Though the Supreme Court’s ruling on Vriend v. Alberta helped pave the way for equality for Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ communities, maintaining the road to dignity for all has been tumultuous.
There have been many setbacks, followed by advances, followed by setbacks in the subsequent years.
It took the Government of Alberta (GOA) 11 years to officially add the words “sexual orientation” to its human rights legislation.
It also amended its education act to prohibit teachers from mentioning sexual orientation in schools without advising parents first. This was Alberta’s equivalent to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
And it rolled back equality rights by removing privacy protection for 2SLGBTQI+ youth who were involved in Gay/Straight Alliances at their schools.
In this episode, we will explore the importance of individual activism, as the pivotal movers in our story reflect back on what was one of the more memorable experiences in their lives.
And we’ll hear their advice for changemakers who are looking to carry the torch.
Welcome to the final episode of Vriend Versus Alberta.
*NOTE: The terms “Queer and Trans” and “sexual and gender minorities” are used in this series to refer to the 2SLGBTQI+ community as a whole. We acknowledge the great diversity within this community, and you can find more information about this here.
Archival audio of Delwin Vriend, et al. v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Alberta, et al was used with permission from the Supreme Court of Canada.
Read the Supreme Court’s ruling on Vriend v. Alberta.
Listen to the From Here to Queer podcast’s episode with Allison Redford.
Watch Senator Paula Simon’s speech in the Red Chamber about Vriend v. Alberta.
Learn more about Vriend v. Alberta from the Alberta Labour History Institute.
Learn more about Vriend v. Alberta on the University of Alberta’s Bridging Connections podcast.
Learn more about Vriend v. Alberta on the Edmonton Heritage Council’s Edmonton City as Museum Project podcast produced with Alberta Labour History Institute.
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EPISODE IMAGE: Dr. Kristopher Wells speaks about the “vast disparities” within the 2SLGBTQI+ community, and how intersectionality needs to be recognized as the pursuit for equality evolves. CREDIT: Edmonton Community Foundation
Transcripts by Karli Drew.
[The Well Endowed Podcast theme music plays]
Andrew Paul [00:00:10] Hello, and welcome to The Well Endowed Podcast. I’m Andrew Paul.
Edmonton Community Foundation plays many roles...
And now, Vriend Versus Alberta.
[transition music plays behind episode preview]
Justice Frank Iacobucci [00:01:03] We can’t say the struggle is over.
Doug Stollery [00:01:07] I don’t think discrimination will ever be fully behind us.
Sheila Greckol [00:01:11] It hits you viscerally, and you know you have no choice but to fight.
Doug Elliott [00:01:15] Human rights is a marathon, not a sprint.
Delwin Vriend [00:01:18] You can’t be throwing pearls to swine.
Dr. Kristopher Wells [00:01:21] We have to advocate, we have to agitate, and we have to educate.
Jo-Ann Kolmes [00:01:26] And collaboration matters. From the small to the big, it’s all part of this community effort.
Lyle Kanee [00:01:34] Fact that the case had as much impact as it did, should serve as an inspiration for others to… to take up the torch.
[additional transition music plays]
Darrin Hagen [00:01:41] Welcome to the final episode of Vriend Versus Alberta. This series is produced by the Edmonton Community Foundation and the Edmonton Queer History Project. I’m your host, Darrin Hagen.
In this episode, we will explore the importance of individual activism, as the pivotal movers in our story reflect back on what was one of the more memorable experiences in their lives. Since that experience, the need for vigilance has become greater than ever. In short, it’s been a rough ride for marginalized Albertans who consider themselves part of the queer and trans population. The Alberta government has, with a couple of notable exceptions, indulged in ongoing discrimination against queer and trans Albertans in the years since the Supreme Court ruled that all Canadians are equal.
Even as Premier Ralph Klein announced his government would not invoke the notwithstanding clause, he advised that his government would create a fence around marriage, setting the stage for another battle over queer inclusion. This included amendments to the Marriage Act to forbid same-sex marriage, even though marriage laws fell within federal, not provincial, jurisdiction. Suddenly there was a new debate about the purity of marriage. And then, for the first time in Alberta’s history, this government invoked the notwithstanding clause in an attempt to stop the evolution of marriage equality.
