The Supreme Court had ruled that sexual orientation should be read into Alberta’s human rights legislation. But the Alberta Government had one more tool it could use to deny equality to its Queer population.
That option was the Notwithstanding Clause.
The province slipped into turmoil as the Alberta Government debated whether or not to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause.
As Premier Ralph Klein remained silent, hate and vitriol bubbled to the surface of public discourse resulting in massive letter-writing campaigns and death threats.
Welcome to episode 8 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.
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EPISODE IMAGE: Michael Phair recalls the deluge of hate mail, including death threats, he received as Edmonton’s only openly gay city councillor after the Vriend ruling was announced. 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.
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Doug Stollery [00:01:02] There is no doubt there were some within caucus who were very strongly in favour of overriding the decision by using the notwithstanding clause.
Sheila Greckol [00:01:12] So I don’t think it had ever been invoked prior to that.
Delwin Vriend [00:01:16] This was— this was blowing up.
Paula Simons [00:01:18] There was this moment of intense, [emphasized] intense outrage.
Delwin [00:01:23] I had gotten some death threats early on.
Michael Phair [00:01:26] And saying that people like me belonged in— should be dead, or we belong in hell.
Paula [00:01:30] “Dear Paul Simons, you will burn in hell for all eternity. You and your sodomite-loving friends at the Edmonton Journal.”
Michael [00:01:37] We want you to change how you travel to City Council. Take a different route every day.
Julie Lloyd [00:01:43] It’s heartbreaking to be reminded that people can be so cruel.
Paula [00:01:48] You cannot fight that hate by hiding.
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Darrin Hagen [00:01:52] Welcome to episode eight 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.
The Government of Alberta was seriously considering whether or not it would accept the Supreme Court ruling. There was pressure being exerted from both sides. In addition to the voices calling for change and progress, and the inclusion of sexual orientation as protected grounds in its human rights legislation, there was an extremely well-organized war being waged by the more conservative elements of Alberta society, urging the government to do the exact opposite: to continue to discriminate against queer Albertans by utilizing the only remaining tool in its arsenal.
That tool was the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The battle was intense. The message of intolerance was loud and well-funded. And the attacks were getting personal.
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Delwin Vriend [00:02:51] This was blowing up. Interestingly enough, I didn’t personally get death threats at that time. I had gotten some death threats early on from members of the… of the church. But that was, you know, before the first court case, even. But, oh my goodness, the province was… [laughs] was in turmoil for a while. There were— there were people celebrating, and there were people just like in-in absolute panic. “This is going to be the end of Alberta.”
Darrin [00:03:17] Let’s return to the story of iconic queer Edmontonian Michael Phair, the first openly gay elected official in Alberta. Michael had risen to prominence through his activist work in the ‘80s, fighting back as a person charged during the Pisces Bathhouse raid, and continuing to raise awareness of our queer community through the AIDS crisis. Michael had weathered many a storm, both personal and political, and ultimately had been embraced by the Edmonton voters. But that prominence as a figurehead for the queer community can come with a staggering cost.
Michael Phair [00:03:49] There was a great deal of fear, including my own fear, that the government was going to… to do the notwithstanding clause and not accept the ruling. And it was like after all of this thinking that “finally.” It’s like it’s gonna be destroyed in one sweep. So, um, on Tuesday of that week, City Council has a, at that time, a regular meeting on Tuesday. A regular council meeting. When I came to work that morning, my staff told me about the calls they were getting, which were threatening and saying that people like me belonged in— should be dead, we belong in hell, or those kinds of things, and threats that were part of it.
Delwin [00:04:29] Michael Phair, as an outwardly gay public politician in Edmonton, he was getting death threats to the point where he felt he couldn’t go into work safely. This was— this was blowing up.
Darrin [00:04:39] This fierce and hateful backlash affected every queer Albertan, especially the many of us who had been positively impacted by the tireless efforts of Michael Phair to create a better world for our community. Michael’s friends and allies were many, and we all recall watching the increasingly serious backlash with a growing dread.
