'It's important to recognize the mistakes made by society'
They claimed the federal government fired them for their sexual orientation, resulting in a loss of livelihood and personal confidence.
On November 1, former public servants filed a $600 million class-action lawsuit in Ontario and Quebec for wrongful dismissal and discrimination because of their homosexuality. As many as 9,000 people who worked across almost four decades are eligible to join, including members of the military.
Last week, the LGBT class-action lawsuit merged with two others also seeking damages for civil servants and military members.
Gilbert Émond, associate professor of applied human sciences in Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science, has been involved in research related to HIV-AIDS issues and homophobia prevention for more than 20 years.
'We lost our investment in them'
“It's important to recognize the mistakes society made and the personal trauma it created because of prejudice. I think the federal government should apologize and should also find a way to help people who were victimized to find dignity.
I don't mean millions of dollars per person; I’m referring to services and help. It's a post-traumatic condition, so it may vary according to each person and location. People who are isolated from large centres or from veteran's hospitals, or people who just aren’t having their health or psychiatric needs met — they may require more services than others in big towns.
This all has to be evaluated and carefully taken into account. It’s a kind a ‘double expense,’ because as a society, Canada did not profit from the victims’ professional skills — we lost our investment in them — and now we have to pay to help the people we scared off.
'There was an atmosphere of distrust'
“This story touches me personally. In the 1980s, I was just out of university. I got two recruiting offers to work for Statistics Canada as a public servant. But, if I took the job, I knew that I would have to keep quiet about my sexual orientation because there were police in the gay bars.
Even though it was 10 to 15 years after the decriminalization of homosexuality, there was still an atmosphere of distrust — if you were gay, they believed you could be compromised and threatened, and that you’d pass on government secrets. The thinking was that you were weak and vulnerable because you were gay.
In the end, I chose another job elsewhere that was better paid. It was really a circumstantial decision, but there was this sense of a warning about working in the government: don't talk about your past or your sexuality because your boss can discriminate against you. At that time, any gay person in government would know that they were labelled, tagged and followed. It was the reality. They were paying special attention to gay people. And that was before AIDS.
One of my friends in the 1990s was constantly tested for HIV, even if he had a little cold. This was because the doctors in the navy did not know how to deal with homosexuality. So from invisibility came a label that would tag you for certain things and not for others. It created special treatment for being gay. I'm a special person but that doesn't mean that I should be treated as special professionally.”
'It's easy for LGBT people to feel excluded'
“In 1977, the Quebec government amended its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It’s the first government in the world to do this. More recently, they developed an educational action plan. You can have human rights officially in the law and the constitution, but if you don't change the people, you don't change anything.
Laws discriminated against women because of a notion that they could not be a mother and a public servant at the same time. We adjusted the system for them. Now the governement needs to do that for the LGBT community, and understand how society discriminates. For example, LGBT people can be overworked if they don’t have children or a family. Alternately, employers underestimate their capacity just because they're gay. On both sides, this is wrong and it’s easy for LGBT people to feel excluded.
Quebec’s current charter addresses some of these issues. With the action plan, they reviewed every ministerial implication and are doing a second wave of changes, so they're really trying to eliminate all these issues.
Quebec is a leader in this way. So far, the current federal government is just really into going to Pride. Okay, well, be more than just proud. Do something! We like the message but we'd like to see action too.”
'No Canadian should be discriminated against'
“We have LGBT refugees, but the preference is given to those in families — couples with children. It’s heterocentric. The message you send is that ‘if you’re gay, you’re not good for us.’ I see people crying in my kitchen, literally, because they're gay but they had to marry against their will in order to immigrate. Here, they found a paradise they cannot access because their community would not accept it. But our government has to say ‘No, no Canadian should be discriminated against for sexual orientation.’”
Find out more about Concordia's Department of Applied Human Sciences.