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When Delwin Vriend was fired from his job at a Christian college for being gay, he had two choices; he could accept his termination, or fight back.
He chose to fight. The first step was to file a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, but after the Commission denied his request it was time to take the Alberta Government to court.
In this episode we look at the series of serendipitous events that brought Delwin’s legal team together to continue the arduous journey toward equality for Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ community.
Welcome to episode 3 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.
Vriend Versus Alberta is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation and the Edmonton Queer History Project.
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EPISODE IMAGE: Murray Billett played an instrumental role supporting Delwin’s case behind the scenes helping to coordinate media and fundraising efforts. CREDIT: JoAnne Pearce
[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.
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Delwin Vriend [00:01:07] The King’s College had zero written, or even communicated policy, on homosexuality.
Melanie Humphreys [00:01:12] I think what there was, was an expectation that everybody that served at King’s would agree with a traditional understanding of marriage.
Delwin [00:01:21] And that Monday morning, the article comes out, and my name’s in it, of course, and so was the [laughing] King’s College. Now they really had to deal with it because now they were in the public.
Michael Phair [00:01:30] The college board and president demanded that he, um, resign.
Joachim Segger [00:01:35] And it’s sort of shocking that we ended up firing Delwin, which was wrong. It was just simply wrong to fire him.
Murray Billett [00:01:43] And I’m going, you know, I’m a union guy. Like, what the hell’s going on with that? Why? How can… how can they do that?
Michael [00:01:49] It was another thing that very quickly, people organized around and said, “Alright, what can we do?”
Murray [00:01:55] And for them to fire him simply for being gay, it just didn’t sit well with this old Prairie Fairy.
Melanie [00:02:01] It became very apparent to me at the beginning of my presidency that there was a deep hurt.
Murray [00:02:07] What this case did… it kind of lit the fire under the backsides of a lot of people because of the injustice of what happened.
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Darrin Hagen [00:02:20] Welcome to episode two of Vriend Versus Alberta. This series is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation and the Edmonton Queer History Project. I’m your host, Darrin Hagen.
In the previous episode, we learned how the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms laid the groundwork for activists to begin pressing for progressive reform in Alberta. The Alberta government’s refusal to include sexual orientation in its Individual’s Rights Protection Act, I-R-P-A or IRPA for short, made it one of the few remaining provinces not to include the queer and trans community in its human rights legislation. While the rest of Canada’s queer population was beginning to enjoy an expansion of equality, the Alberta Conservative Government continued to stonewall any efforts to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Queer Albertans were still being actively discriminated against, facing the risk of being refused basic services, including housing and employment simply because of who they loved. The worst part was that there was no legal recourse to address this discrimination.
However, the creation of the Charter presented a new tool for change. All that was needed was a cause to rally behind, an injustice that could be used to launch a challenge to the exclusion of sexual orientation from the legislation in Alberta. That injustice would take place on January 28th, 1991 when a laboratory coordinator employed at the King’s College would be fired for being gay. This man was Delwin Vriend.
This chapter begins with Delwin’s coming out story.
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Delwin [00:04:04] There were three of us in the class that were not into sports. And we would play with the girls, and be on the swings, and didn’t like the intramural sports, and always in trouble with the Grade 6 teacher because of that. And he actually kept us in after school once, uh, and it was obvious that he was concerned that we were gay. This was when we were supposed to have our sex education, and he did not. We were the only class that he never gave sex education to because he was not comfortable dealing with us. He kept us in after school and he said, “Look, boys play football. Boys play soccer. Girls do skip rope. You need to be doing boys’ things.” And I mean, it was very obvious that, you know, we weren’t “good” boys.
Interestingly enough, my dad also taught at the same school. So, my dad taught Grade 5. This was in Grade 6. I was devastated. We always took the walk home together. I was devastated. ‘Cause I knew that he had talked to my… my dad about this. And… and we got home and I was not going up to dinner. I went down to my bedroom in the basement and I stayed there.
And my dad came by a little bit later, uh, that evening and said, “Delwin, look. I know what’s gone wrong— oh, what— what’s gone on. It’s not a problem with me. You do what you do. Uh, I don’t agree with your… your teacher. You’re good. Uh… you don’t have to worry about it.” He was really good with it. He was excellent as a… as a father that way. He could separate school and home and do that. So— But yeah… already Grade 6. I mean, I knew that other people were becoming aware that I might be gay.
