'Shattered lives': A look at Edmonton police raid of Pisces Spa bathhouse four decades later

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Four decades have passed since dozens of gay men were arrested during a raid at Edmonton’s Pisces Health Spa, charged and outed to the broader community, changing their lives completely.

Fifty-six men and six employees were arrested under bawdy house laws when 40 Edmonton police, seven RCMP officers and two attorneys raided the bathhouse on May 30, 1981.

Ron Byers, a member of Edmonton’s LGBTQ community and a queer historian, said he had planned to be at Pisces the night of the raid to celebrate a friend’s birthday. He said the ensuing treatment of those charged by law enforcement, the courts and the media was cruel and has left many still unable to talk about their experiences.

“That raid shattered lives, literally, because it wasn’t just gay people that were there. There were straight people there, there were people who were questioning their sexuality. There were people who, to this day, they still consider themselves straight,” said Byers.

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Following the raid, the so-called found-ins were taken to a 5 a.m. court hearing where a judge and prosecutors were waiting for them. The ensuing court cases garnered significant media attention. Many of those charged had their names plastered across TV screens, radio broadcasts and newspapers.

The treatment they received was harsh compared to others found in other types of bawdy houses, said Byers. At that time, the justice system would typically shield the names of men who were found paying for prostitutes.

The men charged for being at Pisces were not given such treatment. Byers believes several attacks on gay men the following fall were a direct result of having their names plastered across the news.

An original Pisces Spa card owned by Ron Byers is shown on Saturday, May 29, 2021. Byers and others are marking the 40th anniversary of the Pisces Spa bathhouse raid. Ian Kucerak/Postmedia
An original Pisces Spa card owned by Ron Byers is shown on Saturday, May 29, 2021. Byers and others are marking the 40th anniversary of the Pisces Spa bathhouse raid. Ian Kucerak/Postmedia Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia

One of the men charged during the raid was Michael Phair, who went on to plead not guilty. He was convicted, but then appealed, had his record scrubbed and eventually went on to hold public office.

He said the way he and the others were treated in the courts and in the media, being called “animals” and berated by lawyers, led to some of the men leaving the city for good while others lost their jobs.

“The kinds of comments that were made, particularly during the court cases, were particularly damaging to most individuals,” said Phair. “Talking about running like animals, I think was, was horrible and I’ll never forget.”

Despite the trauma and pain that it caused, Phair said the incident also shone a spotlight on the treatment of the LGBTQ community. He said many people at the time felt sending dozens of police officers into a bathhouse and tying up the courts with charges was a waste of money, especially since those charges did not include any prostitution, drugs or weapon offences.

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He said it led to push-back against mistreatment. The broader community called for LGBTQ Edmontonians to be treated fairly.

The shutdown was the accumulation of an undercover investigation and led to all 56 people being convicted.

Two years ago, Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee issued a formal apology to Edmonton’s LGBTQ community for the way they were treated, including during the famous raid. Several people who were charged in the raid were in attendance to hear McFee speak.

Police still work to repair relations

Forty years later, Byers said he continues to uncover stories from that day. He said it is important to archive what happened and continue strengthening a better relationship between community members and police.

He said the police have done a good job in recent years trying to build trust through McFee’s apology, creating a liaison position and continuing work through panels and boards.

“The Edmonton police have made some really good steps forward in gaining the trust of the community. Not regaining, but gaining it,” said Byers. “It will help cement a better relationship for the queer community here in Edmonton. Moving forward, there’s still a lot of work to do.”

On Sunday, the Edmonton Police Service issued a statement and released a video to commemorate the 40th anniversary, saying the impact of the raid was profound.

“Many 2SLGBTQ+ community members, including those who were not present during the raid, experienced humiliation, shame and stigmatization from this incident,” read the EPS statement. “While the EPS strives to improve equity and inclusion in its approach to policing, we must also acknowledge the role we have played in unfairly targeting the 2SLGBTQ+ community.”

dshort@postmedia.com

twitter.com/dylanshort_

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