The LGBT Purge from the Canadian Public Service

By: Laurel Broens

Laurel Broens

Contributing Historian

Laurel is a graduate of the Master of Library and Information Studies program from the University of Alberta and holds a BA in Economics and a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Calgary. She has worked in the information management field for over a decade in a career spanning public and academic libraries and government and legal records management. Laurel is a proud member of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and is the current chair of AUPE Local 002, Chapter 002 which represents more than 4700 Government of Alberta administrative and program services workers in the Edmonton area. In her spare time, Laurel runs the popular labour history Twitter account @labour_girl.

Author’s Note on Terminology

As of August 2022, the federal government adopted the 2SLGBTQI+ acronym, which stands for Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and additional sexually and gender-diverse people.[i] However, in the context of the 2016 class action lawsuit, the term “LGBT Purge” was used to describe the policies and events that impacted the claimants. The LGBT Purge Fund organization has continued to use this term “in the interests of consistency, clarity, and stability of nomenclature.”[ii] Similarly, throughout this article, “LGBT” will be used to represent the diverse array of gender- and sexually diverse individuals.

“Imagine, if you will, being told that the very country you would willingly lay down your life to defend doesn’t want you. Doesn’t accept you. Sees you as defective. Sees you as a threat to our national security. Not because you can’t do the job, or because you lack patriotism or courage – no, because of who you are as a person, and because of who your sexual partners are.”[iii] This was the reality for LGBT individuals in the Canadian civil service, RCMP, and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) from the end of the Second World War up until the early 1990s. During the early years of the Cold War, fear of Soviet espionage created an environment of intense paranoia, and LGBT people were perceived as easy targets for blackmail because of their so-called character weaknesses. As a result, many were spied upon, interrogated, and removed from their jobs.[iv]

Image courtesy of The LGBT Purge Fund.

While the Second World War came to an end in 1945, the Canadian government already had a long history of investigating the activities of known and suspected communists. The RCMP’s security service had been focused on the threat of communism since the 1920s, and in Quebec, where the Catholic Church fuelled anti-communist sentiment, politicians passed a 1937 law giving police authorization to block access to locations where communist activities and events occurred.[v] Similarly, the persecution of LGBT people was not a new phenomenon following the Second World War. Consensual homosexual acts were illegal until 1969, and the traditional nuclear family – consisting of a husband, wife, and their children – dominated the public consciousness as the “right way” to live. Most LGBT people kept their personal lives secret for fear of social and legal consequences.[vi]

As the Cold War set in, Canada underestimated the growing threat of espionage from the Soviet Union. That illusion was shattered in December 1945 with the defection of Igor Gouzenko. Suddenly, the presence of spy activity within government and security institutions was very real. Gouzenko had been working at the Soviet Union’s embassy in Ottawa throughout the Second World War. In the weeks following the end of the war, he provided evidence proving the USSR had established a network of espionage in Canada and other allied countries.[vii] The Kellock-Taschereau Royal Commission was established to investigate Gouzenko’s revelations. In response, 21 suspected spies were arrested and detained, 10 of whom were eventually convicted,[viii] including Communist Party MP Fred Rose, who was expelled from the House of Commons soon afterward.[ix]

The Royal Commission’s report encouraged the government to “take such steps as may be considered desirable” to prevent further spy infiltration of government departments and agencies. In response, the government established a security panel made up of top civil servants and members of the RCMP. The panel was tasked with advising on security measures and identifying suspected communists and spies in sensitive positions.[x] Their methods included instituting security clearances for federal public servants. In its early days, the panel was primarily focused on identifying suspected communists in top-level positions, but as time went on, it investigated all levels of government.

