Closeted councillor a victim of the times

Attempted gross indecency charge brought an abrupt end to the promising political career of Charles H. Spence


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Charles Harold Spence was a rising public figure in Winnipeg in the 1950s and early 1960s with a high-profile job and a seat on city council. Spence also had a secret: he was gay. When this became public knowledge following an all all-night police surveillance operation, his public life came to an abrupt end.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/12/2017 (1989 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Charles Harold Spence was a rising public figure in Winnipeg in the 1950s and early 1960s with a high-profile job and a seat on city council. Spence also had a secret: he was gay. When this became public knowledge following an all all-night police surveillance operation, his public life came to an abrupt end.

Born in 1925 and raised in Poplar Point, Man., Spence settled in Winnipeg after serving with the Navy during the Second World War. He then worked a series of sales jobs, hawking everything from office stationery to life insurance.

During this time, Spence became politically active.

Heimskringla archives A Charles Spence ad that ran in Winnipeg’s Icelandic newspaper, Heimskringla, during the 1958 Winnipeg civic election campaign.

In 1952, he served two years as president of the Young Conservative Association of Greater Winnipeg and in the 1953 provincial election was the Progressive Conservative candidate for Lakehead, running against Premier Douglas Campbell. He lost, as expected, but the campaign gained him notoriety and political points within the party.

By 1956, Spence was living in the West End with his mother, Florence Garton, and found more stable employment with the Manitoba Division of the Canadian Red Cross. He started out as an organizer of its blood donor clinic division and within a couple of years was the program’s director.

Spence tried his hand at politics again in 1958 by running for Winnipeg city council’s Ward 2, which comprised of the West End. He received the endorsement of the Civic Election Committee (CEC) which was a right-leaning, pro-business, informal civic party that had a majority caucus on city council.

Spence’s election platform was thin on policy, but he did take aim at those with whom he would be working.

Winnipeg’s Icelandic newspaper, Heimskringla, noted at one campaign rally: “Spence said it is a disgusting experience for a person witnessing a session of city council from the gallery, to note the waste of time and effort at the taxpayer’s expense, while some aldermen engage in personal bickering in order to gain publicity advantageous only to themselves.”

On Oct. 22, 1958, the 33-year-old Spence defeated incumbent councillor Hank Scott.

The Winnipeg Free Press interviewed Spence the following day. He said, “I am not going to be one of these aldermen who sits and says nothing for the first six months of his term.” The reporter also thought it was worth noting that Spence would be “… one of the most eligible bachelors on city council”, to which he replied “So far, I’ve escaped marriage.”

Spence proved to be an outspoken member of council and not above engaging in some of the behaviour he had criticized others for during his campaign.

Personal style aside, Spence gained enough trust amongst his CEC colleagues that in 1960 they made him a member of the city’s Board of Police Commissioners which was made up of councillors and civilians. It was considered a plum appointment as it generated a great deal of publicity and power over police department matters, including its budget.

It wasn’t long before Spence began taking the department and chief Robert Taft to task over a wide range of issues. Most seemed minor, such as criticizing the expense involved in washing police cars in-house and the use of ghost cars for catching traffic violators. He also worked to claw back additional pay and fees that some members of the police department received.

‘Spence experienced a major dichotomy between his public life as a conservative politician on the one hand, and his private life and queer sexuality on the other hand. In the early 1960s, these elements of his life would have been virtually impossible to reconcile or synthesize’– Scott de Groot

One of the more contentious issues was demanding the police commission see in advance, and edit if need be, a draft of the police chief’s introduction to his department’s annual report. For Spence, it was a matter of making sure the department and commission were speaking with one voice. To the chief, and editorials in the Free Press and Tribune, it was an attempt by the politician to censor the chief.The chief and Spence were constantly at odds and it was portrayed as a running public feud in the newspapers.

After Spence had been on the commission for just six months, alderman Peter Taraska, a senior member of the CEC caucus, publicly questioned whether their appointment had been a mistake, stating: “(Spence) makes these petty complaints that never get anywhere or do any good but they are debated and reported in the papers and the police are made a laughing stock. We can’t afford to have this sort of nonsense going on in our police commission.” He called on them to remove Spence at their next caucus meeting.