As far as the Individual Rights Protection Act goes… well, even after the Supreme Court decision to read in sexual orientation, it took a staggering 11 years for the Government of Alberta to actually include the words in its human rights legislation. And even when it reluctantly acted, it amended the Education Act in order to prohibit teachers from mentioning sexual orientation without advising parents first in advance, allowing for parents to pull their children from class. We see the modern manifestation of this in Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
This was followed by a brief respite from governmental homophobia as Premier Allison Redford moved gay rights forward significantly during her term as leader, more than any Conservative premier in the province’s history. Her term was short. The homophobic amendments to the Marriage Act were finally repealed by her successor, Premier Dave Hancock, whose term was also short.
There was a long battle over gay-straight alliances in schools led by Liberal MLA and longtime queer ally, Laurie Blakeman. The Conservative government of Jim Prentice lost that battle. The “Don’t Say Gay” legislation was finally repealed by the NDP government led by Rachel Notley. There seemed to be a clear and progressive path forward. But then the Albertans elected Jason Kenney, who had a lifelong record of anti-gay activism. It was his government that became the first provincial government in Canada to actually rollback gay rights by removing privacy protection for queer youth who were involved in GSAs.
History is a moving target. The story is still being written, and there are some potentially troubling chapters about to be revealed.
For Sheila Greckol and Delwin Vriend, the struggles that came later are unsurprising and perhaps even a feature of the struggle for equality in a place like Alberta.
[additional transition music plays]
Sheila Greckol [00:05:04] The more oppressive the circumstances, the more people dig deep and find it within themselves to fight it because it hits you viscerally and you know you have no choice but to fight. And so, I think it’s not surprising that some of these very important cases have come out of Alberta because you really have no choice when you’re living in a place where, you know, the oppression is the strongest.
Delwin Vriend [00:05:34] Then, yeah. You see the Government of Alberta still kicking its feet. I don’t know what to say. The— You… you see it all over the world. So many provinces, so many states, so many countries turning so severely to the right. It’s not much of a right turn in Alberta. It’s always been there. But yeah. Like, come on.
Darrin [00:05:52] Doug Stollery reminds us that the law of the land and the ideas and opinions within that land generally move at different speeds.
Doug Stollery [00:06:00] I remember the interview that I did with the CBC immediately after the decision came out. And I was asked by the interviewer, “Well, does this mean that discrimination is now behind us?” And I remember the response I gave was that I don’t think discrimination will ever be fully behind us. Unfortunately, I think that that’s part of just the… the way we, as human beings, are. That those who are different are in some way scary or not as good as us. It’s an unfortunate part of humanity, I think. My hope at the time was that, although this wouldn’t make discrimination go away, at the very least, it would mean that the government would be our ally… in fighting against discrimination.
Darrin [00:06:47] Dr. Kristopher Wells has a warning for anyone who feels that the battle for equality is over.
Dr. Kristopher Wells [00:06:52] People are tired and they’re frustrated often when we see equality advance and then slide back. But I think it-it just shows that we can take nothing for granted, right? We have to continue to be visible, uh, vocal. We have to advocate, we have to agitate, and we have to educate. Nothing will change on its own. And every time a queer person comes out, you know, we’re moving social change forward.
Darrin [00:07:21] Every one of us has a role to play in keeping this conversation alive and moving forward into the future. Just ask Doug Elliott, whose activism began in the AIDS era and continues to this day.
Doug Elliott [00:07:33] You know, I always say human rights is a marathon, not a sprint. I remind people that in 1929, the best place in the world to be gay was Berlin. In 1939, the worst place in the world to be gay was Berlin. It doesn’t always get better. And, uh, you know, I never thought that the Vriend case was going to eliminate homophobia in Alberta or anyone else— anywhere else, for that matter. I don’t think the Court thought that, either. Uh. But it can help. It gives you a tool to fight back and it’s— You know, it creates a… a legal and social standard that other people are expected to follow. Um. But I always say that, uh, homoph— you can never completely eliminate homophobia. You always have to be alert and willing to fight back and willing to stand up for your rights. You can never take them for granted. That’s very dangerous because the forces of evil are always boiling away under the surface.
