The Fruit Machine – The Story Behind the Story

The idea for this film came nearly 20 years ago when I sat in the well-appointed Ottawa home of stranger-turned-friend, George Hartsgrove. I had come to George by way of an Ottawa Citizen article about his vision to build the first gay and lesbian retirement home in Canada. The article piqued my interest and I wondered if there might be a larger story to explore. I soon learned how George feared his business idea would fail as it was ahead of its time. The cohort of people that he would be marketing to were the same group that had their sexuality driven underground during the “fruit machine” era. “How could they be comfortable living in a rainbow flag adorned brownstone in the heart of Ottawa’s gay village?”, he remarked. The same group that had once upon a time attended “straight-walking parties” – private gatherings between gay government employees and their straight friends and allies who would teach them how to appear more heterosexual at the office. And why? To avoid suspicion, to stay safe, and to keep their careers.

I left that coffee meeting both shocked and intrigued, and I became preoccupied with questions. Did the Canadian government really construct a gay detection device to use against its own employees? Did they actually instruct police to profile these same employees because they were feared to be Russian spy targets? I started to ask my own friends and colleagues if they had ever heard of “the fruit machine”. Not one person had, and moreover, all were incredulous. I started conducting some preliminary research and found a few references online about a homosexual detection device that could read pupillary responses when people were exposed to same-sex pornographic images. I learned that it was once housed in a lab at Carleton University but had been destroyed long-ago. The information I discovered seemed lifted from the pages of a sci-fi thriller, not ones from Canadian history and yet the more I researched, the more it took shape as fact. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that this purge campaign happened in Canada, and for the length of time that it happened, and how it was largely an untold story, certainly in film.

My real challenge in making this filmas two-fold: finding survivors willing to talk, and finding a broadcaster willing to support the film. There were many research roadblocks along the way – countless stonewalled access to information requests; refusal to talk from both the RCMP and the Military Police; and hard to unearth survivors in a pre-social media era that once found, were too afraid to go on the record. Financing this project wasn’t easy, either. I approached a handful of broadcasters who told me that this was a remarkable story, but one that wasn’t ready to be told.

Failing to secure a broadcast licence in those early days was disheartening but this film was a calling, not an assignment, so I forged onward. I felt I needed to be brave. I needed to embody the very people I sought to honour. I felt compelled to shine a cinematic spotlight on government secrecy and persecution, and its impact on Canada’s LGBTQ communities. It was a commitment to truth, an attempt to help right a wrong in some small way, and an effort to help seek justice for a group of people I hadn’t yet met. The gravitas of it all made me steadfast. I self-financed further research which ultimately bore fruit (pardon the pun).

The first survivor I met (in person) was Leo Morency. Larger than life, warm, and charming. He had been a government employee in the 1950s, and enjoyed his life as a young, successful, and happy twentysomething. But he spoke of being put under surveillance, photographed, and interrogated by the RCMP on multiple occasions. He was made to fear his job security, his privacy, and his safety. He couldn’t understand why. How could he assist Russian spies? He didn’t have security clearance – he didn’t need it – he was a junior clerk. He also wasn’t closeted. His family and friends knew he was gay. There were no grounds for blackmail – except in the eyes of the Canadian government’s newly actioned homosexual witch-hunt.

But unlike Leo, most survivors were afraid to talk. Understandably, trust did not come easy for them. But I did manage to find a few more survivors, and they did come to trust me. It was an exercise in listening more than speaking, and in relationship building. I imparted my clear intentions: to capture their stories with authenticity and respect. I was not after a sensationalized or exploitive angle. I simply wanted to help – however I could. Through these phone calls and coffee meetings a safe place was created, and in it the seeds of trust, respect, and friendship grew. This enabled me to film an 11-minute story trailer for this film in 2014, the same year the Canadian landscape started to slowly change in the film’s favour. A year later, in 2015, the We Demand An Apology Network formed to put pressure on the federal government to formally apologize and provide redress for the purge campaign. Articles started to appear in newspapers again about historic queer oppression, too, and in the spring of 2016 I was contacted by John Ibbitson from The Globe and Mail. He had heard of my story trailer and wanted to feature it in an article called The Corrosive Truth Behind Discrimination Against Gay Public Servants. The article and video were published on April 29, 2016. That same year, I updated my broadcast pitch package for the film (thanks to the supportive nudging from my partner Erin), and in the Fall of 2016, TVO committed to develop the film, allowing time to source key archival assets, structure the three acts, and most importantly – find more survivors and featured voices of corroboration.