Murray Billett had been by Michael’s side throughout his political career, and even he was shocked.
Murray Billett [00:05:05] And we had a police department that… that sat down with Michael and-and told him that you have to take it seriously… ‘cause Michael is very dismissive of that kind of thing. He’s very quick to be dismissive of those kinds of things. But it was a wake up call for everybody in the community to realize that, you know, our first responsibility is to keep ourselves safe.
Michael [00:05:26] The security of the building had contacted them, and so had Edmonton Police who met with me that morning and… and said that “These things might be serious. We want you to change how you travel to City Council. Take a different route every day, and know that we will have plain clothes police in your neighbourhood. You won’t see them. You won’t know that they’re there.” They were basically trying to say to me, “Don’t pretend that you shouldn’t be careful. That some of these threats, somebody may try.”
And the number of calls had reached a point where the city hired a coup— a temporary couple of people to help answer calls because there were so many coming in. I mean, it was awful what was being said. So, when the Council met that day, after lunch, when-when I went back to my office and saw some of the written stuff that was coming, I went back into Council. I reiterated some of what was going on, some of the kinds of calls and letters we were getting, and… and I said, “I’m at a point where I cannot stay here. I’m just too… frazzled and too upset. And so I’m leaving and going home.” So I got up and left. And I drove by a different route home and I heard on a talkshow on the radio as I was driving, you know, some of this vulgar, awful junk that was being said.
Murray [00:06:47] It’s no different than when somebody that you love is discriminated against. Our community loves Michael Phair, you know, and-and when somebody picks on one of our own, we’re-we’re gonna stand up together to… to help protect him. And-and I was pleased to see, um… our Mayor and our other Councillors, um, stand together with Michael and-and make it very clear that it’s, um… that it’s just unacceptable.
Darrin [00:07:14] For anyone living an openly queer life, this ugly side of Alberta was a reminder of why we fought to change the world around us… and a warning of what was always just under the surface.
Julie Lloyd had taken the risk to operate as an openly lesbian lawyer. She had been moved by the experience of being in the Supreme Court as an intervener, and now she watched as a powerful ally and a dear friend was attacked.
Julie Lloyd [00:07:39] It’s heartbreaking to be reminded that people can be so cruel and so— and it’s heartbreaking whether it’s someone you know or somebody you don’t know, but it’s particularly awful when it is a very dear friend and someone who has spent his whole life working to make other people’s lives better. And to have someone like Michael the victim of such vicious, vicious threats was really… heartbreaking.
Michael [00:08:08] It-it was tough. It was one of the worst, uh, experiences of my life. It was horrible. So I did come home. I didn’t answer the phone after that. I didn’t listen to anything, either. I just said, uh, “Just gonna deflate, sit around and not do much.” So, my office called me at about— I dunno, about four o’clock, said, “You know, the media all wants to talk to you.” So I decided that… I would do a media conference the next day, which was Wednesday, at City Hall and we’d invite all the media and, uh, talk about what was going on and what was happening and what I was feeling and what I was seeing. And I worked through a bit of, you know, “So what is it I’m gonna say? And what do I want to say? And what would be important enough to say that might have some impact?”
We had all the media. All the national media were there. Plus all the local media, kind of thing. More media I’ve ever seen at a conference that I was ever involved in. So, I… talked about what I was experiencing and what my office was getting and the other people. And that’s why I left, because of that. And then went on to say how dismayed I was that-that this was happening and that the provincial government and the Premier was letting it happen. And that the kind of things that were being said were directed at people like myself who were decent people and the province was, uh… was there supporting that by doing and allowing this conversation to go on.
Murray [00:09:43] My heart just sunk, um… and-and, you know, Michael’s just the nicest, most polite, respectful guy. And for people to… to threaten like that, such an uncalled for— I took it very personally. And-and, uh, I know I-I was at his press conference with him and did some media work with him as well.
Darrin [00:10:08] Paula Simons was working as a reporter for the Edmonton Journal, and so she had a bird’s eye view of what was transpiring. For her, it was a reminder of why this battle was so important to all Albertans.