Darrin [00:08:44] A significant challenge regarding the building of some sort of consensus on equality for queer and trans people comes from the world of religion. Across the religious spectrum, communities are widely diverse in how they view the place queer and trans people have in society. We heard in a previous episode how the King’s University was navigating this landscape as they implemented their own inclusion policy within the Dutch Reformed community. In episode five, we listened to Dale Gibson as intervener, delivering support for queer equality on behalf of Canada’s largest Protestant community. This alone demonstrates that there is a kaleidoscope of opinions and beliefs. Religion is not a monolith, nor should it be viewed as one.
Sheila Greckol sees the positive as it emerges into the light.
Sheila [00:09:32] So I feel that… what remains of those extreme rightwing and sort of religious minority… what remains it’s potent, it’s powerful, but it’s in the vast, overwhelming majority supports equality rights and this aspect of equality rights for the community that we’re talking about here.
Darrin [00:09:56] Here’s the difference between the law and politics. Law is society’s guaranteed minimum of protection for everyone. Sexual orientation doesn’t just mean queer, all sexual orientations were added to human rights legislation. This means that regardless of your sexual orientation, you are protected from discrimination based on that orientation, even you straight folks. This means every one of us would be able to head to our human rights commissions and lodge a complaint if we felt we had been discriminated against because of who we love. Politics and punditry, however, don’t have as rigorous of a standard as the Supreme Court of Canada does. This is why, in spite of sexual orientation being a protected ground, there has been a concerning rise in anti-queer, transphobic rhetoric reentering the public discourse.
Lyle Kanee has some cautions in regards to this alarming trend.
Lyle Kanee [00:10:50] This continues to be a difficult time for gay and lesbian community and for the Jewish community. This is a time where there’s trans bashing and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Uh. Levels that, really, haven’t been seen in… in decades, um, at least in the sense that they are out in the open and seem to be accepted again. And it’s just, again, a reminder that, um, we all need to be vigilant. Uh. That we need to continue to do the work. The work is there to be done. Uh. We can’t let our guard down, and we have to all appreciate that, in many ways, discrimination doesn’t discriminate. Hate doesn’t discriminate. And so, those of us who are potentially the object of that discrimination need to be allies. We need to be— to show solidarity with one another and continue to push back
Darrin [00:11:44] Around the globe, and more specifically right here at home, we are hearing more and more hateful speech that feels like it hearkens back to a lifetime ago. The rightwing protestors at drag events are certainly not what one would expect to hear about in a progressive and equal society. When I began my career as a drag queen 40 years ago, I expected and received better from my home province. And yet today’s drag performers are facing a hostility that is alarming and dangerous.
Michael Phair [00:12:11] I tell people in the first couple of years of dealing with the Pride parade— and I was involved helping to organize probably Pride parades for 15/18 years, actually, over the time— the discussions we had and the fights about whether we should allow drag queens. “Ah! Ah, drag queens, you now, “They dominate. That’s all the pictures people think of. Oh, drag queens. I don’t wanna be thought of like drag queens” kind of thing. And I was like, you know, “Where’s a little sensitivity and a little thinking about this?” So… dealing with inclusion is something that has a great deal more to be done, but there were certainly some issues with that way back when that we had to deal with as well.
Darrin [00:12:51] What does activism look like? Even a self-described “accidental activist” like Delwin Vriend struggles to define what it is and how it works.
Delwin [00:13:01] So, so many people call me an activist. I don’t actually think I am an activist. I’m [emphasized] very lazy. I am one of the laziest people I know. And people say, “No, you’re not. No, you’re not.” Yeah, I am. I’m lazy. I don’t want to do any of this. And I didn’t do any of the legal stuff. I didn’t do anything to get the media to talk to me. I didn’t— I didn’t— I mean, I talked to the media, but what else am I gonna do? I mean, that’s not being an activist. Being an activist, okay. At the very beginning, planning, “Okay, uh, maybe I’ll get fired so maybe we should look into a court case. Maybe this could be the case.” Whatever. Okay, maybe that makes me an activist. But I’m not really an activist. I’m just a human, living a life. And I think that’s what everyone does. And my life happened to bring me to this… to this point, and we just have to follow. And for me, at least… I don’t think I “became” an activist.