Many thought Spence’s constant criticism of the department was petty retaliation for having been caught for speeding on a couple of occasions during his time as a commissioner. Scott de Groot, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Winnipeg’s department of history, says to understand Spence’s fraught relationship with the police, we have to look at the broader social context of a gay man living in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s.

De Groot has researched the gay liberation movement in Canada, including the case of Charles Spence, and notes Spence surely would have been aware of tactics used by police to investigate and punish those suspected of being homosexual. If he had not already been targeted himself, “Spence’s lovers and the queer people he socialized with may have been subjected to police surveillance and regulation.”

In the end, the CEC chose not to remove Spence from the commission and reappointed him in 1961 after he was re-elected to council.

During that second year, Spence was a more experienced politician and appears to have lightened the tone of his criticisms. He did, however, revisit the same slate of issues he had concerns with the year before and this time managed to get a majority of is fellow commissioners to support the changes he sought. He also got promoted to vice-chair of the police commission.

The end of Spence’s public career came at the hands of the police department he oversaw.

Based on testimony given at his preliminary hearing and subsequent trial, two Winnipeg police detectives noticed Spence’s car at the CNR station at 9 p.m. on the night of July 1, 1961. It was parked there because Spence had been at Grand Beach attending the caterer’s picnic on behalf of the City of Winnipeg that day.

One detective testified the fact the car belonged to Spence and that it was there because he was away on city business was known to him.

The West Wood apartment building at 780 Ellice Ave., where Charles Spence lived with is mother.

They watched Spence’s vehicle and at 12:05 a.m. Spence and another man got in and drove to a nearby gas station on Main Street. There, the two men parted and Spence drove off alone onto Graham Avenue.

The detectives then parked behind a hotel near the old bus station, which at the time was on Graham Avenue, where the True North Centre is currently under construction, and kept Spence’s vehicle under “close surveillance”.

They observed Spence circle the block a number of times and on one pass noticed there was another man in the car with him. Police tailed Spence’s car but lost it in traffic, so they went to stake out the apartment block on Ellice Avenue at Home Street where Spence lived with his mother. A little while later, Spence and his passenger arrived and entered the building.

Detectives continued to watch the building and about an hour later, at 2:35 a.m., the man left the building alone on foot. They followed him for a while before stopping to question him.

The man, a part-time catering employee for the City of Winnipeg, told police he had been walking on Hargrave Street when Spence pulled alongside and asked if he wanted to go back to his place. The man agreed and got into the car.

The two men sat in Spence’s living room for about a half an hour before going into the bedroom. There, Spence asked the man to perform a sexual act on him. The man refused, and after “necking” for a while he asked Spence to drive him home. Spence refused, so the man left.At 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 4, 1961, more than a month after the incident, police arrived at Spence’s apartment to arrest him. The charge was that he, “…on July 2, 1961, attempted to commit an act of gross indecency against a male person.”

De Groot notes the definition of “gross indecency” was very vague and, “Dating back to the Victorian era, these laws were value-laden, and they didn’t differentiate between consensual and non-consensual sexual acts.”

Even in 1961, de Groot believes there was a very real possibility that if found guilty, Spence could have faced a jail sentence of a few months and/or a hefty fine.

After his arrest, Spence was taken to the Rupert Avenue police station and questioned. According to one detective’s testimony, Spence denied knowing the man and said he couldn’t remember if he picked anyone up on Hargrave Street that morning. He then asked for a lawyer.

Gordon Goldsborough Collection After his arrest, Coun. Charles Spence was held at the Rupert Avenue police station.

After the questioning ended, one detective claimed Spence said: “I heard of a lot of things in politics before, but not anything like this.”

Spence was returned to his cell and held until nearly 6 p.m. when his bail of $1,000 was set.

