On February 5th, 1981 more than 200 plainclothes police officers raided four Toronto bathhouses leading to the largest mass arrest since the October Crisis ten years earlier. In total, 289 gay men were charged with being “found-ins of a bawdyhouse” and two were charged with “buggery”.
Men speaking out in the aftermath of the raids described severe misconduct on the part of the police. Some reported being photographed naked, others said police took down their employers’ names and phone numbers and several men stated that police had referred to them as “queers, faggots and fairies”. Moreover, one man reported that several officers used sledgehammers and crowbars with abandon, smashing windows and breaking down doors. This last fact is corroborated by the $38,000 in damages reported by the four bathhouses after the raid (nearly $175,000 in 2020 dollars). In contrast, the police report stated that the officers behaved in a “professional manner.”
A documentary on the bathhouse raids and the ensuing protests quotes Duncan McLaren, one of the men who was charged as a found-in at the Barracks bathhouse.
McLaren describes his victimization by the police:
“We ended up in the shower room and we were all told to strip… But I think one of the most chilling things was… one of the cops said, looking at all the showers and the pipes going into the shower room; he said ‘Gee, it’s too bad we can’t hook this up to gas’.
The following evening, over 3000 members and supporters of Toronto’s gay community united to demonstrate against these raids. A second protest was held on Feb. 20 at Queen’s Park, with over 4000 people gathering to call for increased rights and protection for gays and lesbians in Canada. In the aftermath of the raids, the Toronto City Council commissioned an investigation into community relations between the police and the gay community.
The event marked a major turning point in the history of the gay and lesbian community in Canada; the raids and their aftermath are today widely considered to be the Canadian equivalent of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. 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.
Almost ALL the charges against those arrested were later dropped in court.
In June of 2016 speaking before Toronto Mayor John Tory and leaders within the gay community Toronto police chief Mark Saunders issued a long overdue apology for the bathhouse raids of 1981.
“The 35th anniversary of the 1981 raids is a time when the Toronto Police service expresses its regret for those very actions,” and called the raids “one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history” and acknowledged the “destructiveness” of the police action.
“It is also an occasion to acknowledge the lessons learned about the risks of treating any part of Toronto’s many communities as not fully a part of society.”