Darrin [00:13:54] Michael Phair, like Delwin, discovered activism as a way to counteract the overreach of a homophobic system that attacked him directly. And so, he speaks to Delwin’s struggles with insight.
Michael [00:14:06] Delwin, of course, was at the center and I can’t imagine how difficult and challenging this was for him on a personal level, and that it constantly was part of dealing with everyday life for years. And it’s something that is still part of his life, and it’s always gonna be that way. And Delwin was certainly just a really decent fellow. Nice to be with, great friend, very sociable like the rest of us. And I think that this has made his life different than he ever imagined. And in ways that— In some ways, I think, has been… been not easy at all. And I respect him for it. And I respect that, uh, he stayed with it all the way through. I’m sure he must’ve thought at times that “I-I want this to end. I’m just going to say no more.” But he didn’t. I admire him for that.
Darrin [00:14:51] Others, like Murray Billett, recognize that they have a role to play and enter the ring knowing it’s going to be a battle.
Murray Billett [00:14:58] It’s important to be political yourself. That’s why it’s important to be proud of who you are. Discrimination hinders coming out, but coming out hinders discrimination. So to have that courage to say to a friend, to your sibling, to… to anyone that you’re coming out, that’s a big gift to give yourself.
Michael [00:15:06] It’s a part of… we become a society. And I think there are just a ton of us that need to take credit for that. And to realize how important that was and… and what a difference it’s made. The big one, of course, had to do with marriage. Oh, not at all. Oh, heavens. Marriage was like, that one in particular, I never, never thought that would ever happen.
You know, I hate to say, but, you know, I used to kind of downplay marriage. “Oh, well, you know, that’s an old kind of tradition that should be not… not very good.” Blah-blah. And that, kind of. And I realized eventually that I was saying that because I didn’t think it was possible. When that became possible, it was like, “I need to maybe do some rethinking about some of this and that on a personal level besides, you know, societal.” It also opened the door, I think, for a lot more people, groups, and organizations to both welcome gays and lesbians and the community and look at what they were doing and participating in parades and other events.
I mean, the number of organizations that came to parades was like… oh my God, everybody and their brother-in-law and their kids and dogs and cats were there. And when I think back to the first parade where there were probably 20 of us and a number of people wearing bags over their heads and we walked two blocks on Whyte Avenue, you know, indicates where and how the public has moved. But that’s just one of the areas. Getting the change in the legislation, then protection and discrimination. I somehow felt that it would be possible, but there were days and times when I struggled to think that it would actually happen.
I think also what has happened in schools with gay-straight alliances, never dreamed of it. I-I still am just marvelled at how much healthier it is to deal with your gender and your sexuality when you’re 14, 15, 16, 17… when everybody else is also dealing with it. That’s when you should be dealing with all this in a positive way, instead of hiding and then some years later, have a messed up, kind of thing. And that probably made all kinds of things you shouldn’t have done, trying to then back-step and trying to put yourself back together again. So, I still marvel at-at-at how much it’s done in school. There’s more to be done.
Darrin [00:17:27] Justice Frank Iacobucci and Dr. Kristopher Wells both share some words of caution against complacency.
Justice Frank Iacobucci [00:17:33] We can’t say the struggle is over. There are other groups that we have to be vigilant and sensitive to, ensuring they can share in the joy and happiness of being a full and equal partner in this wonderful country.
Dr. Kristopher Wells [00:17:54] I think, you know, we’re still also, uh, recognizing the vast disparities that exist within the LGBT community. So, you know, it’s a very different world and experience if you’re Two-Spirit, you’re trans, non-binary, or racialized. And so, I think part of the challenge is— for us is to continue to think about the importance of the intersections. And, uh, our community is so unique because we exist in every other community, every other faith and culture in the world. What binds us together is our sexuality and our gender.
And so, you know, we recognize that some people have, uh, more privilege than others in our community and in society. And… and that’s simply not, uh, because they’re— they’ve done anything to earn that privilege, right? Our white privilege, our male privilege, our cisgender privilege. So, you know, we need to be mindful and we need to take that into account when we think about “Where does our community go next? Who’s being left behind? Who’s suffering the most? Who’s not able to be out and… and visible?” And… and recognize that none of us are liberated until all of us are included.