That same day, Spence issued a statement to the press saying he was stepping down from the police commission: “As a very serious charge has been laid against me by the City of Winnipeg Police… I do feel in all fairness I should not sit on the commission and would ask to be excused from meetings until this is dealt with.”

Spence stayed out of the public eye and away from council duties until late August when he appeared at the city magistrate’s court for a hearing. He pleaded not guilty to the charge and elected to have a trial by jury.

At noon on Aug. 29, 1961, Spence delivered his letter of resignation from council to Mayor Stephen Juba.

In it, he thanked colleagues for the “kindnesses and co-operation” shown to him during his tenure and wrote, “Since my election to City Council, I have always tried, to the best of my ability, to properly represent the citizens of Winnipeg both in Council and the various Committees to which I have been appointed.”

As perhaps a reference to the reason for his arrest, he included, “I have been conscious for some time that my attempts to represent the citizens have not been received kindly by certain departmental heads of the City.”

Spence’s trail at Court of Queen’s Bench began on Feb. 5, 1962.

The Crown called four witnesses: the man Spence picked up and three police detectives. It attempted to call more, said to be able to establish a pattern of behaviour on the part of Spence, but Justice Ralph Maybank refused to hear them. The defence called no witnesses.

Winnipeg Tribune Archives Charles Spence was held at the Rupert Avenue police station after his arrest.

Maybank then gave a 30-minute long charge to the jury. He pointed out the star witness, the man Spence picked up, by his own admission was an accomplice in the alleged crime and could just as easily be charged himself. He warned: “It is extremely dangerous to convict someone on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. That is an old principle of our law and it has been declared forcefully in innumerable cases.”

An hour later, the jury returned with a verdict of “not guilty”. Maybank asked Spence to rise and told him he was free to go.

A Tribune reporter spoke briefly to Spence after the verdict. Spence said his priority was to look for a job, reminding him that, “I’ve been out of work for about six months since I resigned from council.” He then speculated about running for re-election and possibly launching one or more lawsuits.

In the end, Spence did not run for public office again or take anyone to court. In fact, those words spoken in the courtroom appear to be the last of Charles Spence’s public life.

It seems curious that a man who was not afraid to speak his mind did not speak out publicly about what happened to him or hit out at those he felt responsible for his arrest.

De Groot says one reason may have been that Spence did not want to come to terms with his sexuality.

“Spence experienced a major dichotomy between his public life as a conservative politician on the one hand, and his private life and queer sexuality on the other hand,” adding, “In the early 1960s, these elements of his life would have been virtually impossible to reconcile or synthesize.”

Spence and his mother soon left Winnipeg, disappearing from the Henderson street directory a couple of years after the trial. The only hint of where they went can be found in the July 1964 obituary of Spence’s uncle Rupert, which states he died while “holidaying at the home of his nephew Charles H. Spence of Oakville, Ont.”

In 1980, Spence and his mother reappear In the Henderson Directory living together again in the West End of Winnipeg.

Winnipeg Tribune Archives Winnipeg Police Chief Robert Taft, left, and Mayor Stephen Juba during

Florence Garton died on April 16, 1987. Her obituary includes mention of her son and the fact that he was a “former city alderman and police commissioner.”

Charles Spence died later that year, on Nov. 25, 1987, at the age of 62. His obituary includes his naval service, his work with the Fort Rouge Legion and that he had been a manager at Adams Furniture, a retail store on Portage Avenue. There is no mention of his time on council or the police commission.

As recently brought to light by the federal government’s apology to the gay community for the witch hunt that saw hundreds of civil servants drummed out of their jobs because of their sexuality, Spence’s case is, sadly, not an isolated one.

For de Groot, Spence’s brief time on the police commission was an example of someone trying to fight back against that system.

“Spence often represented himself as a modernizer — as moving forward with an agenda to bring certain police policies and practices into the modern era,” de Groot said. “He did resist in some ways the repression and regulation of queer people in Winnipeg at the time. Because of this, he is worth remembering.”

Christian Cassidy explores local history at his blog, West End Dumplings.

Christian Cassidy

Christian Cassidy
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