Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders apologizes for 1981 gay bathhouse raids

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders made a historic apology today for raids on four gay bathhouses in the city that took place 35 years ago.

Armed with crowbars and sledgehammers, police raided 4 bathhouses 35 years ago

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders says the force 'regrets' raids more than 35 years ago that targeted the city's gay community. (CBC)

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders made a historic apology today for raids on four gay bathhouses in the city that took place 35 years ago. 

Saunders, who made the apology during the annual Pride reception at police headquarters, called the raids "one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history." The chief said the February 1981 event was notable for its "destructiveness" and that the raids did not occur on only one night.

"The 35th anniversary of the 1981 raids is a time when the Toronto Police Service expresses its regrets for those very actions. It is also an occasion to acknowledge the lessons learned about the risks of treating any part of Toronto's many communities as not fully a part of society," Saunders said.

"Recognizing diversity requires consistently renewed practice strategies and reaching out to communities and vigilance in challenging stereotypes. Policing requires building mutual trust and that means forging links with the full range of communities that make up this extraordinary city. The Toronto Police Service recognizes the lessons from that period have continuing relevance for the creation of a more inclusive city."

Saunders, joined by members of the LGBT communities, made the remarks in front of rainbow flags and as part of Toronto's annual Pride celebrations.

Mayor John Tory says it's time 'to acknowledge something in our community that was wrong.' (CBC)

On Feb. 5, 1981, officers armed with crowbars and sledgehammers raided the bathhouses and arrested some 300 gay men.

Those who owned or worked in the bathhouses were charged with keeping a common bawdy house and patrons were charged with being found in a common bawdy house.

More than 90 per cent of the charges were eventually dropped, and the raids galvanized Toronto's LGBT community to fight for their rights and find a political voice.

Toronto Mayor John Tory asked the crowd at police headquarters to observe a moment of silence for the victims and families of the attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead and 53 injured.

"I want to say in all seriousness that it's a good and appropriate time to acknowledge something in our community that was wrong, something that happened that was wrong. It went against the respect, the sense of fairness and the sense of decency, everything we believe in, the sense of justice we expect. I commend the chief," Tory said.

Tory said he is proud to be mayor of a city that celebrates LGBT rights.

The bathhouse raids of 1981 led to city-wide protests with about 3,000 people marching against the arrests. (CBC)

Andy Pringle, chair of Toronto Police Services Board, said much has changed since the bathhouse raids, including the police service. He said the board is an "ardent supporter" of Pride month in Toronto.

Toronto Pastor Brent Hawkes, a community leader who spoke at the police chief`s Pride reception, said the apology is significant.

"The raids on the baths 35 years ago and subsequently have been among the low points in the relationship between the LGBTQ community and Toronto police. The cost of that damaged relationship has been that crimes against our community have gone under-reported and the trusting relationship that is needed between various groups, especially marginalized groups, with the police was severely damaged," he said.

"And the message it sent to the broader society, in terms of marginalization and criminalization of our community, has caused a lot of damage."

Hawkes said much work has been done since inside the Toronto Police Service, through liaison committees and by several senior staff and two previous police chiefs, to improve the relationship.

"Today not only helps to heal, here in Toronto, it also helps to avoid hurt. While the hurt remains, the healing can begin. And to that, I say, thank you, Toronto police services, and thank you, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders."

Activists say the apology has taken a long time.

"Thirty-five years is a long time coming," John Brodhagen, the general manager of Steamworks Baths, told CBC News earlier this week.

A member of the gay community wearing a swastika and a sign stating 'Fascism is alive and well and breeding in Toronto' walks past a police officer as he leaves a police commission hearing on Feb. 12, 1981. The people attending the meeting were told there would be no public inquiry into the previous week's raids on four bathhouses. (Harvey/UPC/Canadian Press)

He and others say it was largely because of the raids that LGBT issues were catapulted onto the public stage.

"If it weren't for the raids, Pride wouldn't have happened.… It was a cry for what police had done," he said.

Saunders plans to march in the Pride parade on July 3, following in the footsteps of Bill Blair, who became the first Toronto police chief to do so in 2005.

With files from The Canadian Press