I come from a small town on the northern end of New Brunswick’s Acadian peninsula, Caraquet, population 4000. We were a family of ten children. My father was a social worker, my mother a teacher. People in our town were warm and open-minded. They knew what it felt like to be a minority, and were anxious not to be seen as small or backward. There was no strong shaming of homosexuality.
At 17, I went to Montréal as a music student. I was a member of the LGBTQ2 community and focused on my studies. The gay community in the city in those days was very small; there was no gay village. Free expression of sexuality was still taboo, and same-sex couples did not hold hands on the street. This was the case in all Canadian cities in the 1970s though homosexuality had been decriminalized in 1969. Discrimination was then very much present in all spheres of Canadian society.
I will never forget the night of October 21, 1977. I was 21 years old. If it wasn’t for luck and good timing, I might’ve had a criminal record for life, and would probably not be a member of the Senate of Canada today.
That night, friends invited me to a Stanley Street gay bar called Truxx. This was a safe, carefree place for us, where we could talk and dance and have fun without hectoring or humiliation. We were in good spirits walking down Stanley Street that night. Suddenly, police cars appeared with lights flashing, and a stranger bolted from the bar: “Don’t go in there!” he said. “They’re arresting people.” We fled.
The next day the story of the police raid was published in the newspaper. They printed a photograph of a man being led into a patrol car. There were 147 people charged with a crime that night, named and shamed. Some had not told their families they were gay; others were publicly disgraced.
The day after the raid, there was a street demonstration against police harassment. I joined in. All we hoped for was acceptance and tolerance, and the right to be left alone. We saw a slow social change after 1977, though legal recognition of same-sex couples took decades of struggle.
My story is inconsequential compared to that of thousands of LGBTQ2 workers in the Canadian public service between the 1950s and early 1990s, including members of the military, diplomatic corps and Royal Canadian Mounted Police who were targeted, subjected to investigations, and had their careers ruined by a shameful campaign of oppression. Their stories are the ones that convinced me to sponsor Bill C-66, which seeks to correct the historical injustice of the criminalization of consensual sexual activity between same-sex adults.
The struggle is very much still a reality. To live a gay life in Canada is to test your self-confidence. The trauma of condemnation never really disappears. I think injustice to anyone, for any reason, is the worst experience an individual can suffer in a free society.
(Editor’s note: the author is an Independent Senator from New Brunswick and sponsor of Bill C-66 An Act To Establish a Procedure For Expunging Certain Historically Unjust Convictions. Sponsoring Bill C-66 revived memories of Senator Cormier’s personal story)