Darrin [00:19:06] So what advice does this group of activists have for the next generation of change-makers?
Murray Billett’s message is empowering to the individual.
Murray [00:19:14] Each of you, no matter what your gender, no matter what your orientation, you have a right, a responsibility and an obligation to hold hands and work with others to ensure that equality continues. You think you don’t have a voice? Have you ever tried to sleep in a room with one mosquito? You have a voice. And you don’t always have to be in front of the camera, in front of the media. But listening to a friend, helping them through an issue, helping them become political, supporting others that want to be political. If you don’t want to volunteer on a political campaign, donate some money. If you don’t want to donate, volunteer some time. That’s how change happens. Always will.
Darrin [00:19:49] Jo-Ann Kolmes reminds us that no one acts alone. That we are all connected and more powerful as a team.
Jo-Ann Kolmes [00:19:50] A reflection I would like to share in terms of other activists is that everything matters, and collaboration matters. That from the small to the big, it’s all part of this community effort to bring more equality and social justice into society. And it takes working together among different groups that have been affected differently, by issues of discrimination, of inequality, social inequality, but the collaboration among all of us makes the difference.
Darrin [00:20:24] For Julie Lloyd, listening to your profound instinct of what is right is paramount, especially for people in the legal profession who have the ability to make change.
Julie Lloyd [00:20:35] When you know it’s right, you’re right. And lawyers I always encourage to listen carefully to that part inside of you that knows what’s right and knows what’s wrong. And your job is to figure out how to win. You’re not gonna win necessarily this case or that case or the next case. But if you take a deep breath and follow relentlessly and do your job well, you will be successful. And this is the lesson of the queer community, and it is something that I would encourage everyone who wants to change the world… to change the world.
Darrin [00:21:20] Lyle Kanee reminds us that lawyers are only half of the equation when it comes to making change. The relationship and dynamic between lawyers and their clients is essential, inspiring one another to face what can seem like insurmountable odds.
Lyle [00:21:24] I think there’s a lot to be inspired by. During my career, I have encountered many heroes and heroines. You know, lawyers just do the talking, but you need clients. And look at someone like Delwin who decided to step out and, uh, take the lead on a case like this. Be the subject of much abuse, much negative publicity, expose himself, have his name be connected with a case that could’ve lost. So we need to be inspired by those… those heroes and, uh, recognize that that’s what it takes. It takes people to step up, people like Delwin. I think the fact that the case was successful, the fact that the case had as much impact as it did, should serve as an inspiration for others to… to take up the torch.
Darrin [00:22:14] The last word, though, must go to Delwin himself. Whether he intended to or not, he has inspired a generation of progressive activists.
We asked him for his advice to the activists being born in today’s turbulent times.
[additional transition music plays in background]
Delwin [00:22:30] At some point, you just have to tell the truth. Don’t be too gentle. You can’t be throwing pearls to swine. You just gotta oink back. You gotta say, “HAHA, I win.” [laughs]
Darrin [00:22:48] Thank you for listening to Vriend Versus Alberta. I have been your host, Darrin Hagen.
Andrew [00:23:03] This episode of Vriend Versus Alberta is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation and the Edmonton Queer History Project. It was written, directed, and hosted by Darrin Hagen. It was edited and chase produced by Andrew Paul. In this episode, you heard the voices of Sheila Greckol, Delwin Vriend, Doug Stollery, Dr. Kristopher Wells, Doug Elliott, Lyle Kanee, Michael Phair, Murray Billett, Justice Frank Iacobucci, Jo-Ann Kolmes, and Julie Lloyd. The music in Vriend Versus Alberta is written, composed, and recorded by Darrin Hagen.
Many thanks to our sound operators Ariana Brophy, David Gallinger, and Andrew Paul. We’d also like to thank our production assistants JoAnne Pierce, Cara Paul, and Graeme Lummer.
Special thanks to Doug Stollery, Cindy Davis, Edmonton Public Schools Archives and Museum, Cambridge LLP, Goldblatt Partners LLP, Chivers Carpenter Lawyers, and Torys LLP.
You can learn more about the Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org, and check out more queer history by visiting the Edmonton Queer History Project at EdmontonQueerHistoryProject.ca.