By the mid-1950s, the RCMP had been given a mandate to conduct investigations on behalf of the panel, and attention was extended to those deemed to have “character weaknesses.”[xi] [xii] A character weakness was defined as any perceived moral deficiency that could make someone a target of blackmail by Soviet agents. While this included alcoholism, adultery, and promiscuity, most investigative attention was focused on identifying LGBT individuals, primarily gay men.[xiii] The accepted theory was that an individual could be coerced into revealing government secrets under threat of their sexuality being publicly revealed. However, this theory was not based in reality; there was not a single case of Soviet agents successfully blackmailing an LGBT person.[xiv]

“Rather than removing the social basis for the threat of blackmail through calling for the repeal of anti-homosexual laws and heterosexist social practices they instead intensify the construction of the need for secrecy as the problem which requires the mobilization of surveillance and detection strategies.”[xv]

Gary Kinsman

Throughout the following decade, the persecution of LGBT civil servants intensified, with the earliest dismissals of “suspected homosexuals” beginning in 1952. In the same year, the government amended Canada’s Immigration Act to bar all homosexuals from entering the country, both as immigrants and visitors.[xvi] By 1956, the RCMP officially formed a unit to identify “character weaknesses” in civil servants.[xvii] While Prime Minister John Diefenbaker questioned the value of the purge and whether the civil service would be able to retain talented employees, his influence made little impact.[xviii]

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the RCMP identified and interrogated hundreds of people who were subsequently removed from their government positions, including several high-profile civil servants. In 1957, after being accused of being a communist sympathizer and spy, Canadian diplomat Herbert Norman died by jumping from the upper floors of the Swedish embassy. He left behind a note declaring that he was innocent of spying but “that he thought his sexual orientation was jeopardizing international relations.”[xix] Similarly, the Canadian ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1956, John Watkins, was suspected of being a homosexual following his retirement. In 1964, he died of a heart attack following a 27-day interrogation.[xx] Ultimately, the RCMP concluded he had not been blackmailed by the Soviets.[xxi]

To improve the detection of LGBT individuals, the security panel sent its secretary, D. F. Wall, and Carleton University professor F. R. Wake on a research expedition to the United States. While Wall examined US security screening policies and procedures,[xxii] Wake was focused on scientific methods and technology to detect homosexuals. After a year of research, he returned to Canada to develop his own detection method, which was later dubbed the “fruit machine” by a member of the RCMP. The fruit machine included a pupillary response test that measured changes in the size of a subject’s pupils in response to being shown erotic images of men and women. If a man’s pupils enlarged in response to a naked man, Wake theorized that this was an indication of same-sex attraction.[xxiii]

The Canadian government experimented with primitive lie detectors similar to this electropsychometer in hopes of finding a way to detect security risks. During the Cold War and until 1992, Canadian security officials conducted a campaign to identify and dismiss members of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community working for the public service and armed forces. Image courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

Wake ran into trouble getting volunteers for the project from both “known homosexuals” and “normals,” who feared the experiment would erroneously flag them as LGBT.[xxiv] Wake also faced a number of technical challenges in his testing. Capturing rapid changes in pupil size requires an extremely high-speed camera, which was not commercially available in the 1960s. Wake was eventually able to acquire one from the Air Force. Photos had to be taken at an angle so as not to block the subject’s view of the images, and each subject had different sized eyes, distance between the eyes, and height. Furthermore, Wake could not discount various unrelated stimuli that could cause pupil dilation, such as changes in lighting, stress, and fatigue.[xxv]By 1967, it was clear the fruit machine did not work and the project was abandoned.[xxvi]

In 2016, a group of Carleton University students asked university president Roseann Runte to issue an apology for the school’s connection to the fruit machine. In response, Runte issued a statement acknowledging the school’s history of discrimination: “I personally express my deeply-felt apology for the ignorance, prejudice and cruelty of humans over the centuries, the world over. If members of the Carleton University community in the past promoted any sort of prejudice, I sincerely regret this.”[xxvii] However, the apology did not directly address Wake’s work with the federal government, nor his fruit machine research.