And Grade 7, 8, 9… there was always… there was always the jock kid in the class that… [intrigued gasp, laughter]… I bet— that me and the girls would always be flirting with. But then, you know, you get to high school and “ahhh, this is different, different class again.” And sort of back in the closet and, you know, a little bit more careful and… then off to university. My first year of university was at the King’s College. And, uh, yeah… you’re just, sort of… getting used to a new world.
And then I go to Michigan to another Christian college, uh, in Michigan. Uh, very conservative Christian reform church college. A three hell years of my life. I hated them. And yeah, I stayed in the closet. I mean, I-I knew guys that— I mean, they were obviously gay. I was just— I was not comfortable enough. I was… I was not out. By that time I, at least, knew the word gay. I could identify as being gay as opposed to just being attracted to other… other guys. And I know that there was at least one guy that was trying to date me. And I— there’s— there was no— I— In my head, I had to come out to my parents first because if they found out in any other way, that would just be devastating. And I had always thought, “I gotta tell them before I turn 21.” And… I didn’t manage. I was a little bit disappointed, uh… but I did finally tell them.
I gave them a phone call… and then chickened out. I said, “No. No-no-no— I— Sorry— Well— I’ll talk another time.” So my dad was like, “Come on, Delwin. You obviously have something you want to talk about. Just—” And then they said, “Was it—”, you know, “Have you— have you done something wrong? Are you in trouble? Did you kill someone?” [laughing] It’s like, “No, no, no, no. It’s nothing like that. Okay. Fine. Yeah, I’m gay.” And my dad said, “You know”— And he was… he was immediately, uh, Yeah, well, that’s not a problem.” Uh… “We love you.” Whatever. One of my mama’s first questions was, “You’re not gonna start dressing differently, are you?” [Laughter]
But, uh… they were… they were immediately quite accepting, so that was a [emphasized] huge weight off my back. And I actually went out that— I couldn’t sleep that night. I was just so high from… from like, “I’m finally out.” I had— I was not qui— No, I was actually. I was working at the King’s College at the time. I had probably just started at the King’s College. They had— The King’s College had zero written or even communicated policy on homosexuality. Uh. That… they in fact developed after they found out that I was gay, then they wanted to come up with a policy. And then they wanted me, of course, to sign up to that policy after the fact.
Darrin [00:08:22] Melanie Humphreys is the current president of King’s University. When she accepted the position in 2013, she could see that the scars of the Vriend firing ran deep even decades after the event.
Melanie [00:08:34] So… as far as I know, there wasn’t an actual policy, which is, uh, difficult when you think about, “Okay, we’re releasing somebody.” But I think what there was, was an expectation, which is almost even more difficult. There was an expectation that everybody that served at King’s would agree with a traditional understanding of marriage. And so… that became the messiness that the community dealt with.
Delwin [00:09:00] When-when the, uh, president of the college had first been informed that I was gay, he brings me into the office and he says, “Look, we’ve been told… and we just want to confirm… that you might be gay.” And he didn’t let me confirm yet. He was, uh— He said, “I understand you might feel more comfortable with men than with women.” And he was very nervous. And my first thought— And my first response to him was, “Well, I’m definitely not more comfortable with you right now, so I’m not sure that I would say I’m comfortable with men.” But, uh, yeah, he had to confirm. And it’s-it’s like, “Okay, well we’re-we’re doing nothing at this point. This is just confirmation, and this has been to the board of the college. We’ll keep you informed.”
And one of the first things that they did was try to come up with a written… policy on— on all sorts of things, but in specific, uh, homosexuality. They never [emphasized] really got to a full-fledged implementation of that policy while I was there. That process took, you know, a year… a year after they had initially hauled me into the president’s office to confirm whether I was gay or not.
Melanie [00:10:06] It was actually a process of over a year that they tried to solve this and engage this, um… in conversations and with Delwin. And so, I don’t know much about it specifically. But I know that there was a policy that the board tried to adopt after this release of Delwin from his employment, and that never passed.
