Operation Soap was a raid by the Metropolitan Toronto Police against four gay bathhouses in Toronto, which took place on February 5, 1981. Just under three hundred men were arrested, the largest mass arrest in Canada since the 1970 October crisis.
Although many gay bathhouses had previously been raided in Canada and other smaller raids followed, Operation Soap is considered a special turning point in the history of the gay and lesbian community in Canada. Mass protests and rallies were held denouncing the incident. These evolved into Toronto’s current Pride Week, which is now one of the world’s largest gay pride festivals and celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2015.
Most charges connected to the incident were eventually dropped or discharged, although some bathhouse owners were fined. Canada’s “bawdy-house” law, under which the charges in this raid were laid, remained in effect until it was repealed in 2019, but was only rarely applied against gay establishments after the trials connected to the 1981 raids ended.
At the time it was widely believed that the raids were approved by Attorney General of Ontario Roy McMurtry and the provincial government. In a 2007 interview, however, McMurtry said that this was not the case: “The irony of the whole thing was that I had expressed my concern to the chief of police; that it really looked like we were dissolving into a police state. The whole thing looked terrible. Without a doubt, that was one of my most frustrating experiences.” McMurtry subsequently served as Chief Justice of Ontario and wrote the 2003 decision of Ontario’s Court of Appeal in favour of same-sex marriage.
In 2016, the play RAID: Operation Soap, written by Raymond Helkio and starring performance artist Keith Cole and actor Johnny Salib premiered to a sold-out audience at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre in commemoration of 35 years since the raids. The same year, Toronto Police chief Mark Saunders expressed regrets on behalf of the Toronto Police Service for the raids.
Journalist Matthew Hays has criticized the media’s frequent labelling of the Toronto raids as being Canada’s Stonewall; according to Hays, that distinction should be extended to the 1977 Mystique and Truxx bathhouse raids in Montreal, which led within just a few months to Quebec becoming the first government in Canada to pass a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The murder of Emanuel Jaques, an immigrant shoeshine boy, led to large protests to “clean up” Yonge Street in 1977. The political momentum from the protests would lead to Toronto police raiding many adult stores, body-rub parlours, and shoeshine stands along Yonge Street. Police would raid these establishments and make charges against business owners, effectively closing down many businesses even if many charges were eventually dropped.
Mayor John Sewell strongly supported gay rights in his 1978-80 term as mayor. He condemned police raids, including the controversial raid on the gay magazine The Body Politic, where Toronto Police confiscated the newspapers subscription lists, advertisers lists, and other reader information. Sewell strongly opposed these acts; however, his views ultimately cost him re-election. Without strong civic condemnation of raids on gay establishments, Operation Soap was the first raid on a gay establishment after Sewell left office.
February 5: At 11 p.m., more than 150 police simultaneously raid the Club Baths, the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, the Richmond Street Health Emporium
and the Barracks in Toronto. Twenty owners, including George Hislop and Peter Maloney, are charged with “keeping a common bawdyhouse”; 286 men are
charged as found-ins. The Richmond is so heavily damaged that it never reopens.
January 11: The owner of the Richmond Street baths pleads guilty; five other charges are dropped.
By April 1983, 87 per cent of the “found-ins” charged in the Toronto and Montreal raids have been acquitted at trial; 36 individuals have been found guilty but received absolute or conditional discharges. The last remaining charge related to the 1981 raids was settled by plea bargain on February 7, 1985.
Adapted from an article in Wikipedia.
Gordon, Rebecca. “Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance.” The Women’s Review of Books 15.n6 (March 1998): 7(2).
Makin, Kirk (2007-04-04). “The regrets of a consensus-building chief justice: Retiring Roy McMurtry muses about bathhouse, baby death and abortion cases”. CBC RADIO archives. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2007-04-04.
“Raiding History: Why can’t Canada’s LGBTQ community tell its story correctly?”. CBC RADIO archives. The Walrus, June 28, 2016.
Fraser, Laura (June 22, 2017). “Murder of Emanuel Jaques changed the face of Yonge Street and Toronto”. CBC News. Retrieved 2007-04-04.
Sheppard, R. “It’s not illegal to be gay, Sewell tells rally”. “The Globe and Mail”, January 4, 1979.
Baker, A., & Mulgrew, I. “Gay issue predicted to sway civic vote”. “The Globe and Mail”, September 4, 1980.
Malcolm, Andrew (1981-02-15). “TORONTO REJECTS STUDY OF RAIDS ON HOMOSEXUAL BATHS”. New York Times. p. 15.
Add references from Seven News incl. Emanuel Jacques article
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