Paula Simons [00:10:20] I wish I could say I was shocked by what Michael Phair said. I wasn’t. It was what I would’ve expected. And frankly, you know, he got this kind of crap before the Vriend decision. But there was this— I mean, there was this moment of intense, [emphasized] intense outrage, intense fury in certain sectors of this province.
Darrin [00:10:40] Sheila Greckol had long been an ally of the queer and trans community. For her, this moment reinforced the importance of the work she did, and how crucial it was that all Albertans were treated with equal dignity and justice.
Sheila Greckol [00:10:54] The distinction between being actually a member of the community and being an advocate for the community. The life— their— the life of community members was on the line in a metaphorical way. And then in the case of the advocates like Michael Phair, personally his life was on the line. So there is a distinction between people like me who are advocates and supporters, and they call them allies now, and people like Michael and Doug and others who are of the community. It’s… it’s impossible for us to understand how profoundly these events would’ve affected them.
Darrin [00:11:32] The silence from the Legislature was deafening as we all waited to learn whether the Alberta government would invoke the notwithstanding clause. In this void, the voices of opposition were rising, unchecked and violent. For Michael Phair, who had spent decades lobbying the provincial government to treat its queer citizens with some fairness and dignity, watching Ralph Klein, an elected official like himself, sit and do nothing while the hate and threats amplified and increased was more than an insult. It was a dereliction of duty.
Michael [00:12:05] Um, and it still drives me crazy, is that Klein’s comment as a Premier at the time was he had no idea how much vitriol and how people were being treated who were gay and lesbian in the community. And I was like, “That’s not accurate. We’ve sent tons of letters and emails. We’ve talked to you personally. We’ve talked to your members of government. You certainly did know what was going on. You just didn’t wanna believe it, or think that it was real or that it was something that was that important. You… let this happen.” I was an elected politician as well. He had the power as any politician that could have stopped that and never let it happen.
Paula [00:12:47] But, you know, I remember a letter I received at about that time, and it was on blue note paper with little birds on branches. And it was in really pretty penmanship by probably somebody, you know, who was taught penmanship properly to write cursive in a way that no one is now. And the letter, which I have still saved all these years later said, “Dear Paula Simons, you will burn in hell for all eternity. You and your sodomite-loving friends at the Edmonton Journal.” And it was two pages and then it ended, you know, “Yours sincerely” or “Yours respectfully” with the person’s name.
I mean, this was the backwash of the Vriend decision and it went on— it reverberated and echoed for a long time. But sometimes you have to go through to get to the other side.
Murray [00:13:31] So, uh, I think again, um… those notorious people that… that make those threats and carry on the way they are, this is why it’s important to call them out. This is why it’s important to stand up. Because if you don’t, that emboldens them.
Paula [00:13:48] I remember Michael’s speech. I remember, you know, because this… this was a thing, and then it was re-echoed when gay marriage became a thing. People were like, “Oh, there’s gonna be a terrible backlash. This is gonna be worse for the queer community. They all should have just stayed quiet. If they just stayed quiet, there wouldn’t have been this anger.” And I think what these cases show is that you cannot advance by not being brave.
Darrin [00:14:12] Though other provinces, including Quebec, had invoked the notwithstanding clause on other issues in the past, Alberta had not. Doing so risked triggering an avalanche of hate by legitimizing the increasing homophobia in the province.
Doug Stollery and Sheila Greckol remind us how close we came to the precipice.
Doug Stollery [00:14:31] I think the Alberta government came very close to invoking the notwithstanding clause. There were certainly— there is no doubt, there were some within caucus, that there were some within cabinet, who were very strongly in favour of overriding the decision by using the notwithstanding clause.
Sheila [00:14:50] So I don’t think it had ever been invoked prior to that. But, up to that time, it had not been used. And it was important to be fighting against it because, you know, the moment that that becomes a… a weapon for the anti-rights people, the anti-equality people, then the Charter means nothing. I mean, the guarantees in the Charter mean nothing. So… the implications of what was going on in Alberta were, of course, much broader than this particular case that we were involved in.