Darrin [00:10:30] Delwin was already in the process of moving on with his life. Even while employed at King’s College, he had enlisted the services of a lawyer. Delwin was aware that getting fired from King’s was a real possibility. He also knew it could be an opportunity to challenge an unjust and homophobic system, and wanted to be prepared.
He was becoming more involved in Edmonton’s queer activist community, including working at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, known as GALA, alongside a man who had become a prominent and effective voice for queer and trans Albertans. A man whose own activism began with an event that changed the course of his life forever.
In 1981, the police raided the Pisces Health Spa in Edmonton, Alberta. This was possibly the largest mass arrest in Alberta’s history. 60 gay men were arrested and faced criminal charges. One of the men who was unjustly arrested that night was Michael Phair.
Michael would later become Edmonton’s first openly gay city counselor.
Michael [00:11:26] GALA, which was a Gay and Lesbian Awareness… uh… group, which I was a key member along with a couple other people kind of helped organize, run. And we were a political group. We were interested in getting things done on— from a political side.
We held a conference at the hotel by the former downtown airport. And as part of that conference, we had a number of sessions. We pulled in a couple of people from elsewhere as keynote. But we wanted to do a session about parents— with parents of somebody who was gay or lesbian. And Delwin Vriend was a member of our group. And Delwin said, “I think my parents would do that.” So he went ahead… and his parents agreed to do a session about what it’s like for parents of somebody that’s gay. That also got into the media. It was one of the few times, that I’m aware of, that parents had spoken out at all in Edmonton. And here you have regular Edmontonians, sorry to put it that way, talking about their son. Uh, that got into the media.
Delwin [00:12:24] I don’t know what the name of the conference was, but it was dealing with the… the right situation here in Alberta and how we could advance our cause. You know, force the Government of Alberta to come into line with the Canadian laws. But… for that conference, we wanted some publicity. And one of the potential stories was my fear of being fired because I was gay. And initially that story was going to be with the Edmonton Journal, and it was going to be an anonymous story. Well, anonymous…. I was— There were no… no identities going to be revealed.
So they were going to interview me… and my father… and the King’s College. And the… uh, the reporter, she actually asked each of us at the beginning of interviews, “I understand that you want this to be anonymous, but if the others agree to use their names, will you agree to use your name?” And yeah. I was like, “Yeah, if-if the King’s College and my dad are willing to,” it’s like, “Yeah, you can use my name.” And she said that to everyone. And everyone agreed.
So… the Monday morning of the conference— I had taken the day off because we had the conference. Uh, and that Monday morning, the article comes out, and my name’s in it, of course. And so was the [laughing] King’s College. And my dad and I had to go into… into work on the Tuesday morning. [Laughter] It’s like, “Oh no, what’s gonna happen now?” I mean, my heart’s thumping [clunking noise], and I just— I-I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Uh, the very first thing is the receptionist. Oh, was she furious with me! [Laughter] Because she had to answer calls all day, and I wasn’t there. And she said, “Did you take the day off because you knew I’d be getting calls?” “No, I… [laughing] I didn’t even know my name was gonna be in the papers, to be honest.” [Laughter] But she was not happy. And that was… that was sort of the impetus to push this a little bit further. Now they really had to deal with it because now they were in the public.
Michael [00:14:27] Delwin was working at the time at, uh, King’s College. He’d been there for almost two years and done well. But ultimately, the college board and president demanded that he, uh, resign.
Delwin [00:14:40] I received a call into the president’s office on a Monday morning. And he… he called me and my boss in and sat us down and-and presented me a paper and said, um, “We’d like you to, um, to sign this.” And I’m reading. It’s just— It’s a letter of resignation. It’s like, “I’m not gonna sign this. Why would I sign this?”
“Well, if you don’t sign it, your contract will be terminated as of noon today.”
“Well, I’m not signing it.”
“Okay. Well, at noon today, you’re fired.”
Michael [00:15:11] So they fired him. I knew Delwin quite well. Worked with him on, uh, this group— our group quite well. He was a wonderful fellow. And this was just devastating that they’d fire someone, like. But there was no protection for someone like him. The college could do that. And-and they were clear that’s the reason they were getting rid of him. And there was no recourse.
Darrin [00:15:30] Joachim Segger worked at King’s College at the time that Delwin was terminated. He was the chair of the music department, and remembers the tension and stress that the situation created for both students and faculty.
