A group of women who are all former members of the Canadian military say that in the 1980s, they were harassed, interrogated and ultimately discharged because they are gay.
Only recently have they found out they might be eligible for veterans’ assistance and a government pension. They want an apology, but moreover, they want to share their stories decades later to help others.
Veterans Suzanne Thibault, Martine Roy, Line Blackburn, Diane Vincent and Johanne Boutin share a similar story along with countless others.
- WATCH: Ex-soldiers share their personal stories of interrogations, intimidation, dismissal and the emotional scars left behind
They all joined the Armed Forces some three decades ago. They were all young – in their teens or early 20s – and impressionable.
“I was so proud to join the military,” said Vincent. “The military was the best thing that could ever happen to me. I was dedicated, I was loyal. I was happy and I showed it.
The women joined at a time when Canadian Forces Administrative Order 19-20 was still in place. Coming into effect in 1967, CFAO 19-20 (Sexual Deviation - Investigation, Medical Investigation and Disposal) reflected the government’s policy at the time not to allow or to keep homosexuals in the military, citing them as a security risk.
Under CFAO 19-20, members of the military suspected of being gay were investigated and then subsequently released from service. The order was repealed in 1992 – too late for some who experienced the trauma of being relentlessly interrogated about their personal lives.
Interrogations and dismissals
“They interrogated me over and over and over again,” said Thibault.
“They brought me into a place and interrogated me for five hours,” added Roy.
“They would blindfold me and threw me in the back seat of the car,” said Boutin. “It's very illicit questioning – who they were with, what they were doing, did they have this secret handshake. It's crazy stuff that they asked – did they have orgies.”
“I was ashamed. My self-esteem was at zero,” said Blackburn.
Some of them left the Canadian Armed Forces on their own because they couldn't handle the harassment; others were dismissed. All of them bear emotional scars.
“After you leave the army, you have that in your head of injustice and that you are always scared somebody is going to do the same again. All the time, that's what's really hard, because you go on with your life and you feel like you can never be authentic. I feel like that all my life I had to work harder to make it,” said Roy.
“It's being afraid of who you are and just really hiding that and keeping it inside. I think it hurts you forever,” said Vincent.
“Your life is a lie and you become all messed up. You're not yourself,” said Thibault. “How can you be a full person if you've been told over and over there is something wrong with you?”
Reuniting this summer; some haven't seen each other in 36 years. Swapping stories helps, they said.
“It's also comforting to hear through their story that I'm normal,” said Boutin.
“To make you realize parts of your life are broken and are still broken, and that you're going through that and you felt all alone and you're not alone and that feels good,” said Vincent.
The former soldiers reunited this summer to share their stories
Decades later, they found out they might be able receive help from Veterans Affairs Canada, something that never crossed their minds.
“I could have had help a long time ago – a long, long time ago – I could have been helped with the feeling that I was left with,” said Thibault.
“For me, why nobody came to me,” said Roy. “That's one thing I don't understand. They never followed up on me, to ask, ‘Are you okay? Do you need something?’”
By speaking out, they hope to make others aware of the resources available.
Herself a veteran, Brigitte Laverdure is one of those reaching out to help after founding an organization called Soutien et Entraide Veteran Canada.
“I've had PTSD myself since 2004. I was down. I was down for quite a few years,” she said.
The group helps veterans sift through their paperwork to determine what a person could be eligible for in terms of benefits, including psychological help.
“There were people out there that needed help and didn't know how to get the help,” she added. “It's within the veterans’ groups across the country. People realize they can ask for help. With that, we built up a network of resources.”
At the time CTV met with these veterans, three already had their files accepted for assistance through the program. They say they’re all grateful they may finally be able to tackle their demons and put them to rest.
“Finally you see little bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” said Blackburn.
“I've been offered a hand and I took it,” said Boutin. “Today I feel like I have returned home after 36 years of long combat.”
“It breaks who you are,” said Vincent.
They say an apology would also help.
“The way they went about to hound people, to literally hound them, and then throw them out like trash, I think that's what they should apologize for,” said Vincent.
Government is investigating
The Department of National Defence says it is investigating the matter, and that no decision yet has been made on any formal apology or military pension. They say it is currently unclear how many ex-military were affected by the former policy, but are trying to determine that.
Veterans Affairs Canada issued a statement on the matter, saying:
“We encourage any Veteran with a service-related condition to come to VAC for help at any time. Veterans are entitled to benefits, no matter how long they have been released.
The Government of Canada has reinforced its commitment to develop and administer programs that take into account a gender-based analysis perspective. As a result, unique needs from a gender and sexuality perspective are being considered in the design of programs and services.”
In a statement, Longueuil — Charles-LeMoyne MP Sherry Romanado added that the government is working towards change:
"The Government of Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the Canadian Armed Forces are committed to the principles of equality and dignity for everyone, including LGBTQ members and veterans. I sit on both Veterans Affairs and National Defence committees and my two sons are members of the Canadian Forces so I take issues like this to heart. I am working with both departments to ensure that the all CAF members and veterans are treated with the same respect and dignity Canadians would demand for members of their own families. It is important that we have an open discussion on mental health and encourage more veterans to come forward to seek help."
The government also said someone who was released would be eligible for their pension as long as the criteria laid out in the Superannuation Act was met. Each individual's pension entitlements would depend on the circumstances as well as the timeframe of his or her release.
They claim it is “very unlikely that someone would be unaware of their pension entitlement as the completion of the necessary paperwork is done as part of the transition process out of the military.”
While bringing up painful memories has been difficult, the women say it has given them each a sense of hope.
“I have faith that it will be a relief to me, to start having help and get my life better,” said Thibault.
“All you have to do now is take care of yourself for a minute, breathe. You don't have to lie anymore, just try to heal,” said Boutin. “I know I'm going to heal. I don't know when.”
Ex-military who were released from service under Canadian Forces Administrative Order 19-20 or left voluntarily may contact Brigitte Laverdure of Soutien et Entraide Veteran Canada at 514-715-1252 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Veterans Affairs Canada also states that any veteran who requires help should contact Veterans Affairs Canada Assistance Service at 1-800-268-7708 to speak with someone, and that it “has a well-established national network of around 4,000 mental health professionals who deliver mental health services to Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other operational stress injuries.”