It was terrifying, actually, at that time. I mean, it was a fight. And, uh, yeah, no. It— The spectre of, uh, reversing the impact of that decision was— loomed large and seemed possible at that time.
Doug S [00:15:40] It would’ve been tremendously disappointing to have done all this work and to have received a-a determination that the law was unconstitutional from the Supreme Court of Canada in a unanimous decision, and to have the Alberta government, uh, overturn that. To the extent that the law itself was discriminatory, that would pale in comparison with the discrimination that would’ve been manifested by invoking the notwithstanding clause.
Sheila [00:16:14] I think it would’ve been a devastating blow. I think that, you know, if you can imagine what things were like 20 years ago, the LGBTQ2S community was just in ascendance. It was just beginning to free itself from the shackles of this discrimination that they had endured for… hundreds of years. And it was [emphasized] just emerging into an era of freedom. But to have that kind of a blow at that time, I think, would’ve taken the sails out of everyone— the wind out of everyone’s sail.
Paula [00:16:46] There was a huge risk that this could end up making things worse for gay and lesbian and trans people in Alberta, if the government had invoked the notwithstanding clause.
Sheila [00:16:56] So I think we would’ve been, you know— it would’ve been beyond devastating. Beyond devastating. And not to put too fine a point on it, these are the kinds of things that drive people to despair.
Paula [00:17:08] And I think it’s worth remembering now when we see the hate that’s being levied at politicians and journalists in this country, especially women and especially women of colour, to remember that you cannot fight that hate by hiding… which is easier said than done.
Sheila [00:17:27] These disappointments that strike people personally where they live, in their heart and soul, that is what human rights is. But everyone is affected if the rights of one are destroyed at the expense of the rights. If everyone is affected by these kinds of initiatives by government to exclude… a member of a disadvantaged group. So, for those individuals that are members of that community at that time in Alberta, the consequences for them would have been devastating to their optimism, to their ability to live dignified lives without the fear of discrimination for them to go forward on the path to freedom that we’re now, I think, experiencing in the community, that’s— would’ve been the most important devastating effect. But there would be ripple effects in the balance of the equality-seeking community no matter what disadvantaged group you were a member of.
Darrin [00:18:26] On April 9th, 1998, a full week after the Supreme Court ruling had been handed down, Premier Ralph Klein finally announced that the Government of Alberta would not invoke the notwithstanding clause and would accept the decision of the highest court in the nation. It had only been a week, but during that week, Albertans had been witness to an epic struggle between two different visions for Alberta’s future: between keeping discrimination in place and the forces of change.
It was a satisfying end to a seven-year journey for the many people who had been drawn to the opportunity that this legal challenge had provided. For the legal team, an unqualified victory had never been guaranteed. But they had persisted and in doing so, they had changed Canada forever. And for the man at the centre of it all, for Delwin, who had been thrust into the spotlight becoming an uneasy symbol of revolution, life would never be the same.
Coming up on the next episode of Vriend Versus Alberta.
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Julie [00:19:26] There… there are always dark forces. There are always forces of hatred and exclusion.
Dr. Kristopher Wells [00:19:33] The human rights code are only the bare minimums. We should be vastly exceeding these.
Julie [00:19:39] Politics uses division and toxicity because it works.
Sheila [00:19:43] The Vriend decision was an important turning point in the development of the law.
Doug S [00:19:48] It had been described as a slippery slope. This was more of a cliff.
Julie [00:19:52] It added the queers to all of the huddled masses.
Murray [00:19:58] So the impact goes beyond the borders.
Julie [00:20:00] But we will always have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That will be there precisely for the minority to protect them from the political mumbling, always.
Murray [00:20:10] So if you think you can’t make a difference… yes, you can.
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Andrew [00:20:14] 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 Delwin Vriend, Michael Phair, Murray Billett, Julie Lloyd, Paula Simons, Sheila Greckol, and Doug Stollery. 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.