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Toronto police chief expresses 'regret' for '81 raids targeting city's gay community

Last Updated Jun 22, 2016 at 7:55 pm EST

The Toronto police force “regrets” raids more than three decades ago that targeted the city’s gay community, Chief Mark Saunders said Wednesday.

At a Pride reception at police headquarters, Saunders addressed a series of raids of Toronto bathhouses in 1981 that saw officers barge into four bathhouses and round up the people inside.

“The Toronto Police Service recognizes that Feb. 5 of this year marked the 35th anniversary of one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history,” Saunders said.

The police raids on Toronto bathhouses did not occur on just one evening, he noted.

“But February 1981 event was the most dramatic in its destructiveness and in the number of men arrested – some 300.”

Those arrested were charged with owning or being found in a common bawdy house.

More than 90 per cent of the charges were dropped in years to come, and the raids galvanized Toronto’s LGBTQ community to fight for their rights and find a political voice.

“The 35th anniversary of the 1981 raids is a time when the Toronto Police Service expresses its regrets for those very actions,” Saunders said.

The chief added that it is also a time to acknowledge the lessons learned about the risks of treating any part of the city’s many communities as “not fully a part of society.”

Saunders made the remarks, flanked by rainbow flags on either side, as part of Toronto’s annual Pride celebrations.

This year, for the first time, those celebrations are spanning an entire month rather than just a week.

Mayor John Tory called it a “good and appropriate” time to acknowledge something that was wrong and he commended Saunders for issuing the apology, calling it timely, right and necessary.

“We can’t leave these sad chapters in our history to just be forgotten about, or in some way to just be unaddressed,” Tory said. “We have to remember, we have to acknowledge and we have to apologize.”

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Observers say Saunders’s apology is a necessary acknowledgment of the fact that the bathhouse raids ruined countless lives.

Trevor Hart, LGBTQ health researcher and Director of Ryerson University’s HIV Prevention Lab, said the raids were devastating at a time when the rights of gay men were rarely discussed or understood.

The police incursion into a private space resulted in names and photos of closeted men being splashed across the media, leading to lost jobs, damaged relationships and a sense of broader betrayal, Hart said.

“Telling people that there’s no safe place for them has drastic, horrible effects on people’s mental health and well-being,” he said in a telephone interview. “… There’s a sense that ‘something is wrong with me. People will punish me. I can’t do anything about it, and I will suffer.”’

The 1981 raids took place on February 5 when about a hundred officers converged on four separate bathhouses in co-ordinated raids.

At 11 P.M. officers used fists and crowbars to enter the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, Club Toronto, the Richmond Street Health Emporium and the Barracks, all of which had been operating for months or years before the raids.

Newspaper accounts at the time describe police barging into private rooms and dragging occupants into communal lobbies or police cars, sometimes draped only in towels.

The raids, dubbed Operation Soap, triggered nearly instant backlash. Nearly 3,000 marchers took to the streets the following day to decry the police action.

In the following months, Hart said public figures such as Canadian literary luminary Margaret Atwood and then member of Parliament Sven Robinson also began to speak out in support of Toronto’s gay community.

Hart said the relationship between police and the city’s LGBTQ residents is no longer nearly as antagonistic.

He commended Saunders for making an apology, even if it is coming too late, but said police need to remain vigilant in combating hate crimes that are still committed on a regular basis.

Hart also hopes the apology will touch on other instances of LGBTQ persecution in Toronto’s history, namely a raid on the gay-friendly “Body Politic” newspaper that resulted in the seizure of lists of subscribers and advertisers.

Public ire over the years has also singled out a second raid on Club Toronto, this time at a women’s only bathhouse event. The 2000 raid, which saw male officers barging in on many naked women, was purportedly in response to liquor licensing violations.

Hart said he hopes Saunders’s conciliatory words are accompanied by pledges of ongoing support and reassurance that Toronto has become a safer place than it was in 1981.

“Mark Saunders actually making a public apology on behalf of Toronto police won’t change what happened, but we hope will contribute to an environment of safety that will help people to have a sense of comfort and decreased social isolation.”

(To view video “Toronto sex club with an infamous past” on mobile, click here)