Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from Public Service

Between the 1950s and 1990s, the Canadian government responded to national security concerns generated by Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union by spying on, exposing and removing suspected LGBTQ individuals from the federal public service. They were cast as social and political subversives and seen as targets for blackmail by communist regimes seeking classified government information. These characterizations were justified by arguments that people who engaged in same-sex relations suffered from a “character weakness” and had something to hide because their sexuality was not only considered a taboo but, under certain circumstances, was illegal. As a result, the RCMP investigated large numbers of people, many of whom were fired, demoted or forced to resign — even if they had no access to security information. These measures were kept out of public view to prevent scandal and to keep counter-espionage operations under wraps.


In 1945, the defection of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko revealed that Canada had been infiltrated by a network of Soviet agents in the civil service, as well as in the military and scientific establishments (see Intelligence and Espionage). In response, a royal commission was launched and found that Canadian public servants passed state secrets to Soviet agents. Realizing that it had no process in place to detect such security threats, the government established a Security Panel in 1946 made up of a small, secret committee of top civil servants and members of the RCMP. The Security Panel was tasked with identifying civil servants whose loyalties were in doubt.

In 1948, a Cabinet directive stated that “maximum care” be used to ensure that government employees were trustworthy. Investigation fell to the RCMP, which extended its anti-communist purge to individuals engaging in socially stigmatized behaviours. The RCMP created a new classification category for people who demonstrated “character weaknesses,” reasoning that individuals who gambled, committed adultery or drank heavily, for example, were vulnerable to blackmail because they had something to hide.

This reasoning extended to anyone engaging in anything then considered sexually taboo. Given that they did not adhere to sexual conventions of that time, it was thought that lesbians, gays and bisexuals were also likely to violate political norms. They were therefore commonly associated with communism and spying.

At the time, people who engaged in same-sex relations were widely considered to be mentally ill and a menace to society. The law therefore targeted sex between men, making it a criminal offence (see Criminal Code). It also made any activity that could be interpreted as something that may lead to sexual relations between two men illegal. In 1953, the law was extended to women. Thus, men or women who sought out opportunities to socialize together — for example, by dancing, congregating in a bar, or even attending private house parties — risked arrest.

Since human rights laws did not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, it was perfectly legal, for example, to fire someone from their job due to their sexuality (see LGBTQ2S Rights in Canada).

Gays, lesbians and bisexuals were therefore considered easy targets for Soviet manipulation. If threatened with exposure, it was reasoned, people would do anything to avoid the humiliation of having their sexuality revealed, even if it meant betraying their country. Mainstream media helped spread this fear. For example, the Globe and Mail ran an article in 1955 which stated:

“Exposure, not punishment, is what the normal homosexual — if we can say any homosexual is normal — fears. That is why homosexuals are found to be a danger if placed in positions where important Government secrets may reside. It is not that they are likely to be more traitorous than others, but that they are vulnerable to blackmail and might betray official secrets to preserve private ones.”

American Influence

Initiatives that targeted LGBTQ civil servants as a security threat were not isolated to Canada. In the United States for example, CIA director Roscoe Hillenkoetter stated in 1950:

“the moral pervert is a security risk of so serious a nature that he must be weeded out of government employment wherever he is found. Failure to do this can only result in placing a weapon in the hands of our enemies.”

Pervert was a commonly used pejorative to describe LGBTQ people. The same year, a report submitted to a US Senate subcommittee entitled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” concluded that LGBTQ staff are unsuitable for employment in the federal government because of their “degraded,” “illegal” and “immoral acts.”

Canada’s Security Panel was highly sensitive to American security concerns. Thus, when the United States stepped up its campaign to purge LGBTQ people from federal offices in the early 1950s, Canada followed suit. One of the earliest firings occurred in 1952, when a man working at Canada’s Communications Branch, which intercepted radio signals from the Soviet Union, was discovered to be gay. The individual’s loyalty and honesty were not in doubt; however, authorities feared that concerns over his sexuality could jeopardize intelligence sharing arrangements with the Americans.

Identification and Elimination of LGBTQ Staff

In 1952, a new Cabinet directive on security advised that reliability from a security viewpoint take account of “defects of character” that might cause an employee to be “indiscreet, dishonest or vulnerable to blackmail.” Three years later, a more detailed directive reaffirmed this position. At the same time, the Canadian government prohibited LGBTQ civil servants from all positions deemed sensitive, including positions in the military, the RCMP and foreign affairs.

In 1956, the RCMP formed a “character weakness” unit to scrutinize civil servants’ backgrounds. Between the years 1958–59, a person’s sexuality became a primary focus of security investigations.

These investigations met with some resistance. The Security Panel’s liberal-minded representatives sought to restrict security probes to those with access to classified information. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, for example, was uncomfortable with the indiscriminate use of “character weakness” to justify dismissals from the public service. Nevertheless, the Security Panel empowered RCMP investigators to search for so-called sexual deviants in all government departments.

Beginning in 1959, the RCMP annually uncovered hundreds of confirmed, alleged and suspected LGBTQ employees in government departments and agencies, including such low-level security offices as the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Department of Public Works and the Unemployment Insurance Commission. People outside the public service were also investigated as part of a strategy to track down as many federally employed LGBTQ individuals as possible.

By 1964–65, about 6,000 LGBTQ employees, predominantly gay men, were on RCMP file. The next year, this number climbed to 7,500. By 1967–68, continued surveillance and collaboration with other police agencies brought the total number of files to about 9,000, of which roughly only one-third were federal public servants.

