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State Repression of Sexual Minorities


illustration by Galen Johnson

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. The prosecutors then introduced these private communications in court as corroborating evidence to secure the defendants’ convictions. Today, such activities would be regarded as abuses of human rights under both international conventions and the provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms pertaining to privacy rights and the rights of accused persons. In Alberta in the 1940s, however, there was little recognition or respect for such rights.

Judicial Bestiality

The response of several judges trying these cases was revealing of the values and attitudes of the judiciary in that period. In one case, Justice William Carlos Ives concluded: “It must be obvious … that there is an organization at least here and in Vancouver devoted to the purposes of this bestiality.” In another case, Justice Colin Campbell McLaurin of the Alberta Supreme Court fulminated: “The bare possibility that more than one or two were guilty of the offence and the shocking bestiality and perversion thereof would naturally make all decent people in Edmonton apprehensive and disgusted[.]” None of the reported activities or charges involved sex with animals and the references to “bestiality” derived entirely from the judges’ prejudices. Generally, the Edmonton same-sex investigations and trials fell into the category of “moral regulation,” by which the state replaced religious authority as the arbiter of social morality. However, the zealousness displayed in the Edmonton cases also recalls the “moral panics” referenced in the work of various sociologists. During moral panics various players, including the media, law enforcement officials, politicians, action groups, and the general public react in a manner disproportionate to the actual danger represented in a putative threat to society. In 1942 the prejudicial words of the premier, justices, and crown prosecutor, combined with the zealous activities of the RCMP and the municipal police afforded evidence of a pervasive homophobia within the culture of the province’s legal establishment. Moral regulation, heightened by moral panic, generated moral bullying. There was also a sobering continuity between the actions of police, crown prosecutors, and the judiciary in the 1940s and Justice McClung’s more recent moral pronouncements of 1996. Awareness of the abuses of the Edmonton trials of the 1940s obliges us to shine the light of history on these dark corners of our past, recover the words and perspectives of the protagonists, debate their decisions and actions, and reflect on the meaning of these events for human rights and civil liberties in this country.

Further Readings Mary Louise Adams, [The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality]( (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997). Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers Third Edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980).

Lyle Dick, “Same-Sex Intersections of the Prairie Settlement Era: The 1895 Case of Regina’s ‘Oscar Wilde,’” Histoire sociale / Social History, Vol. 42, no. 1 (2010, forthcoming).

Estelle B. Freedman, “Uncontrolled Desires: The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960,” In Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons, eds., Passion and Power: Sexuality in History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), pp. 199-225.

Carolyn Strange and Tina Loo, Making Good: Law and Moral Regulation in Canada, 1867-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension (The queer issue).


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