OTTAWA — The federal government has agreed to expand the scope of a landmark deal to financially compensate members of the military and other agencies who were investigated and sometimes fired because of their sexual orientation.
A revised version of the class-action settlement over the so-called “gay purge” explicitly includes people whose careers suffered as early as 1955 — seven years prior to a previously agreed date.
In addition, the settlement creates an “exceptions committee” that will look case-by-case at those who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
They could include people affected before 1955, individuals who worked for agencies not listed in the settlement, or those who were targeted even though they were not gay or lesbian.
An agreement in principle in the court action was drafted last November, just days before the government delivered a sweeping apology for decades of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.
However, a number of people seeking redress fell outside the parameters of the original agreement, including some who were singled out by superiors because they were perceived as gay, or because they vocally stuck up for colleagues, said Doug Elliott, a lawyer behind the class action.
“Those people were really victims of the purge, too and we felt if there were such people that they ought to be included, because even though they were not gay, they were suffering because of this anti-gay policy,” Elliott said in an interview.
A former Air Force member who was investigated in the late 1950s and forced out in the early ’60s represents one of the earliest cases in the legal action, Elliott said.
“I really didn’t expect there was going to be anyone around who was going to put their hand up from that earlier period and say that they had been purged. But a few elderly people did come forward.”
The settlement, still subject to Federal Court approval, includes at least $50 million and up to $110 million in total compensation, with eligible individuals each expected to receive between $5,000 and $175,000.
The first phase of a program to notify potential members of the class action is underway.
Hundreds of people have already joined, and Elliott has a ”working estimate” of up to 2,000 participants. “I expect that it will probably exceed a thousand. But how far north of that it will go is very difficult to predict.”
Elliott said one theory holds that gay people don’t like to admit they were in the military and military members don’t like to acknowledge they’re gay, something called the “double-closet phenomenon.”
In addition, the AIDS epidemic took its toll on many members of the gay community.
“Despite the government’s great efforts to create a list of every homosexual in Canada, they never succeeded,” Elliott said with a chuckle.
“So we don’t know who these people are. Even if we knew who they are, we don’t know how many of them are still alive. And among those who were affected and still alive, we don’t know if they will step forward.”
He personally knows two eligible men who have not yet signed on.
“And I think in their cases, that it’s because this is a horrible experience they had in their past. No amount of money in the world is enough to make them revisit it, they just want to forget about it.”
There will also be several reconciliation and remembrance measures, including a national monument, a Canadian Museum for Human Rights exhibition, declassification of archival records and a citation akin to a medal for affected people.
Elliott said the citation is extremely important to many of his clients, particularly former Armed Forces members.
“When they went into the military, that’s one of the things they were looking forward to, was earning a medal one day,” he said. “And then they never got a chance. So this is some small recognition of the fact that they too served and that they suffered in the service of their country.”
The Liberal government has also introduced legislation that would allow people to apply to have their criminal convictions for consensual sexual activity between same-sex partners erased from the public record.
The Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act would provide for the destruction and removal of records for the offences of gross indecency, buggery and anal intercourse.
At a Senate committee studying the bill Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called it an “important and overdue step in the right direction.”