Each survivor I met had their own story, of course, but a pattern of haunting sameness formed. Shared details of dimly-lit interrogation rooms, repetitive questioning, and manipulative dialogue. Military or civil, the 1950s or the late 1980s, it was largely the same. It was clear this was a multi-decade, precision-run campaign of persecution and discrimination. But what surprised me the most was what I learned far beyond the loss of careers. For many, losing their jobs was the least of what they endured. Poverty, homelessness, being forced back into the closet, substance abuse, gay aversion therapy, sexual assaults, and for some – suicide.

Following writing a fulsome development report for TVO in the spring of 2017, they triggered production financing. After TVO’s commitment came the Rogers Documentary Fund and the Canada Media Fund, all complemented by federal and provincial labour tax credits. The film could finally proceed. Han Nguyen, Amanda Barakat, and myself could officially kick-off pre-production! We shot over a six-month period in various Canadian towns and cities, including one trip outside Canada to Bristol, Connecticut to interview John Sawatsky.

After months of editing, the film premiered to a sold-out audience at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival on June 1st 2018, a few short weeks before the class action arrived at the Approval Hearing at the Supreme Court, where rightfully, justice prevailed. On June 18, 2018, Federal Court Justice Martine St-Louis approved a historic deal to compensate LGBTQ members of the Canadian military and other agencies who were investigated and fired because of their sexual orientation. I was lucky enough to bear witness to history-making as the court room erupted into a symphony of emotion – applause, cries of joy, and half-muffled sobs when Madame St-Louis made her pronouncement. I shed tears, too. It was a powerful moment, one that came too late for so many including Leo Morency. Leo died before the film was finished, before the historic Trudeau apology, and before this historic day in court. But with this ruling, many of the living survivors commented to me that it made them feel seen, that hope had replaced fear, joy had replaced sorrow, and healing was afforded the chance to begin. The final settlement could total up to $110 million in compensation for the survivors, and a set-aside for education and awareness.

Awareness came to me personally as well. This story had long made me angry at a visceral level that took years to understand. I came out in my late 30s. Far from a pioneer, far from brave. Now at 47, I identify as a lesbian, but when I sat in George Hartsgrove’s living room, I identified as a wife to my then husband, Matt, the editor of this film. I personally know the vulnerabilities around sexual identity and the custody that must be applied to its discourse. In 2020, I can’t imagine being followed, photographed, wiretapped, interrogated, and fired for loving who I love.

The fight isn’t over, but at the end of my 20-year journey with this film, the picture is clear: not one person – across federal public servants, military, and RCMP – was ever found to have divulged nations’ secrets because of their sexuality. Betrayal was certainly central to this campaign, but it was unequivocal in its direction. Canada betrayed thousands, and capturing this story in film has been one of my most profound experiences and professional accomplishments.

And for those curious, a snapshot of some of the film’s more memorial moments:

  • The film has screened at countless festivals and special presentations (CSIS, CSE, Canadian Armed Forces, Toronto Police Services, Canadian School of Public Service to name a few) across Canada, the U.S., China, Greece, Italy, and England. It has been translated into French (huge thanks to the LGBT Purge Fund!), as well as Greek, Mandarin, and Italian.
  • TVO chose the film as their signature 2018 screening at Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto. TVO also produced a podcast of this event for their “On Docs” series. They also supported the film with an segment on The Agenda that included a conversation between Patti Gray, Sarah Fodey, John Ibbitson, and host Steve Paikin.
  • The film was honoured by CBC on their 2018 list of exceptional LGBTQ arts and culture list, and called ‘essential viewing for all Canadians’.
  • The film was invited for a special parliamentary screening in 2018 hosted by The Honourable René Cormier, Member of Parliament Robert Oliphant, The Honourable Salma Ataullahjan, The Honourable Jane Cordy, Member of Parliament Sheri Benson, and Member of Parliament Karen Vecchio.
  • The film won the coveted Jury Prize at the 2019 Image+Nation festival in Montreal; the 2019 Programmer’s Choice Award at Calgary’s 21st Fairy Tales Festival; the Audience Award for Best Feature at Inside Out Ottawa, 2018; and the Audience Award at the 2018 Rainbow Visions Film Festival.
  • The film secured nominations for Best Documentary at the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards (Canada’s “Emmy Awards”); Best Documentary at the 2019 Writers Guild of Canada Awards; and Best Human Rights Reporting at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists Awards.
  • The film inspired a song by Canadian folk artist, Allister Thompson.

Sarah Fodey
Writer and Director, The Fruit Machine