Canada: A People's History

Canada: A People's History - New Times, New Ways (Part 1)

New Times, New Ways (Part 1) updates the landmark series, covering 1991 - 2001: the fight for LGBT equality, the Blackberry spawns Canada’s own Silicon Valley, Indigenous people seek redress over abuse at residential schools and more.

1991 - 2001: Victories for LGBT equality, Quebec's referendum, the collapse of the cod fisheries & more

Gay rights activist Michelle Douglas poses in uniform. In 1989, she was dismissed from the military, having been declared "Not Advantageously Employable Due to Homosexuality." (Copyright: Michelle Douglas)

In the lead up to the 21st century, Canada experiences massive waves of change. Old values are challenged and Canada charts a different future.

This brand new episode of Canada: A People's History covers events in the last decade of the 20th century: Canada confronts its uncomfortable past and figures out how to move forward in a high-tech future.

Free to be

In the 1990s, the rights of LGBT Canadians take a quantum leap forward. Two major lawsuits pave the way for equal treatment for LGBT people in their places of employment.

In 1989, soldier Michelle Douglas is dismissed from the military. She's declared "Not Advantageously Employable Due to Homosexuality."

In 1990, Douglas files a $500,000 suit against the Department of National Defense — she's represented by famous civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby. In 1992, shortly before her case is to go to trial, the military abandons its policies banning LGBT Canadians from serving and settles the case. Douglas goes on to found the Foundation for Equal Families, an organization dedicated to getting spousal rights extended to LGBT families.

That same year, Torontonian Michael Leshner achieves another milestone for gay rights. Leshner works for the Ontario government, which provides partner benefits to common-law heterosexual couples. Leshner argues that his live-in partner of 11 years, Mike Stark, should be able to access the same benefits (including an eventual survivors pension). The Ontario Human Rights Commission agrees and policy is changed to include same sex couples.

11 years later, The Michaels — as they're known in the press — become Canada's first legally-married same-sex couple.

Healing words

In 1990, future Assembly of First Nations' Grand Chief Phil Fontaine speaks publicly about the abuse he suffered while attending a church-run residential school in Manitoba.

Fontaine's admission starts an outpouring of testimony on the damage caused by residential schools. A series of class action lawsuits follows: against the Government of Canada, as well as the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches.

Residential school survivor Audrey Rivers ponders over photos from her youth. (Canada: A People's History | Copyright: Galafilm)

In 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement becomes the single largest class action settlement in Canadian history, creating a $2 billion compensation fund for victims. As part of the settlement, the government also agrees to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into repairing the damage done by residential schools. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologizes to residential school survivors.

On the edge

Following the rejection of 1992's Charlottetown Accord in a national referendum (a joint attempt by the government and premiers to pass a constitutional amendment to bring Quebec into the Constitution of Canada), separatist sentiments are on the rise. In 1995, Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau announces the province will hold a second referendum on Quebec's separation from Canada (the first referendum had taken place in 1980; it failed after nearly 60 per cent of Quebecers opted to stay in Canada).

NO side supporters during the 1995 Quebec referendum: Kathleen and Rodney Glenn-Morris from British Columbia. (Copyright: Kathleen Glenn Morris)

Early in the referendum campaign, it looks like the pro-Canada "No" side (led by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien) will win.

That changes when Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, replaces Parizeau as the face of the "Yes" movement. Bouchard (back to politics after losing his leg to necrotizing fasciitis) is a compelling symbol of resilience and a charismatic voice for an independent Quebec.

With the Yes side surging in the polls, the No camp organizes a unity rally in Montreal. Tens of thousands of people from across Canada gather to show their support for a unified nation.

On election day, Yes leads for most of the night — but a late surge of ballots from No strongholds on the Island of Montreal and the Outaouais region pushes No ahead. Eventually, No wins by a margin of less than one per cent.

Cod, oil, apps and a changing economy

In the 1990s, Canada's economy undergoes a series of enormous changes. Cod fishing had shaped the lifestyle and economy of the Atlantic provinces for 500 years, but by 1992, overfishing has driven northern cod to near-extinction. The federal government declares an end to commercial cod fishing off the coast of Newfoundland, a massive blow for the province's economy. Roughly 35,000 fishers and processing plant workers lose their jobs.

Sam Gosse of Torbay, N.L., a fisherman prior to the collapse of the inshore cod fishery, fishes recreationally. (Copyright: Sam Gosse)

Newfoundland's new major export becomes its people. Tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders head to work in the oil fields of Western Canada.

Meanwhile, a new economy explodes in Canada's industrial heartland. Abandoned factories in Waterloo, O.N. become offices for new high-tech businesses such as Research in Motion and app developer MappedIn.

Shattered vision

For years, UN peacekeeping was a crucial part of Canada's identity. After two separate conflicts in the 1990s, that begins to change. 

In 1992, combatants in the former Yugoslavia fire on peacekeepers, refusing to acknowledge the UN's authority. In 1993, Canadian peacekeepers from the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry get drawn into a firefight with Croatian forces in the disputed Medak Pocket region. It is the heaviest combat Canadian Forces have taken part in since the Korean War.

In Rwanda two years later, a UN force is trapped by peacekeeping guidelines that allow UN troops to fire their weapons in self defense, but not in the defense of civilians. After militias capture and execute 10 Belgian peacekeepers in Kigali, the UN pulls out all but 450 peacekeepers, who are led by Canadian General Roméo Dallaire.

Peacekeepers Jean-Guy Plante, second from left, and Roméo Dallaire, second from right, pose with cheering Rwandan children in 1994. (Copyright: Jean-Guy Plante)

Dallaire helps save thousands of lives, but is haunted by the hundreds of thousands who died. As a result of the failures in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, Canada and other western nations lose their enthusiasm for UN peacekeeping missions.

Light out of darkness

Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Canadians mobilize to help their neighbours to the south. All North American air travel is shut down and US-bound flights are diverted to the closest Canadian airport. Arguably, no Canadian community does more than Gander, N.L. 

Welcome to Gander. From left to right: Maureen Murray and Sue Riccardelli, stranded 9/11 passengers, with new lifelong friends Mac Moss and his wife. (Copyright: Maureen Murray)

Gander's airport was once a bustling hub of pre-jet age transatlantic travel, the last refueling stop before crossing the Atlantic. By 2001, it's a sleepy shadow of its former self. But on September 11, the airport becomes a key refuge for stranded travellers. Over 6,500 passengers and crew have their flights diverted to Gander. The town of 10,000 rallies together to help keep people sheltered, fed and calm.

Watch Canada: A People's History - New Times, New Ways (Part 1) online now.