Joachim Segger [00:15:42] When I heard that Delwin was fired I was… very upset. Shocked because King’s usually doesn’t do things very quickly. And in this situation, they didn’t either. I think— From the time that Delwin admitted that he was homosexual, I think it took a year before the board actually fired him. They really struggled with whether or not they should fire Delwin. And there were many on the board, I think, who were vehemently against it. And I even heard that some board members resigned from the board because of it. On faculty— I would say at least 80% of the faculty, uh, was also against the firing.
And I think part of the reason for that is that we are a community that generally embraces difference. And King’s was like that from the beginning. And it’s sort of shocking that we ended up firing Delwin, which was wrong. It was just simply wrong to fire him. And, at that time, we were also asked not to speak to the press. But many of us, of course, would speak to our friends and faculties from other institutions. Because you can imagine that, when an institution fires a gay person, the other faculty and staff are implicated in that decision, even though they may not have agreed with it.
Michael [00:17:13] It was unbelievable. He was someone who had a decent job. A really nice fellow, active, um, smart. And fired from a job he wanted, and was doing well, because he was gay. And it was hard to weigh that with everything else that was going on that we were… we were trying to achieve. And— But emphasize the importance of making changes legally, legislation wise, that if you can’t get some things in that make sure discrimination doesn’t happen, or that’s a recourse, there’s nothing you can do about it then. And-and that feeling of… of powerlessness. I mean, I think of Delwin in particular, of course. It affected his, you know, paying his bills and all the rest kind of thing and that. But the powerlessness of not being able to do anything about it was really awful.
Darrin [00:18:07] Murray Billett is an activist who has played a significant behind-the-scenes role in many advances in equality for queer and trans rights on the prairies. A labor advocate, he also was the mover and shaker behind elevating Winnipeg’s first openly gay mayor to power… before moving to Edmonton to exercise his own brand of influence to help Michael Phair get elected as the first openly gay elected official in Alberta. He was very involved in AIDS advocacy in Edmonton when he met Delwin, and before long was using his connections within the Edmonton community to network and fundraise. He also had extensive experience dealing with the media, a skill that would become very important as this case advanced.
Murray Billett [00:18:48] How I ended up… uh, working with Delwin was at HIV Edmonton. It was called the AIDS Network when I first moved here in 1990. Delwin had been fired from King’s College, and I was on the board of directors of HIV Edmonton at the time. And, uh, Delwin explained to me that-that he had been fired for being gay. And I’m going, you know, I’m a union guy. Like, what the hell’s going on with that? Why? How can they… how can they do that? So, uh, with that, I met Delwin an-and I’m going, “My God, we gotta do something about this.”
Michael [00:19:23] It was another thing that very quickly, people organized around and said, “Alright, what can we do?” kind of thing. “Is there any opportunity to do something?” And also, whether Delwin was interested in doing anything— You know, this was about him. And-and a very careful thinking of wanting— If we did something that Delwin was comfortable with it, and that he was willing to do that. So a group— And I was a bit a part of it, but by this time, other people were leading on this.
Murray [00:19:52] You couldn’t have met a more solid young man. Professional young man. Thoughtful. All about family. All about friends. And that’s the… that’s the part that really got me going. He’s the kind of guy that just should never get fired for any reason. You know, he’s… he’s a compliant, consistent professional kind of guy. And for them to fire him simply for being gay, I just found outrageous. You know, when somebody of that caliber gets released for that particular reason, it just didn’t sit well with this old Prairie Fairy. And it just— It got me going and that’s partly what this case did. It kind of lit the fire under the backsides of a lot of people because of the injustice of what happened.
Delwin [00:20:41] Um… of course, by that time, I’d already for a couple of years been seeing a lawyer every once in a while just to keep in touch. We knew that this was eventually going to happen. So he, you know— We would… we would keep in touch where, “If this happens, what do I do? If this happens, what do I do?” He had me keep a little journal of all the meetings that were taking place so that, you know, we had a complete record of what was happening because we were not so convinced that the King’s College would be… [emphasized] this stupid. But the King’s College was… very clear that the reason they were firing me was because I was gay.
