State Repression of Sexual Minorities

Article excerpt

IN 1996 JUSTICE JOHN WESLEY MCCLUNG, Q.C. ruled against Delwin Vriend in the famous case prompted by his dismissal from a religious college owing to his sexual orientation. Warning against sanctioning "deviant practices," McClung asserted that the province had appropriately refrained from "the validation of homosexual rights, including sodomy, as a protected and fundamental right, thereby rebutting a millennia [sic] of moral teaching." Fifty-four years earlier, his father John W. McClung, K.C., led the crown's prosecution of 12 men for same-sex activities, also in Edmonton.

While it is difficult to establish the specific reasons for these actions, we can reconstruct an outline of the prevailing social, political, and legal environment. The legal framework entailed the extensive criminalization of male same-sex sexuality throughout Canadian history, and especially following Parliament's passage of Sir John Thompson's gross indecency amendment in 1890 that outlawed any sexual activity between two men. In terms of the prairies' social environment, by the 1940s the comparative permissiveness of the frontier era gave way to an imposed stringent morality promoted by the Christian churches, social reformers, legal authorities, newspapers, and politicians.

Sex Crime Panics

By the 1920s and 1930s moral regulation became a preoccupation for leaders in western Canada's urban areas. Between 1935 and 1940 a series of sex crime panics, fuelled by sensationalized press coverage, played into the hands of North American politicians and law enforcement officials. As well, by this time psychiatric models pathologizing same-sex sexuality occupied a prominent place in Canada's criminal justice system. In Alberta and elsewhere, sexual minorities were progressively marginalized by the conflation of same-sex sexualities with notions of "deviance," "sexual perversion," and a supposed emerging threat: the sex criminal.

The focus on moral regulation was given impetus by Alberta's election of the Social Credit government under William ("Bible Bill") Aberhart, a teacher and Baptist radio evangelist, in 1935. As premier and attorney general, he formed a government devoted to both securing credit for his depression-ravaged province and imposing Christian fundamentalist principles. In correspondence with Assistant RCMP Commissioner W.F.W. Hancock, then in charge of "K" Division based in Alberta, Aberhart exhorted the Force to step up the policing of morality in the province.

Aberhart's correspondence with the RCMP occurred in June 1942, the same month in which most of the defendants in the Edmonton same-sex cases were charged. The investigations appear to have been prompted by the placement of a notice in the personals of the Edmonton Journal in 1941. Wilfred C., a married man, answered the advertisement. In a statement to investigators, he related that after answering the ad, he met an artist from Vancouver and they went out on several dates. For a single act of consenting intimacy with this man, Wilfred C. was convicted and sentenced to two years less a day in the Fort Saskatchewan Provincial Jail.

Coerced Confessions

Pressuring Wilfred C.'s friend to reveal his other sex partners, the police launched a series of investigations that included a former teenage prostitute. However, the majority of the 1942 cases involved the prosecution of adult men for consenting activities with other adults in private. The investigators' method was simple--coerce each person being interrogated to confess and turn in their friends. Often, the police seized the accused men's correspondence, including love letters, that they used in extracting confessions. …