Last week, Prime Minister Trudeau issued a public apology to Canada’s LGBT community.
Referring to the historical persecution of Canadians based on sexual orientation, Trudeau called it “our collective shame”. He apologized for decades of “state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection”.
He specifically pointed to the criminalization of sexual orientation and acknowledged how it resulted in the unjust arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of LGBT Canadians.
Although some feel the apology was superfluous, it was anything but. Our government’s official recognition of the institutional oppression of sexual minorities is long overdue.
This is especially so when the plight faced by our LGBT community is ongoing and many of the injustices they have suffered are in the not-so-distance past. For example, it might surprise many Canadians to learn that the last conviction for criminalized sexual activity in this country occurred in 1988. This happened nearly 20 years after same sex-relationships were partly decriminalized.
So the apology was necessary—and after it was over, members of Parliament rose to their feet. They joined together in rousing applause. Trudeau was moved to tears.
But as my mother says, actions speak louder than words.
The recognition of historical injustice is undeniably important to the collective healing process; however, it will ultimately mean nothing unless words are followed up with actions.
And our government knows this.
So far, Trudeau has set aside $145 million to compensate LGBT Canadians who suffered as a result of unjust laws and discriminatory practices. The bulk of this money will go toward compensating former federal workers and military members who had their careers destroyed as part of the “gay purge”, which occurred between the 1950s and 1990s.
He has also introduced Bill C-66, known as the Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act. This was done in an effort to wipe away criminal convictions arising as a result of the inequitable laws that historically targeted the LGBT community.
If passed, Bill C-66 will broaden the powers to expunge a criminal record by giving the Parole Board of Canada the ability to grant expungement orders for people who were convicted of a crime in the context of a consensual same-sex relationship. It would streamline the process for these people.
It would also allow those convicted of such crimes to receive an expungement, rather than a pardon. This is an critical distinction at law.
A pardon is different than an expungement in that a pardon does not reverse the conviction, or provide recognition that the conviction was unjust. An expungement, on the other hand, removes and destroys any record of a conviction from all federal repositories and systems.
It acknowledges that the conviction should never have happened.
This is important. After all, the ongoing stigma associated with same-sex relationships and the discrimination of members of the LGBT community must be put to an end—and the recognition that their existence is not a crime is of pivotal importance to this process.
It is also important for our future.
Consider the fact that Trudeau’s apology came in the same week that the Supreme Court of Canada heard a landmark case involving LGBT rights and Trinity Western University’s law school.
In it, Canada’s first private law school is arguing for its right to actively discriminate against LGBT students by forcing them to sign a community covenant, which prohibits them from engaging in same-sex relations.
The school argues that this is its religious freedom. Opposing counsel argue that LGBT rights are being compromised, and their dignity is being endangered.
Ultimately, it will be left up to the court to decide.
But as we move forward, one thing is clear—the fight for LGBT rights is not over yet.
At the end of the day, the power of our governments’ apology will be found in action, not words. It will be found in our future, as we work together, alongside our institutions and our government, to build our communities on equal footing—standing up for the rights of our LGBT citizens all along the way.