Darrin [00:21:17] The stage was set for Delwin and his budding team to begin their journey toward equality. The first step would be to file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
Meanwhile, the faculty and student body at King’s College were trying to make sense of the college’s decision to fire Delwin. As Joachim Segger explains, it was shocking to many as it was no secret that King’s had several faculty and students who were also part of the queer and trans community.
Joachim [00:21:44] I just couldn’t understand why King’s, with the way we see life and even our Christian convictions, would come to the conclusion that this is what we would have to do. The faculty was also very upset. And several faculty went to speak with the president and went to the board and tried to get the board to rescind their decision to fire Delwin. So there was certainly action on the part of faculty.
The students, I think, were confused and certainly upset. I— Especially, I would say in-in the area of music, which I can only really speak for… uh, because we did have gay students who were singing alongside heterosexual students in the choir, for example. And so, it made it very uncomfortable for the students to know how to deal with that. I did speak with, uh, LGBTQ people at King’s about the firing. And in one case, the faculty member decided… not to renew their contract. And this was a sessional faculty member. And I felt badly because I wanted to support that faculty member, as did my colleague, and wanted this person to continue teaching for us. But… uh, that person didn’t feel that was really a safe environment at that point.
I did al— I also spoke with, uh, professors in other institutions. And in one case, asked one of the profs to do a presentation at King’s, and that prof refused to do so because we had fired Delwin. And so, I think there was backlash, which was very difficult for the faculty at King’s who, by and large, supported Delwin and supported our homosexual brothers and sisters.
Melanie [00:23:51] It became very apparent to me, really clear, um… at the beginning of my presidency that there was a deep hurt that was still resident in the community related to the Vriend case. Um, a lot of shame, actually, surrounding it. And part of that is… the King’s University is very much a university that sees itself helping to build a more humane, just, and sustainable world. And in very real ways, we feel like we failed in that. We failed Delwin, and we failed in that vision.
So… I think that shame is something I encountered from the start, um. And so, that was one of the things that became a real key to, “How do we address this? Do we talk about it? How do we talk about things that are really difficult?” um, and “What kind of things do we wanna see change?”
Darrin [00:24:50] Later in the series, we will revisit the current state of affairs at King’s College, now King’s University, and hear about the changes that have occurred as it evolved into a more inclusive and modern institution. But before that, the rest of Delwin’s story.
In the next episode, Delwin and his legal team take their first steps towards justice… or so they thought.
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Coming up on the next episode of Vriend Versus Alberta.
Murray [00:25:15] The only avenue that Delwin had was to file a human rights complaint.
Delwin [00:25:21] How can a government direct a supposedly independent agency, tasked with human rights, not to investigate certain human rights?
Murray [00:25:30] They said, “We can’t accept this complaint because the words sexual orientation are not included in the legislation.”
Doug Stollery [00:25:37] It was not a popular case. Lawyers were not banging down the doors to take on this case.
Doug Elliott [00:25:42] And that same name kept coming up again and again and again.
Various voices [00:25:47] Sheila Greckol.
Doug S [00:25:51] And went home and that evening, sent her a note, sent a small cheque because there was no money for this appeal.
Sheila Greckol [00:25:56] I think I phoned him and I said, “I need you. I don’t need your money. I need you to come and help us.”
Doug S [00:26:04] I barely knew where the courthouse was. Clearly I was the wrong person for this job.
Sheila [00:26:10] Another thing you learn, if equality means anything, it means that people have the right to be protected against hatred. And there should be no exceptions to that.
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Andrew [00:26:21] 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, and it was edited and chase produced by Andrew Paul. In this episode, you heard the voices of Delwin Vriend, Melanie Humphreys, Michael Phair, Joachim Segger, Murray Billett, Doug Elliott, Doug Stollery, and Sheila Greckol. The music in Vriend Versus Alberta is written, composed, and recorded by Darrin Hagen. Many thanks to our sound operators, Ariana Brophy and Andrew Paul.
We’d also like to thank our production assistants, JoAnne Pierce and Graeme Lummer. Special thanks to Doug Stollery, Cambridge LLP, Cindy Davis, the Edmonton Public Schools Archives and Museum, and the King’s University.
You can learn more about Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org, and check out more queer history by visiting the Edmonton Queer History Project at EdmontonQueerHistoryProject.ca.