As the 1960s wound down, so did the fervour with which the federal government pursued the removal of LGBT employees from the civil service. In 1967, Pierre Trudeau, at that time the minister of justice, famously stated, “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. What is done in private between two adults does not concern the Criminal Code.” Two years later, with Trudeau as prime minister, Bill C-150 officially decriminalized homosexuality. In the same year, the Royal Commission on Security, also known as the MacKenzie Commission, released a report recommending that “homosexuality should not always be a bar to employment in the public service but should normally preclude clearance to the higher levels of classification and certainly preclude posting to sensitive positions overseas.”[xxviii]

While the federal government was no longer overtly persecuting LGBT employees, the RCMP continued to focus attention on rooting out homosexuality within its own ranks throughout the 1970s. In addition to the failed fruit machine, the RCMP developed its own list of indicators to identify homosexual men, which included driving white cars and wearing tight pants and pinky rings.[xxix] Once identified, the men were either forced to resign or were transferred to less sensitive positions.[xxx] In 1979, the Human Rights Commission released a poll of 2,000 adults that showed that 68% of Canadians would support the hiring of homosexuals in the RCMP. However, RCMP security services chief Michael Dare responded that they had no plans to change their hiring policies, stating that “this particular job demands the ability to be totally secure,” and “while domestic moods may have changed, the international flavor of the service makes homosexual agents risky.”[xxxi]

Similar to the civil service and the RCMP, the CAF had actively barred homosexuals from enlisting since its inception. From 1866 to 1944, Canada adopted Britain’s Naval Discipline Act, which punished men found guilty of “sodomy” or “indecent assault” with imprisonment or hard labour. During the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps used a classification system during enlistment to determine if an individual was fit to serve. Homosexuals were classified as “psychopathic personalities,” which was given the most negative score on the scale. From the 1950s until the early 1990s, the military actively identified and removed LGBT members. During interrogations, members were coerced into resigning in order to receive an honourable discharge and were pressured into revealing other LGBT people in the military. Despite the 1969 law decriminalizing homosexuality, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau defended the military policy, reiterating old concerns about blackmail.[xxxii]

In the 1980s, the military’s rationale against LGBT members shifted from a fear of blackmail to concerns that their presence could cause “interpersonal conflict” with a “detrimental effect on operational efficiency” and morale. Once outed, members were no longer forced to resign but faced significant career limitations if they chose to stay.[xxxiii] This ended in October 1992, when the military was forced to end its discriminatory policy following a lawsuit brought by former officer Michelle Douglas. Douglas joined the CAF in 1986 and was assigned to the Special Investigations Unit, whose duties, ironically, included conducting investigations against homosexuals in the armed forces.[xxxiv] Douglas was the second female ever posted to this unit and the first to be promoted as an officer.

In 1989, despite her promising career, Douglas was taken to a hotel room near Toronto’s Pearson Airport and was interrogated about her sexuality and loyalty to Canada over a period of two days. She was asked to out other homosexual members but refused. Douglas was soon released from the CAF, and in 1990, with the help of MP Svend Robinson and lawyer Clayton Ruby, she brought a lawsuit against the military.[xxxv] On October 27, 1992, knowing its arguments would not hold up in court as they violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the military settled with Douglas, awarding her $100,000.[xxxvi] The military also agreed to drop its discriminatory policies against LGBT members.[xxxvii] Following the landmark decision, Douglas stated, “This is not simply for me. It’s for the people who are still in the Canadian Armed Forces and for those who never had the chance to take this to Court.”[xxxviii]

While Douglas’s lawsuit represented a significant victory for LGBT Purge victims, it was not until 2015 that activists gained large-scale public attention for their demands for a formal apology from the federal government. In 2016, LGBT Purge survivors Todd Ross, Martine Roy, and Alida Satalic, along with lawyer Douglas Elliott, launched a class action lawsuit against the government seeking compensation for the financial losses and psychological harm they suffered.[xxxix] On November 24, 2017, the government was found guilty and reached an agreement in principle. Shortly afterward, on November 28, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a historic apology to LGBTQ2 Canadians in the House of Commons where he expressed shame and regret to the public servants who faced discrimination because of their sexual orientation.[xl]

Read the full transcript here:

