Toronto Police Service chief Mark Saunders
Toronto Police Service chief Mark Saunders (File picture}Reuters

On behalf of Toronto Police Service (TPS), chief Mark Saunders has apologised for the arrest of more than 300 men from four gay bathhouses in the city about three decades ago. During the annual Pride reception at police headquarters on Wednesday (22 June), he also launched a gender-neutral bathroom at the headquarters.

Regretting the 1981 police action on the LGBT community, Saunders referred to the incident as remarkable because of its "destructiveness". All those present at the event observed a moment of silence in remembrance of the recent Orlando gay nightclub shooting.

Saunders, who also announced the creation of a TPS guide for Trans communities, said the 35th anniversary year of the incident is a good time to learn lessons "about the risks of treating any part of Toronto's many communities as not fully a part of society". He insisted on the need for constantly renewed proactive strategies to reach out to "full range of communities that make up this extraordinary city".

"While the Toronto Police Service has made real progress in relation with the mainstream LGBTQ2S (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Two-spirit) communities, we recognise the need for a renewed commitment to working co-operatively and respectfully with other marginalised groups and still-disadvantaged sexual minorities," the police chief added.

John Tory, Mayor of Toronto, said this was the appropriate time "to acknowledge something in our community that was wrong, that went against the respect, sense of fairness and decency and everything that we believe in".

He also said these "sad chapters" in the city's history should not be forgotten or left unaddressed. "We have to remember, we have to acknowledge and we have to apologise," the mayor added, noting that he is proud to be the mayor of a city that gives equal rights to the LGBTQ community.

Clergyman and gay-rights activist Brent Hawkes termed the apology as an important message to the LGBTQ community and the city as a whole. "However, it is also an important message to police services all around the world that the LGBTQ community deserves and even demands to be treated with respect and is to be seen as valued partners in the broader community."

The raids, dubbed as Operation Soap, were conducted on 5 February 1981, which Saunders termed as "one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history". The arrested men were charged for indecency and prostitution, which were later dropped following mass protests and rallies denouncing the police action.