Toronto’s police chief expressed his “regret” to Toronto’s gay community Wednesday for the violent bathhouse raids that saw hundreds of gay men arrested 35 years ago.

Nearly 300 men were arrested in a series of police raids at four bathhouses in Toronto on February 5, 1981, and charged with owning or being found in a common bawdy house.

“The 35th anniversary of the 1981 raids is a time when the Toronto Police service expresses its regret for those very actions,” Toronto police chief Mark Saunders said at a press conference at police headquarters.

Speaking before Toronto Mayor John Tory and leaders within the gay community, Saunders called the raids “one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history” and acknowledged the “destructiveness” of 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,” Saunders said.

Bathhouses were long considered a safe space for gay men. Many within the LGBTQ community saw the raids, dubbed Operation Soap, as an attack on being gay -- and they responded in protest. Thousands gathered outside a downtown police station the night after the raids to rally.

Saunders recognized the successful efforts within the gay community to fight against the long list of charges. Almost all the charges against those arrested were eventually dropped.

“An extraordinary community response led to the eventual acquittal of almost everyone arrested that night,” Saunders said.

‘We really felt under siege’

The 1981 raids were hardly the first attack on Toronto’s LGBT community, nor were they the first police raids on a Toronto bathhouse.

According to Toronto lawyer Doug Elliot, who is openly gay, the 1981 raids happened during a particularly challenging time for the city’s gay community.

“(Singer) Anita Bryant had come to Toronto and denounced gay people, the Body Politic (newspaper) had been charged, the Barracks bathhouse had been raided a couple of years previously, the Glad Day bookstore had been charged. We were reeling,” Elliot, a legal partner at Cambridge LLP, told CTV News Channel. “We really felt under siege.”

Elliot wasn’t at a bathhouse during the raids, but he recalled the level of violence inflicted against the men inside as “unprecedented.”

“We were treated in the most demeaning way. People were dragged out into the street naked. The Richmond Street baths were smashed to bits by sledgehammers,” he said.

Brian Mossop was inside a bathhouse that night. He recalled hearing a commotion inside the facility, which he said was unusual because bathhouses were typically calm.

A police officer eventually located Mossop and gave him a summons to appear in court. The officer also asked Mossop for his employer’s phone number.

“I decided to give that, since I knew it wouldn’t make any difference to my employer. And indeed, the next day … she did get a call from the police and she gave them a piece of her mind, that she wasn’t interested in my sex life,” Mossop said.

Some newspapers later published the names of the men arrested in the raids, Elliot said, in efforts to shame them.

“That was to make sure that they were outed to their families and friends, so that they would lose their jobs and they would be humiliated,” Elliot said.

'The Canadian Stonewall'

The bathhouse raids are considered a pivotal turning point for Canada’s LGBTQ community. In days following the arrests, protesters came out in droves.

“It was a vicious attack on our community, and the only good thing about it is it really made us angry. And it was our Stonewall, really. It was the Canadian Stonewall,” Elliot said, referring the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.

“We got angry and we decided we were not going to be pushed around by the police, by the state and by society anymore.”

Following the raids, thousands of people rallied outside police headquarters and marched down Yonge Street in a defiant statement of solidarity.

“That was the takeoff point for the takeoff of the Toronto gay community that we know today,” Mossop said. “Before that, the gay community -- at least the out-of-the-closet gay community -- had been very small, only a handful of gay activists. But suddenly vast numbers of people decided they wanted to get involved, and many, many people decided that it was time to come out of the closet.”

The community quickly united. A committee was later formed to help cover legal costs for the 286 men who were charged, reach out to the media and plan further protests. Literary heavyweight Margaret Atwood made headlines when she weighed in on the raids, famously saying, “What do the police have against cleanliness?”

'A good start'

Saunders’ formal acknowledgment was welcomed on Wednesday. However, Dennis Findlay, president of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, said his speech fell short.

“He did not use the words ‘on behalf of the police services, I am sorry,’ and he never used the world ‘apology,’” Findlay said in an interview with CTV News Channel on Wednesday.

Findlay also pointed out that Saunders did not “apologize or recognize” the 2000 police raid of a lesbian bathhouse.

The raid, involving a handful of male police officers, happened during an all-female event known as the “Pussy Palace.”

The police said officers were checking for liquor licence violations, but the raid drew outcry from the LGBT community, who said the officers were intimidating attendees.

“Those are three things I that I think should have been included in his statement, and I would encourage him to put out a press release which actually said, ‘We are sorry, we apologize and we also apologize for the actions at the Pussy Palace,” Findlay said.

Elliot called the acknowledgement “a good start,” but said there are other groups who should be held accountable for the ways LGBTQ people were treated.

“It’s not just the police. The media need to apologize to us for the way we were treated. The churches need to apologize to us. The governments need to apologize to us. But I congratulate Chief Sanders on having the courage to stand up and to be the first,” he said.

But Mossop said that, while some people may find the apology “meaningful,” he does not.

“The only really meaningful apology for me would be an apology from whoever ordered that raid, and 35 years later we still don’t know who that was,” he said. “But just institutional apologies don’t really mean a lot to me.”

Saunders also announced Wednesday a new gender neutral washroom being unveiled at Toronto Police headquarters and a guidebook to help encourage transgender people to report crimes to police.

“We know that crimes against trans persons happen at an alarming rate. We also know that for many reasons, including experiences with police, trans people have generally not reported these crimes to the police. This must stop,” Saunders said.

Saunders’ formal acknowledgement comes amid Toronto’s first-ever Pride month. Similar celebrations are being held in June across North America.