On June 22, 2018, the final settlement agreement for the class action was approved, which included up to $110 million to directly compensate LGBT civil service, military, and RCMP members who were negatively impacted by the discriminatory policies; $15 million for legal fees; $15 million for memorialization and reconciliation efforts; and $5 million for external administration. In total, 719 claimants were awarded between $5,000 and $175,000, depending on the severity of their claim. This included 629 from the military, 12 from the RCMP, and 78 civil servants.[xli] The number of claimants was lower than expected, and the group was disproportionately female, due in part to the significant number of men who died throughout the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. “There’s far fewer men than we had hoped to see as part of this class action,” Michelle Douglas said at the time. “Many committed suicide. Some were lost to HIV or AIDS, and some just went back into the closet in shame. And so, it’s a disproportionate number of women who are survivors today of the purge.”[xlii] In addition, many people were still distrustful of the government’s intentions, and others did not hear about the case in time to apply.[xliii]

In addition to the financial settlement, the government committed to building an LGBTQ2S+ monument in Ottawa. In March 2022, the winning design, “Thunderhead,” was selected and will be built on a plot of land to the west of Parliament Hill. The design was conceived by a Winnipeg-based team at Public City Architecture in collaboration with artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan and Albert McLeod, an Indigenous and Two-Spirit People subject-matter expert and advisor. The monument is expected to be completed in 2025.[xliv]

Throughout the LGBT Purge, thousands of Canadians had their privacy invaded and careers ruined. Some suffered severe psychological and social impacts, leading them to take their own lives. While no amount of financial compensation can completely undo the harm inflicted upon them, survivors have finally received a semblance of justice for the way they were treated by the government they had chosen to serve.[xlv] Today, LGBT individuals are able to actively participate in the civil service, military, and RCMP without facing officially sanctioned persecution for their sexuality.

[i] Heidi Lee, “Canada Launches 1st Ever 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan: ‘Past the 100 Days, but We’re Here’”, CBC.

[ii] “F.A.Q.”, LGBT Purge Fund (2023).

[iii]Remarks by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.”

[iv] Ron Levy, Levy, Ron. “Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from the Public Service”, The Canadian Encyclopedia.

[v] Allan Laine Kagedan, The Politics of Othering in the United States and Canada, pg.91–92.

[vi] Ken Setterington, Righting Canada’s Wrongs: The LGBT Purge and the Fight for Equal Rights in Canada, pg.8.

[vii] Jeff Baillargeon “What Happened on This Day in Queer History – The Fruit Machine Documentary”, The ArQuives.

[viii] Kagedan, 92–93.

[ix] Kenneth Cragg, “Fred Rose Is Expelled from House”, The Globe and Mail.

[x] Levy, “Public Service.”

[xi] Kagedan, pg.91.

[xii] Setterington, pg.15–16.

[xiii] Baillargeon.

[xiv] Kagedan, pg.99.

[xv] Gary Kinsman, “‘Character Weaknesses’ and ‘Fruit Machines’: Towards an Analysis of the Anti-Homosexual Security Campaign in the Canadian Civil Service”, Labour/Le Travailleur, pg.148.

[xvi] Setterington, pg.16.

[xvii] Levy, “Public Service.”

[xviii] Kagedan, pg.100.

[xix] Setterington, pg.18.

[xx] Levy, “Public Service.”

[xxi] Kagedan, pg.101.

[xxii] Kinsman, pg.139.

[xxiii] Peter Knegt, “The Fruit Machine: Why Every Canadian Should Learn about This Country’s ‘Gay Purge’”, CBC.

[xxiv] Baillargeon.

[xxv] John Sawatsky, Men in the Shadows: The RCMP Security Service, pg.135.

[xxvi] Kinsman, pg.158–159.

[xxvii] Matthew Pearson, “Carleton Email Offers Vague Apology for ‘Fruit Machine’ Research”, Ottawa Citizen.

[xxviii] Setterington, pg.24.

[xxix] Levy, “Public Service.”

[xxx] Kinsman, pg.149.

