Larry Rousseau still remembers the intense fear he experienced as a gay man working in Canada's public service during the 1980s.

He didn't dare come out before his colleagues at Statistics Canada — not when all around him, his colleagues experienced harassment and discrimination on the mere suspicion that they might be homosexual.

Since the start of the Cold War, he explained, federal employers had been investigating, sanctioning and sometimes firing staff that were gay or suspected of being gay. It was assumed that they could be easily blackmailed into leaking state secrets to foreign spies, if those spies found out about their sexual orientation.

It was a dark period of threats, midnight raids, invasion of privacy and hatred towards the LGBTQ2 community that would eventually become known as the "gay purge." It lasted for decades.

"I did everything I could to remain in that closet and not to come out, because believe me, it was a career-ending move," Rousseau, now the executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, told National Observer.

"It was almost as if it served as a lesson to anybody: 'If you want to work in the federal government, don’t even think about being out,' because the people who were identified — correctly or incorrectly — certainly suffered."

Rousseau made the comments moments before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a sweeping apology to the thousands of victims of the purge in the House of Commons on Tuesday. He called the government's treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirited individuals as a "witch hunt," and a "cruel and unjust" campaign of oppression that shattered dreams, relationships and lives.

Trudeau vows never again

"Under the harsh layer of the spotlight, people were forced to make an impossible choice: their career or their identity," said Trudeau. "The very thing Canadian officials feared — blackmail of their employees — was happening, but it wasn’t at the hands of their adversaries.

"It was at the hands of their own government... For abusing the power of the law and making criminals of citizens, we are sorry."

Trudeau described decades of discrimination that was "codified" and "bolstered" by Canadian law, which "emboldened those who wanted to attack non conforming sexual desires." He acknowledged the colonial roots of the gender norms that led to the mistreatment and offered special acknowledgement to Indigenous two-spirited people who suffered.

Above all else, he vowed that such abuse would "never be repeated."

"While we may view modern Canada as a forward-thinking, progressive nation, we can’t forget our past," he said. "The state orchestrated a culture of stigma and fear around LGBTQ2 communities, and in doing so, destroyed people’s lives.

"... It is with shame and sorrow and deep regret of the things we have done that I stand here today and say, we were wrong, we apologize, I am sorry, we are sorry."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes on Nov. 28, 2017 in the House of Commons to thousands of victims and their families whose rights were violated by the federal government due to their sexual orientation. Facebook video

A 'marathon' of work ahead

Trudeau's apology came with the introduction of new legislation – Bill C-66, which aims to permanently destroy the records of convictions for offences involving consensual sexual activity between same-sex partners that would be considered lawful today. According to The Canadian Press, the government has also earmarked more than $100 million to compensate victims of the purge, including those working for the military, RCMP and other federal agencies.

It's a good first step, said Rousseau of the apology and proposed legislation, "but we need to realize that we have a marathon." Discrimination against the LGBTQ2SI community is still rampant in the workplace today, he explained.

"As a gay man myself, an apology is always good, but what’s really going to count is... the actions this government takes to actually prove their good intentions. That means policies, directives, regulations, (and) legislation that actually addresses this issue," he said.

"Because if everybody thinks for one minute that there aren’t hundreds, if not thousands of people who are gay in the public service today… who are afraid to come out of the closet because of the impact it can have on their career or the harassment and discrimination they would be subject to, you’re dreaming in technicolour."

Rousseau left the public service in 1996 and returned to Statistics Canada in 2003. At that time, he said he was "so happy and so proud" to be able to come out of the closet at work, he jumped on a union president's request to start an the LGBTQ2 working group within the department that would address issues in the workplace.

Larry Rousseau, Canadian Labour Congress
Canadian Labour Congress executive vice-president Larry Rousseau is calling on the federal government extend the same workplace rights and protections to LGBTQ2SI individuals as it does to visible minorities, women, those with disabilities and Indigenous people. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Labour Congress

In addition to Trudeau's apology, he said he would like to see more education in offices about the wrongs of homophobia and recourse options that are specifically available for members of the LGBTQ2 community. Ultimately, he explained, the goal would be to make LGBTQ2SI an equity group that has the same rights and workplace protections as visible minorities, people with disabilities, women and Indigenous people.

"It should be the fifth equity group in the federal government," he said. "It's a bit of a different beast because these programs of course, require statistics and for people to self-identify. But in the case where people are out in the workplace and do self-identify — at least for these individuals, they are recognized as being LGBT in the workplace and therefore, whether it's competitions, their careers, etc., they can be accommodated in the workplace for various situations."

The Canadian Labour Congress, which represents 3.3 million workers across the country, is now calling on the government's process of redress to cover all those affected by the purge, their families and the deceased, recognize ongoing fear and persecution in the workplace today, release documents related to the organization of the federal purge, and deliver on its promise to expunge convictions related to homosexuality.

Among apology-related initiatives, the government is putting $250,000 toward community projects to combat homophobia and provide support for people in crisis. In addition, it plans a commemoration in 2019 of the 50th anniversary of the federal decriminalization of homosexual acts.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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