The TV Experience: TVO’s “The Fruit Machine” documentary
Many people have a view of Canada that I must admit I readily enabled and supported during my 30+ years living in New York City and Los Angeles. It’s the idea that as a country, we are a forward-thinking progressive society, accepting of others, and always have been. But there is darkness in Canadian history, particularly in the two arenas that I am both connected to, my homosexuality and my Indigenous/North American Indian Status, that doesn’t sit well with that thinking. Within this country’s history concerning these two very personal issues, the government of Canada has systematically destroyed people's’ lives at the hands of our own government. These state-sanctioned acts of hate were much more than just inequality, but brutal racism, prejudice, and homophobia, at its worst, costing thousands of Canadians their sense of self, their pride, their dignity, and sometimes their lives.
One such arena is the historic treatment of the LGBTQ+ community here in Canada, which is striking and deeply disturbing to our sense of community and identity as a whole. Most view this liberal country that I was born and raised in as advanced, particularly in terms of equality and fair human rights, making gay marriage legal across the whole country far sooner than the United States. But there is a history that slaps that idea down quite harshly, and even I found myself dumbfounded the other night during an evening of self-isolating when tuned into TVO to watch the documentary, “The Fruit Machine“. It sucker-punched me, as I sat on the couch, thinking, along with what the woman in the upsetting documentary was saying, “You can’t do this, this is Canada”, “and he looked me in the eye and said, we’re the military, we can do what we want.”
But before I dive into my reactions to that specific and detailed documentary, let me just quickly mention the other terrible bit of Canadian history, one that is still being dealt with even this week, that is as shocking and as disturbing as the other, maybe even more so. It concerns the horrendous treatment of the Indigenous Canadians throughout this country’s history, a community comprising of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, that is still being sorted out to this very day. I won’t dig in too deeply to this issue, as this is not the main focus of this blog post, but being a card-carrying Status Indigenous Canadian myself, I just had to voice the parallel. Thankfully, these pieces of history, terrible and dark, keep coming to the surface and talked about, as they are truly shocking to hear and read about, let alone understand the horror and the trauma inflicted, even today, as more human remains are found unceremoniously buried in the government's very own backyards.
Many assume that the motto of Canada, “Peace, Order, and Good Government” has been practiced from the beginning, but the colonizing government’s state-sponsored action against the Indigenous people was anything but that. Numerous acts and programs were created specifically to control and limit (or should I say, eliminate) the Indigenous people of Canada; to crush their way of life and culture into the very ground they were grown from. The clear and undeniable intention of eliminating any separate Indigenous identity was an official Canadian Indian policy for a long long time. Ultimately, it was cultural genocide, a term that can easily be applied to what happened in this country. It’s surprising to hear, particularly for the many who view this country as operating significantly different from America, but that rosy view isn’t actually confirmed by history. One of the most startling that still haunts the Canadian psyche is the policy that created the Residential Schools of Canada. The authorities forcibly removed Indigenous children from their home communities, insisting that they attend these residential schools for assimilation, basically to destroy the internalized Indigenous culture that resided within these innocent children. “Kill the Indian in the child” was the plan, and boy, did it have consequences.
As many as 150,000 children were forced to attend, with many of the 132 schools located far from their homes. The schools were chronically underfunded, overcrowded, and dangerous, isolating them far from their communities, language, and culture. Purposefully structured to force assimilate, Christianize, and acculturation, they were institutions rampant with abuse, rape, neglect, and rarely held accountable for the deaths of at least 3,200 children. The mortality rate in these schools was an astronomical 60%, but little was done about that horrific outcome, with the last school only closing in 1996. That inflicted intergenerational trauma is still palpable today in the Indigenous community, causing damage that is hard to enumerate.
But thankfully change and acknowledgment that this policy of assimilation “has no place in our country“, as stated by Canada’s Prime Minister in a formal apology in 2008, one year after the largest class-action suit was settled. The Truth in Reconciliation Commission traveled across the country hearing from thousands of school survivors, bringing forth 94 calls to action, meant to confront the damage done. The reconciliation re-exposed a historic deep divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of Canada inside this cultural genocide, a policy aimed at snuffing out the “problem with Indians.” The country, as a whole, has not really grasped the problem even as mass gravesites of those children are being discovered, one after the other in the land surrounding these Residential Schools. Another, horrifically has been discovered in British Columbia as the Indigenous community continues to demand help with this trauma and on several other fronts. One, in particular, is the death and disappearance of Indigenous Women that continue to be under-investigated and ignored. And that is just the tip of the genocidal iceberg.
This is a huge issue, one that apologies and class action settlements help but don’t remove the trauma of the country’s intent. This destructive matter parallels the troubling issue brought forth in “The Fruit Machine” documentary, (click here to watch it in its entirety), which attempts to tackle and make public the darkness that lives inside Canada’s problematic dark history of homophobia. Produced, directed, and written by Sarah Fodey, a twenty-five-year documentarian professional, along with producer Han Nguyen and story consultant/executive producer Derek Diorio, the documentary focuses its sharp eye on the angry upset voices of the survivors of another horrific chapter in Canada’s sorted history. One that the people in power at the time proclaimed, without logic, that LGBTQ+ people should be seen as a threat to the country’s security, an idea that stated without apology, “you couldn’t be gay, it was the worst thing“.
