This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
During the Cold War, the Canadian government was preoccupied with the never-proven risk that Russia could blackmail closeted homosexual government workers and armed forces personnel. From the 1950s to the 1990s the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) of the Canadian Military rooted out perceived gays and lesbians who worked in the public service.
If they thought you were gay, you were fired or dishonorably discharged.
My father worked for the military and was a part of the SIU. He investigated and interrogated gays and lesbians. He has a gay son (me), and I work in the public service. It is tough imaging my father investigating gays and lesbians, turning them into his superiors who would then drum them out of the military—ruining their lives. My Dad is a wonderful father. Nowadays, he is progressive, goes to the pride parade, and is absolutely supportive of my sexuality.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t find his old job troubling. As part of his investigations, he went to gay bars to monitor people. The gay bar is meant to be our sanctuary, a place where we are the majority and can live and enjoy ourselves without fear of judgment. The idea that there would be undercover state agents in a gay bar taking notes on who was there and what they were doing is frightening and would have made a presumably safe space dangerous. If you worked for the government and were gay, going to the gay bar for a drink could have gotten you fired.
I do not expect my father to have realized the implications of this while he worked for the SIU. I understand that in a militarized work environment, taking orders and not questioning the morality of your duties is the norm. He was in his 20s, and LGBTQ rights were not as recognized as they are now. The world had different values in mind, even if looking back now we can see those values were misplaced. What is most important to me is recognizing the social progress. My father, with his history, has evolved to now be a staunch ally of the LGBTQ community.
Today, the Canadian government is publicly apologizing for this purge and will try and make amends with our community. I asked my dad what he thinks of the apology, and he responded with: "It is long overdue.”
I sat down with my dad to learn more about his past work, and how it sits with him today.
VICE: Can you tell me about working on the SIU?
Stuart Mason: It was 1978 and I was 24 years old. I was posted to Halifax, Canada to work on the SIU as a field investigator for four years. My primary role was conducting security background checks on public servants and military personnel who had security clearance. They could be navy, air force, army officers, commanders, or government administrators. Anybody with security clearance or access to classified information was routinely investigated for any “character weaknesses.”
What did “character weaknesses” mean?
We looked into the financial and personal backgrounds of people. We would gather information on employees who were susceptible to blackmail due to these weaknesses. Back then, it could be anything from high financial debt, alcoholism, drug abuse, infidelity, or homosexuality. Anything that could be used against someone to blackmail or bribe them into working for the other side.
How were people chosen to be investigated?
The files came from Ottawa. They had records of all the employees and would send the files to us in Halifax for investigation. I got about ten files a month. They would come highlighted with stress factors, which were like a tip, something to look out for. The individual’s sexuality was sometimes a stress factor.
What were the interviews like?
We started with a background investigation by interviewing that individual’s community. We would interview their family, their friends, and their colleagues. The scope of the research would depend on the person’s level of security clearance. If they had a lot of access to classified information, the investigation was more extensive. The individuals being investigated were not necessarily aware that they were flagged because Ottawa thought they were gay. They thought that it was a regular security clearance review.
Then what would happen?
If during the initial background investigation there was reason to believe that the individual was gay or a lesbian, then the investigation would focus strictly on that principle. The SIU would then interview the individuals directly and would ask them personal questions and see if they could get an admission of their sexuality.
Did the SIU ever follow people?
When individuals were under investigation, they were often monitored. SIU investigators would go out to gay bars to see if who they were monitoring would show up.
Did you go to the gay bars?
Yes. We went while on duty. We would go to watch somebody.
What did you do with your observations?
We would send our findings back to Ottawa. Many of the people we reported as likely homosexual would undergo the “released procedure,” meaning they would be fired or dishonorably discharged, which is almost a bad as a criminal record.
Did you feel guilty doing this work?
No, absolutely not. It is like you going to work now and having someone at work telling you how to do things. There was no animosity; it was not about the hunting of the gay people. It was about doing your job and finding out stuff about people that put the government and military at risk. You also have to remember that it was for the welfare of the gays and lesbians. Their workplaces were not necessarily safe for them, and this was a way for the military to have them removed from the workplace. For example, if someone in the navy was thought to be gay while out at sea, they would be assaulted or would simply disappear. Ships would come back to port stated that a couple young men had been “lost at sea” and we speculated that they had been thrown overboard because they were gay. Our investigations were a way to avoid that, to recommend people be discharged before they experienced danger while at work.
What do you think of the policy today?
It was totally wrong. These people should never have lost their jobs.
How do you feel today about the work you did knowing you have a gay son?
This work exposed me to a community that I did not know existed and knew nothing about. My experiences in the SIU showed me what gays and lesbians had to go through and for that, I have enormous respect for them. I carry this respect in my relationship with you. I am proud of you today.
Do you think you should apologize?
I do not think I need to apologize; I was doing the job that I was assigned to do. Though I do have regrets. I regret that people’s careers were destroyed. I really do believe that the federal government apologizing is appropriate and that people deserve compensation.
The interview is edited for length and clarity.