is special adviser to Mr. Trudeau on LGBTQ issues, insists the government remains committed to implementing the report's recommendations.

"We're not going to please everyone with the speed with which we're working, but we're doing this so it lasts a long time," he told The Globe and Mail.

And while Mr. Boissonnault values the Just Society recommendations, "I'm also preparing the groundwork and the framework so that we can move to the future."

Beginning in February, 2016, the Globe published a series of stories examining wrongs committed against homosexuals by the Canadian government in the past.

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It began with the case of Everett Klippert, who spent nearly a decade in prison because he repeatedly sought sex with other men, and expanded to include the thousands who were fired from their jobs in the public service or expelled from the military because they were homosexual.

In June, Egale published the Just Society Report, which recommended an apology and redress for past wrongs, along with pardons for those who were convicted, some of whom are still living. The report also recommended eliminating the difference in the age of consent for sexual acts, removing antiquated laws from the books, and educating justice officials and others in uniform on the prejudice that still exists in the justice system toward sexual minorities.

The Liberal government promised to act on the report, but waited until November before it appointed Mr. Boissonnault to co-ordinate a response. And while the government has acted on some of the report's recommendations, there has been no progress on the question of an apology and redress.

That's because of a class-action lawsuit brought against the federal government by people claiming they lost their jobs in the military or public service because they were gay, said Mr. Boissonnault. "I have to respect the judicial process."

But Douglas Elliott, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs and the lead writer of the Just Society Report, said governments can immunize themselves from legal liability while offering a public apology for past wrongs.

"There's a lot of goodwill in the community for this initiative, and there are a lot of people who are anxious to help Randy," Mr. Elliott said. "Everyone wants him to succeed."

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But "his approach is very diffuse."

Mr. Elliott and others in the community are urging Mr. Boissonnault to form an advisory committee from outside the government that can get to work on crafting the wording of a formal apology, with any possible compensation or other redress to follow later.

But Mr. Boissonnault insists that his mandate encompasses present, real-world needs that are equally important. For example, a letter just went out to LGBTQ community centres advising them that federal funds are available to help improve their security, such as installing CCTV cameras.

He is looking at ways to ensure that a portion of housing for at-risk youth is dedicated to those who are LGBTQ, and that seniors housing has dedicated space for the LGBTQ elderly.

"We're still on track for an apology, we're still on track for progress within the framework of the Egale report, [but] my mandate goes beyond that," Mr. Boissonnault maintained.

That mandate, as he sees it, is to fully address the question: "How can we make the federal government writ large offer a more positive and welcoming face to LGBTQ members?"

To which gay-rights leaders reply: Start by saying you're sorry for turning your face against them in the past.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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