1969. Those who were there remember an exciting time. Pierre Elliot Trudeau (PET) had become leader of his party two years earlier. His leadership acceptance speech echoed his campaign theme: Canada must be a “Just Society.” For PET, the phrase signified a united country with equal opportunity for all citizens. In 1969, the federal government “decriminalized” homosexuality, or so it is claimed.
The federal government is going all-out to celebrate this presumed triumph of equality. Next month, the Royal Canadian Mint will release a new $1 coin (loonie) design celebrating the 50th anniversary of the official interpretation of the revision of the criminal code. The government’s Commemorate Canada program has funded Egale Canada to mount a travelling exhibit in cities across the country. The exhibit will celebrate the ostensible “decriminalization” of homosexuality in 1969 and “highlight queer Canadian history with a focus on pre-colonization to legalization.”
On March 28, two activists fresh from the “Anti-69” gathering in Ottawa spoke with an audience in a Fredericton café. Tom Hooper and Karen Pearlston were members of the organizing committee of the Ottawa conference: “Anti-69: Against the Mythologies of the 1969 Criminal Code Reform. The conference (March 23-24) started with a plenary session, “Critiques of the Just Society,” that set the tone for the event with four speakers, all of whom pushed attendees to think beyond the conventional boundaries of the Canadian nation state in our work going forward and in our scholarly approaches to the histories that have led to our present-day reality.
Laura Hall opened the Ottawa session with her talk on “White Settler Homonationalism and the Roots of Heterosexist Patriarchy.” She emphasized that “the settler imagination is built on a timeline of forgetting. Christo Aivalis on “P.E. Trudeau, the Just Society, and Attacks on Workers’ Rights” focused on the individualism of Pierre Trudeau’s ideology, which was focused on an ideal straight white male who would be “held back” by collective rights and demands and had the effect of diminishing workers’ rights.
Danielle Normandeau’s paper on “Disability and Resistance: Intersections of Disability in the 1969 Criminal Code Reform” reminded the audience that “a full critique of 1969 must also account for its disability elements” and specified points in the Criminal Code and other statutes that diminished the rights and humanity of disabled people. Finally, Rinaldo Walcott on “The Black 1960s: Black Life after Sir George Williams & Other Stories of the Nation” spoke about how “Black activism took up the Just Society in a particular way” that “always challenged the nation state to do something beyond the individual.” Many 1960s and 1970s Black activists were queer, but they are not included in the narratives.
In Fredericton, Hooper and Pearlston discussed the significance of the “Just Society” political theme and the aftermath of the 1969 reform. Pearlston opened the gathering with a significant land acknowledgement, explaining that Anti-69 is “organized in a way that makes decolonization central to the movement.”
She said although “there is a lot to celebrate about 1969,” we should not be celebrating the decriminalization of homosexuality” because it did not happen. Parliament reformed two provisions in the Criminal Code: buggery, and gross indecency. These were not repealed. Instead, the bill added an exception clause that allowed individuals to commit these crimes under certain circumstances: they had to take place between only two adults (21 years old and older), in a strict definition of private.
York University historian Tom Hooper believes that the “Just Society” marked a turning point in the separation of the individual from the community / the collective. The celebration of 1969 is based on a myth. “Decriminalization for whom?” Hooper asked. Hooper’s research found that the number of charges and arrests of gay men went up after Trudeau’s famous declaration of removing the state from “the bedrooms of the nation.”
Not only did arrests for gross indecency increase, but other Criminal Code offenses were used against gay men, including indecent acts, vagrancy and the bawdy house law. Large mass arrests took place in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, and other centres. Between 1969 and 2004, 1,300 men were arrested for homosexual acts during almost 40 police raids in cities across the country.
Karen Pearlston of the UNB law faculty, researches lesbian legal history. According to her, lesbians were not affected by the 1969 Criminal Code reforms because the laws against gross indecency and buggery were specific to sexual conduct between men. However, the legal changes made under Pierre Trudeau’s “Just Society” brought lesbian sex into Canadian law through a new “homosexual act” ground for divorce that was added so that husbands could divorce their lesbian wives.
Pearlston noted that the 1969 Criminal Code reforms also included the decriminalization of abortion if that abortion was approved by a Therapeutic Abortion Committee (TAC) of three doctors. The need for a TAC to approve any legal abortion gave anti-choice forces an easy target: they organized to pressure hospitals to remove TACs. Abortion was taken out of the Criminal Code in 1988 but remains inaccessible in regions across Canada, including in many areas of New Brunswick. She also discussed how the ongoing punitive criminal treatment of sex workers was reshaped by the 1969 reforms.
Pearlston and Hooper engaged with numerous participants gathered at Fredericton’s Affirmation Lounge, including discussing the racialized aspect of the police arrests of sex workers and “deviants.” “Racialized people are over-policed and under-protected,” said Hooper. Hooper pointed out as well that having a bedroom for private sex is a neoliberal concept that privileges certain groups of people. Having public sex, including in a car, was the only option open to many people.
Both speakers stressed the need for intersectional approaches to activism, to stop silo-ing social justice struggles. The Anti-69 event in Fredericton was their first gathering following the Ottawa conference, and they invited participants to join the movement to resist the mythologies of the 1969 Criminal Code reforms.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board. Thanks to Karen Pearlston who provided background info on the Ottawa conference and clarified several legal points.