Eugene Stasiuk said his biggest mistake was telling the cops he's attracted to men.
It was 1960 and Toronto police officers were questioning the high school teacher about an offhand comment he'd made regarding a student's ripped pants.
"I'll never forget it, that's for sure," Stasiuk, 80, recalled from his small apartment just west of Toronto's gay village. "[The student] had this big hole in his crotch in his pants and I pointed to it and I said, 'Bob, get your mother to sew that up!' Laughingly, you know."
Another student saw the exchange and told his mom, who called police, who approached Stasiuk with allegations he touched the boy. Stasiuk maintains he never did anything inappropriate, and says both boys backed him up.
But telling the truth when the cops asked him about his sexual orientation led to a criminal conviction, he says, and that has cost him his teaching career and propelled him into a decades-long legal battle to clear his name.
Eugene Stasiuk holds up his pardon. Photo by Sheena Goodyear.
"I admitted, of course, that I wasn't completely straight, and if you weren't straight, you were immoral. You couldn't teach."
Stasiuk was charged and convicted of "contributing to a child's being or becoming a Juvenile Delinquent" under the Juvenile Delinquents Act, since-repealed legislation that defined a delinquent as any minor who commits a crime or "engages in immoral sexual activity."
"What do they think, that every student a gay teacher teaches is gonna become gay? That's stupid," Stasiuk said. "But the police wanted a conviction and the laws were for them."
Homosexuality was completely illegal in Canada at the time.
Hundreds of men — and sometimes women and trans people — were locked away on charges of buggery or gross indecency until those crimes were removed from the books in 1969, prompting then-prime minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau to famously declare: "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation."
Almost 50 years later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau aims to honor this father's legacy by seeking a posthumous pardon for Everett Klippert, the only Canadian deemed a dangerous offender for being gay.
"Suddenly, there was this absolute avalanche of noise. I realized that what I was hearing was the thundering of boots going upstairs and everywhere."
The Liberal government has also vowed to review the cases of the hundreds of Canadians convicted of buggery and gross indecency and issue pardons where appropriate.
"As Canadians, we know that protecting and promoting fundamental human rights must be an imperative for governments and individuals alike," Olivier Duchesneau, spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, said.
"We have made great strides in securing legal rights for the LGBTQ2 [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Two-Spirited] community in Canada ... but the fight to end discrimination is not over and a lot of hard work remains."
The government has yet to offer any concrete details about what exactly these pardons will look like.
But the government will never put an end to that dark chapter of Canadian history unless it widens the scope of its review to include all the ways queer people have been criminalized throughout history, said Gary Kinsman, a sociologist at Laurentian University and co-author of The Canadian War On Queers.
Stasiuk's story did not come as a surprise to Kinsman. He said it was not uncommon for cops to use any tool at their disposal to convict a gay person — including going after a school teacher on a charge usually reserved for people who bought booze for minors or coerced teens into committing crimes.
Eugene Stasiuk's conviction. Photo by Sheena Goodyear.
And the problem didn't disappear after 1969.
"The 1969 Criminal Code reform is often put forward, especially by the Liberals in support of Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, as this complete legalization of homosexuality. That is in no way, shape or form the case," Kinsman said.
"In some ways what happens after 1969 is actually far more profound and far more serious in people's lives than what happened before it."
Throughout the '70s and '80s, police used bawdy house and public indecency laws to justify violent raids on gay bars and bathhouses in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and other cities.
"I know some of the people who were arrested in the bath raids," Kinsman said. "Their lives were, in some ways, completely destroyed."
"I was in Room 104 at The Barracks," Duncan McLaren told Xtra, a national gay newspaper. Its predecessor, The Body Politic, which covered the Toronto raids as they happened in 1981. "I was chatting to a neighbor of mine — we were actually sharing a joint. Suddenly, there was this absolute avalanche of noise. I realized that what I was hearing was the thundering of boots going upstairs and everywhere."
"The Canadian state has direct responsibility for the harm that was done in these people's' lives."
McLaren, like many others, was arrested and ticketed for patronizing a common bawdyhouse. He was subject to a rectal search by police, photographed, and slapped with charges.
In their research, Kinsman and co-author Patrizia Gentile have documented stories about hundreds of gay and lesbian Canadians who were purged from their jobs in the public sector, especially the military, after the Second World War. Many were interrogated, surveilled and blackmailed. Some committed suicide.
The book documents clandestine surveillance operations in Halifax, where government agents would take pictures of anyone coming-and-going from the city's downtown gay bar: The Turret. If those patrons happened to be enlisted in the Canadian navy, they would be hauled into a military interrogation room and, often, slapped with a dishonourable discharge. The military, at the time, rationalized that any closeted person with access to military intelligence could be blackmailed by the Soviet government into handing over classified information. Kinsman writes that this activity continued in one form or another into the 1990s.
Photo via the Pink Triangle Press.
The military would often employ the infamous 'fruit machine' to suss out homosexuals. The humiliating process involved a series of electrodes and sensors that were designed to gauge someone's same-sex desires, or pick up on their efforts to keep their identity secret — much like a polygraph test.
Kinsman has also documented instances of butch-presenting lesbians in Toronto being rounded up by cops and taken to Cherry Beach where they were beaten, stripped, and sometimes raped.
"The police could be quite violent," he said.
Kinsman is a member of the We Demand an Apology Network, which calls for an official apology for "the historical wrongs committed by the Canadian government against LGBT people."
"This would have a major impact on people's lives. It would, for the first time, say that the Canadian government was sorry for what it did to them," he said. "The Canadian state has direct responsibility for the harm that was done in these people's' lives."
Stasiuk spent 20 years fighting his conviction until he was finally issued a pardon in 1980. It took another nine years to get his teaching certificate reinstated.
"Twenty-nine years I waited, but I fought during those 29 years," he said proudly.
In his apartment, there's a box of documents detailing every step of the battle, including stacks of letters to and from politicians, statements of support from his church and community and multiple rejected applications for a pardon.
And there's the official pardon — a faded document dated June 20, 1980. Now at the twilight of his life and receiving radiation treatment for cancer, it seems a bittersweet victory.
"You can't bring back the time that you lost, and you know I'm aging."
Asked why, in all those years, he never gave up, Stasiuk exclaims: "Because I knew that I was loved by my family!"
"My mother loved me, my father loved me, my sister loved me, my brother loved me, my friends loved me. So why am I being persecuted? Just because I'm a little bit different for my sexual orientation? Bullshit."
Eugene Stasiuk's pardon. Photo by Sheena Goodyear.
Follow Sheena Goodyear on Twitter: @SheenaGoodyear