New Brunswick

St. Stephen man recalls personal struggle during LGBT purge of Canadian military

A New Brunswick man doesn't want the public to forget about the thousands of federal government employees forced from their jobs because of their sexuality more than 30 years ago.

Todd Ross says he was interrogated about his sexual orientation while in the navy and discharged

Todd Ross was discharged from the navy in 1990 after being given a polygraph and forced to admit he was gay. (Submitted/Todd Ross)

A New Brunswick man doesn't want the public to forget about the thousands of federal government employees forced from their jobs because of their sexuality more than 30 years ago.

Todd Ross was one of the lead plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the federal government over the gay purge between the 1950s and 1990. He was also discharged from the navy in 1990 after being targeted for his sexual orientation.

"I was able to compartmentalize it to an extent and was able to sort of continue on," said the St. Stephen man.

"So many other people, it has affected them in a negative way. For all of us, I think we hold onto this and it has become a part of us that we continue to have to struggle through." 

Ross joined the Canadian Armed Forces in the spring of 1988. He said a year later he was brought under investigation by the special investigation unit of the military police.

That questioning continued for a year and a half. He said officers would ask him if he was loyal to Canada and what he did in his off-hours.

They really broke me down to the point that I just wanted it to be over. And so at that point, I came out.- Todd Ross

At first, Ross wondered what the questions were about and whether he had done something wrong.

"There was a little bit of humour to it as well because they were asking my loyalty to the country," Ross said. "To me, I was one of the most loyal people that I know."

During the investigation, they also asked him if he was gay.

Ross repeatedly said "no," because he hadn't come out to himself yet. A few times, he had to take a lie detector test.

Carrying the guilt

A year and a half into the investigation, he couldn't handle it anymore. 

"They really broke me down to the point that I just wanted it to be over," he said. "And so at that point, I came out."

After police wrapped up the investigation into Ross, the naval operator was told he would likely lose his security clearance. He was also given the option of an honourable discharge, which he took.

When he left, Ross felt ashamed, as if he had done something wrong. And he couldn't tell anyone why he left the military because he still wasn't out as a gay man. 

"I just carried that guilt with me."

Justin Trudeau apologizes for purge 

In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said sorry for decades of "state-sponsored, systemic oppression and rejection."

Trudeau expressed shame and regret to thousands of civil servants and military members who endured discrimination and injustice based on their sexual orientation during the Cold War era.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wipes his eye while he is applauded as he delivers a formal apology to LGBT people in Canada in the House of Commons in November 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ross was in the House of Commons during Trudeau's apology. He described it as "incredibly emotional."

"I had never dreamed that I would be sitting in Parliament, listening to the prime minister issue an apology for me and for people who had gone through similar experiences."

Honouring the victims 

Ross is now the director of the Purge Fund, a nonprofit corporation that manages almost $26 million from the settlement of a class-action lawsuit between the government of Canada and members of the LGBT community who were employed by the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP and federal public service.

Ross said he's hopeful money from the fund will commemorate the LGBT community with a national monument in Ottawa and a display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, as well as a travelling display across Canada.

The fund is also looking to educate people working in the public service or joining the RCMP or Canadian Military to prevent something like this from happening again.

"People are who they are and you need to love them," he said. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Fraser

Reporter/Editor

Elizabeth Fraser is a reporter/editor with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She's originally from Manitoba. Story tip? elizabeth.fraser@cbc.ca

With files from Information Morning Saint John, Julia Whalen

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