“The Fruit Machine” documentary aims its intellect and camera at the disturbing homosexual purge within the public service sector that was fired up by the paranoia of the Cold War. At least that is what they say is the blame for it. Maybe it was just plain homophobia. Employed within Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a very serious and large campaign rooted in the discovery and elimination of all LGBTQ+ persons from the civil service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the military. The term itself, “the fruit machine” derogatorily refers to a clinical device developed by Frank Robert Wake, specifically designed to identify gay men or “fruits”, as they liked to label us. The subjects were strapped into a chair, one that resembled something you would find in a dental office, and forced to watch pornographic images ranging from the mundane to overtly sexually explicit photos of men and women.
The device was constructed with the idea that it could measure someone’s erotic response and gayness through the pupils’ reaction (pupillary response test), perspiration, and pulse, signaling who were homosexuals and who were not. The accuracy and functional mechanism of the “fruit machine” were far beyond questionable, and now scientifically believed to be deeply flawed, for several clear and concise reasons. But back then, homosexuality was considered a serious “character weakness” (along with drunkenness and adultery) in Canada. And was seen by many in the military as grounds for surveillance and interrogation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police under the directive of the newly-established Security Panel. The Department of National Defence was in alinement with the RCMP’s conservative mindset and pervasive bigotry, leading, most disturbingly, to the violation of these person’s rights as citizens of Canada.
In 1948 after the Second World War, Canada, and many of the other countries in the Western world, became very concerned with the idea of spies and national security. There were reports and discussions concerning the threat of Russian spies and the blackmailing of federal employees and politicians. Canada began investigating its own federal employees, looking for possible avenues where employees could be susceptible to blackmail by Soviet spies, and homosexuality was at the top of their list. A substantial number of workers did, in fact, lose their jobs because of this focus solely because of their sexual orientation. Although funding for the “fruit machine” project was cut off in the late 1960s, the investigations continued, and the RCMP continued to collect files on over 9,000 “suspected” gay people inside and out of the public service domain.
“My war was within the military, the Canadian Armed Forces“, one of the participants stated when discussing being interrogated for hours and hours in a small windowless room. She was treated like a prisoner of war, who did not have the right to question their authority or ask for an attorney. This is a documented story of their betrayal, one that is alarming and shaming/shameful, both on a national and personal level. “Men and women who dedicated their lives to public service, some signing oaths of allegiance and servitude; casualties of a political tapestry woven in the fibers of acute security measures that somehow became normalized“.
Over the course of four decades, thousands of men and women who either worked in the federal government, the RCMP, or who had volunteered to be in the military, had their phones tapped, were followed, interrogated like criminals, blackmailed for information on others, and subsequently, had their careers and lives ruined. The tales are tragic and utterly traumatizing for those affected. Many suffered psychological trauma, which led to alcoholism, drug addiction, and sometimes suicide. The trauma is infuriating to listen to, and hard to believe that this, one of the largest bullying campaigns in the history of Canada, was allowed to happen and that it lasted as long as it did.
From an interview in The Advocate, Sarah Fodey states, “The survivors that we interviewed are incredibly resilient people. Most invested in the hope that one day a sense of justice would come in the form of a national apology and redress for what they endured. And now that this hope has been realized, powerful, healing outcomes are surfacing.” It’s clear from their heartfelt traumatizing stories that an apology is required. The government, as one who was traumatized painfully states, needs to admit this happened, “to say we did it“, “we recognize it” and “we apologize for it“, with no excuses. “And maybe I’ll stop crying“; that it is a disgraceful episode of our history, and that they are sorry that it happened. Finally, on November 28th, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a momentous and historic apology to the House of Commons for decades of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community in Canada. He stated unequivocally, “we were wrong, we apologize, I am sorry, we are sorry.” It’s a difficult speech to listen to without getting a lump in your throat, even by persons untouched in this state-sanctioned abomination.
“This thinking was prejudiced and flawed. And sadly, what resulted was nothing short of a witch-hunt,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his apology on behalf of the government. When the $50-110 million settlement was approved in June 2018, Lt.-Col. Catherine Potts said that she felt vindicated after the years of persecution she endured, as reported in The Canadian Press. “It’s truly a human-rights victory for all of us.”
The documentary intelligently focuses on the despair and pain brought on by those hours in those interrogation rooms and for the years of being investigated as if they were criminals and spies. It’s about the systematic dismissal of members of the LGBTQ+ community from participating in the country’s public service circles and military during the 1950s through the 1980s. It’s a shameful chapter in Canada’s history, equal to the cultural genocide of the Indigenous Canadians.
But it’s also a story “rooted in hope and a country’s struggle to do the right thing“, one that I was hypnotized by the other night as I sat, trying to stay safe, in an unsafe world. “Most lived in silence and solitude not knowing how many others were affected, but now they are being brought together, united in their shared experiences. Many have formed new and renewed friendships and alliances. They have created social media support groups and chat forums. They really have empowered themselves and found a sense of peace, however small. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.”, says Fodey. It reminds us of how far we have come as a country, but that our history is not as pure as we sometimes pretend. It’s also a cautionary tale, reminding us what racism, homophobia, and ignorance can orchestrate, and what we need to be constantly on the lookout for. Watch TVO’s “The Fruit Machine” and remember.