[xxxi] “Homosexuals Not Welcome, Mounties Say”, The Globe and Mail (1979).

[xxxii] Ron Levy, “Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from the Military”, The Canadian Encyclopedia.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Ian Austen, “Commemorating the Victims of Canada’s ‘Gay Purge’”, The New York Times.

[xxxv]LGBT Purge – Survivor Stories.

[xxxvi] Setterington, pg.50.

[xxxvii] Bindman.

[xxxviii] Setterington, pg.51.

[xxxix] Ibid., pg.62.

[xl]Canadian Government and Former Federal Employees Reach Settlement in ‘Gay Purge’”, CBC (2018).

[xli]LGBT Purge Class Action Final Settlement Agreement”, Government of Canada (2020).

[xlii] Austen.

[xliii] Jim Bronskill, “718 Victims of Canadian Government’s Gay Purge Compensated in Settlement”, Global News.

[xliv]‘Thunderhead’ Wins LGBTQ2+ National Monument Design Competition!”, LGBT Purge Fund (2022).

[xlv]The End of the LGBT Purge – 30th Anniversary”, Egale (2022).


Austen, Ian. “Commemorating the Victims of Canada’s ‘Gay Purge’” in The New York Times (January 24, 2020).

Baillargeon, Jeff. “What Happened on This Day in Queer History – The Fruit Machine Documentary” on The ArQuives (June 1, 2020).

Bindman, Stephen. “Military Admits Policy Wrong, Agrees to Welcome Gays, Lesbians” in The Ottawa Citizen (October 28, 1992, A1).

Bronskill, Jim. “718 Victims of Canadian Government’s Gay Purge Compensated in Settlement” on Global News (July 13, 2019).

“Canadian Government and Former Federal Employees Reach Settlement in ‘Gay Purge’” on CBC (April 21, 2018).

Cragg, Kenneth. “Fred Rose Is Expelled from House” in The Globe and Mail (January 31, 1947, 1).

“F.A.Q.” on LGBT Purge Fund (2023).

“Homosexuals Not Welcome, Mounties Say” in The Globe and Mail (September 29 1979, 9).

Kagedan, Allan Laine. The Politics of Othering in the United States and Canada (2020). Palgrave Macmillan.

Kinsman, Gary. “‘Character Weaknesses’ and ‘Fruit Machines’: Towards an Analysis of the Anti-Homosexual Security Campaign in the Canadian Civil Service” in Labour/Le Travailleur, vol. 35, (1995, 133–161). Canadian Committee on Labour History.

Knegt, Peter. “The Fruit Machine: Why Every Canadian Should Learn about This Country’s ‘Gay Purge’” on CBC (May 30, 2018).

Lee, Heidi. “Canada Launches 1st Ever 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan: ‘Past the 100 Days, but We’re Here’” on CBC (August 28, 2022).

Levy, Ron. “Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from Public Service” on The Canadian Encyclopedia (October 3, 2018).

Levy, Ron. “Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from the Military” on The Canadian Encyclopedia (June 24, 2020).

“LGBT Purge Class Action Final Settlement Agreement” on Government of Canada (February 26, 2020).

“LGBT Purge – Survivor Stories: Michelle Douglas” on YouTube, uploaded by LGBT Purge – Survivor Stories (October 27, 2021).

Pearson, Matthew. “Carleton Email Offers Vague Apology for ‘Fruit Machine’ Research” in Ottawa Citizen (April 12, 2016).

“Remarks by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Apologize to LGBTQ2 Canadians” on Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, Canada (November 28, 2017).

Sawatsky, John. Men in the Shadows: The RCMP Security Service (1980). Doubleday Canada.

Setterington, Ken. Righting Canada’s Wrongs: The LGBT Purge and the Fight for Equal Rights in Canada (2022). James Lorimer & Company Ltd.

“The End of the LGBT Purge – 30th Anniversary” on Egale (2022).

“‘Thunderhead’ Wins LGBTQ2+ National Monument Design Competition!” on LGBT Purge Fund (March 24, 2022).