The Department of External Affairs (DEA) and its embassies around the world were an area of concern. Members of the far right considered them to be “a notorious cess-pool of homosexuals and perverts.” This view was partly the result of a policy by the DEA to post bachelors to the Soviet bloc because these positions were thought to be challenging posts for married men with families. As a result, the DEA was hit particularly hard by RCMP surveillance practices. High-profile examples of those targeted included David Johnson, Canada’s ambassador to Moscow (1956–60), and John Watkins, Canada’s ambassador to Moscow (1954–56), who died of a heart attack in 1964 following a 27 days of interrogation by the RCMP regarding his sexuality.

John Wendell Holmes, a senior Canadian diplomat who helped shape Canada’s post-war foreign policy, was forced to resign from public service in 1960. Holmes joined the Department of External Affairs in 1943 and was posted to Moscow in the late 1940s. During his interrogation at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa in November 1959, Holmes disclosed his sexual orientation, but denied ever having been blackmailed by the Soviets. Holmes suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the RCMP’s investigation and interrogation. Though his diplomatic career ended abruptly when he was 49 years old, Holmes moved on to a successful academic career. His published works are considered essential guides to the history of Canadian foreign policy. 

A research project was carried out between 1959 and 1962 to see if distinctions could be made between LGBTQ staff who did or did not pose a security threat. The study concluded that sexual orientation was not a matter of choice. This crucial finding undermined the belief that homosexuality was a “character weakness” and helped persuade the Security Panel that a new approach was needed.

By the mid-1960s, the enthusiasm for purging LGBTQ employees from the public service mellowed, and there were fewer firings. By the late 1960s, LGBTQ employees in jobs with lower security clearance levels were more likely to be denied promotion than face discharge.

Rather than moderate its hardline stance, the RCMP redirected and escalated the hunt inward on its own members through a series of investigations that reached a peak in the late 1960s and died out in the early 1970s. The RCMP developed a series of indicators believed to identify gay men, ranging from driving white cars, to wearing rings on pinkie fingers, to wearing tight pants.

In 1969, a report by a royal commission on security (The Mackenzie Commission) recommended that LGBTQ employees be allowed to work, but that they “should not normally be granted clearance to higher levels, should not be recruited if there is a possibility that they may require such clearance in the course of their careers and should certainly not be posted to sensitive positions overseas.”

RCMP Surveillance of Suspected LGBTQ Civil Servants

Methods used by the RCMP to detect LGBTQ civil servants included photographing men who frequented places where gay men were known to gather, including bars.Years later, one individual recalled the somewhat clandestine approach used by the police:

“We even knew occasionally that there was somebody in some police force or some investigator who would be sitting in a bar…. And you would see someone with a… newspaper held right up and if you…looked real closely you could find him holding behind the newspaper a camera and these people were photographing everyone in the bar.”

Police also undertook surveillance in public parks where men cruised each other for sex. Agents were known to attempt to entrap men in parks by posing as gay men. The RCMP also befriended and recruited gay men as informers. (Lesbians, however, rarely cooperated.) Demonstrating the lengths to which the Mounties were willing to go, a sergeant who was gay was caught and then removed from the RCMP after a surveillance post was set up that provided unimpeded views into the sergeant’s bedroom.

In 1963, the RCMP attempted to map where LGBTQ communities gathered in Ottawa, so they could be put under surveillance. However, this map was soon covered in so many dots that it proved useless.

Beginning a few years earlier, the government began funding and sponsoring research into methods for “scientifically” detecting LGBTQ individuals. This research and the device used to test sexuality came to be known as the “fruit machine” (fruit was a commonly used pejorative for gay). The device attempted to test subject sexuality by monitoring their pupils when exposed to erotic pictures to see if they dilated, which it was believed would indicate sexual arousal.

The RCMP was unable to recruit enough test subjects who were gay, and there was reluctance among “normal males” within the force to volunteer because they feared being misidentified as gay. Test results were deemed inconclusive.

By 1967, the fruit machine was abandoned, and it was decided that a scientific means for identifying homosexuality was out of reach.

End of the Purge, Redress and Apology

The Cold War against LGBTQ civil servants did not end in the late 1960s. In 1973, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau confirmed that suspected homosexuality continued to be one of the factors considered by the government before clearing any federal employee to handle classified documents.

Reflecting the climate of fear that the RCMP investigations continued to create in the 1970s, a woman who worked as a public servant at that time later recalled:

“you always presumed when you were working with the government, ‘Yes, okay, you’re a lesbian.’ You just don’t let anyone else know because of job security.… it was a scary time for anyone who was gay.”

The RCMP security campaign continued until at least the late 1980s and early 1990s, when official policies excluding LGBTQ were changed following decades of lesbian and gay activism and legal challenges.

Michelle Douglas began a promising career in the Canadian Armed Forces in 1986 but was honourably discharged for being a lesbian. In 1990, she launched a successful lawsuit against the military that resulted in the end of its discriminatory policy against gays and lesbians.

When the history of spying on and purging LGBTQ civil servants was publicly exposed in 1992, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney denounced it as “one of the great outrages and violations of fundamental human liberty.”

In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in the House of Commons for discrimination done or condoned by the federal government and its agencies against LGBTQ individuals. The apology came with a $145-million compensation package that included $110 million to be paid out as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement for civil servants whose careers suffered because of discriminatory actions against them.

Further Reading

  • Daniel J. Robinson and David Kimmel, “The Queer Career of Homosexual Security Vetting in Cold War Canada,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 3 (September 1994)

  • Gary Kinsman, “The Canadian Cold War on Queers: Sexual Regulation and Resistance,” Queerly Canadian: An Introductory Reader in Sexuality Studies (2012)

  • Tom Warner, Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada (2002)

  • Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation (2010)

  • Donald W. McLeod, Lesbian and gay liberation in Canada: a selected annotated chronology, 1964-1975 (1996)