The Supreme Court’s ruling on Vriend v. Alberta has impacted the lives of countless 2SLGBTQI+ people. Not just in Alberta, not just in Canada, but around the globe.
In this episode we look at the ripple effect Vriend v. Alberta has had over the past 25 years since first making its splash at the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton.
We also return to where this story began, and look at how The King’s University has worked to address its complicated legacy as ground zero for the court case that brought equality to Alberta’s and Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ communities.
Welcome to episode 9 of Vriend Versus Alberta.
*CORRECTION: Dr. Kristopher Wells is the Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University.
*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.
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: Justice Julie Lloyd reflects on how the Vriend decision changed her sense of belonging in Alberta as the only openly lesbian lawyer at the time. 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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Julie Lloyd [00:01:04] There… there are always dark forces. There are always forces of hatred and exclusion.
Dr. Kristopher Wells [00:01:10] The human rights code are only the bare minimums. We should be vastly exceeding these.
Julie [00:01:17] Politics uses division and toxicity because it works.
Sheila Greckol [00:01:21] The Vriend decision was an important turning point in the development of the law.
Doug Stollery [00:01:26] It had been described as a slippery slope. This was more of a cliff.
Julie [00:01:30] It added the queers to all of the huddled masses.
Murray Billett [00:01:36] So the impact goes beyond the borders.
Julie [00:01:38] 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 [00:01:47] So if you think you can’t make a difference… yes, you can.
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Darrin Hagen [00:01:55] Welcome to episode nine 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 the quarter century since the Vriend decision was handed down, everyone involved has had time to assess the impact of the change they instigated. Change that extends beyond this province, beyond Canada, and even around the globe. But it all started here, and there is a very good reason for that.
Sheila Greckol puts the battle for equality into an Alberta context.
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Sheila Greckol [00:02:31] Well, let’s face it, we are in the bastion of conservatism here in Alberta. And I’ve always said that that’s the reason people fight so hard and have been so successful. I think the Vriend decision was an important turning point in the development of the law, um, and we’re all moving towards what we hope to be a period of freedom and peace and tranquility for members of the community.
Darrin [00:02:57] To this day, Judge Julie Lloyd, the first openly lesbian judge in Alberta, is full of admiration and respect for Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And when she recalls in detail why the written decision moved her so much, it’s easy to be moved ourselves.
Julie Lloyd [00:03:12] It changed it a lot. The fact that we won wasn’t a surprise, but the robustness and the beauty, the magnificence of that decision that Justice Cory wrote in the Section 15 part in particular really laid such a wonderful ground forward. They talked about the centrality of equality rights to democracy. You don’t have democracy if you don’t have equality. It talked about the central importance of human dignity. Treating everyone with dignity and respect is what the Charter is about, and those are the best parts of Canada.
Darrin [00:03:49] Doug Stollery breaks down what this new reality meant to the lives of queer and trans Albertans.
Doug Stollery [00:03:55] Once the decision came out, it was illegal to discriminate against people in this province on the basis of sexual orientation. So… instead of fearing that if your employer knew that you were gay or knew that you were lesbian that you would be fired, you knew that even if you came out, even if they knew that you were gay, you were still gonna have your job. You were still gonna have your apartment. It enabled people to… come out of the closet.
And living in the closet, the closet is a very dark place. And being able to come out of the closet and for people to be able to live their authentic lives made a huge difference for people in this province.
The other thing that happened was… this was so controversial when the decision came down. I would say… six months later, it wasn’t so controversial anymore. And honestly, six months later, in my view, there was less homophobia than there had been and it wasn’t just because the law had changed. That’s not to say that homophobia went away. That’s not to say that we don’t— there isn’t homophobia today. But the degree is significantly less than it was, and I think in large measure because of this decision.
Julie [00:05:22] For me, it just underscores the importance and the power of courts and the Charter because in my experience of the world, there are always dark forces. There are always forces of hatred and exclusion and oppression. They’re just always there. Remember that the Charter is about recognizing that. It’s about recognizing that politics uses division and hatred, and division and toxicity because it works.
And so, we have a Charter that says this is— this is the basement. Like, this is the core-rock foundation of Canadian society below which you can’t sink. These are the fundamental rights that are protected for everyone. And that doesn’t change. The politics can bubble around on the surface, and people can continue to fall back to their divisiveness and their hatred and their intolerance. 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. And so, I have a confidence that those instruments will continue to save our bacon.
Darrin [00:06:35] Dr. Kristopher Wells, research chair at MacEwan University’s Institute of Studies for sexual minorities, reminds us of the importance and the imperfections of human rights codes.
Dr. Kristopher Wells [00:06:46] You know, that’s an important thing for… for people to remember that, you know, th-the human rights code are only the bare minimums in society. We should be vastly exceeding these in terms of, you know, rights, protections and legislation and inclusion. This is the basic level of respect that should be accorded to people. And so, um… the fact that the Alberta government was not even willing to do the bare minimum. And in fact, it would take 11 more years for the Alberta government to write sexual orientation into the Human Rights Act.
Darrin [00:07:22] The ripple effect of the Vriend ruling is making waves even today. This decision was, for Alberta, a turning point. But the impact of the decision could be experienced on a national scale, benefiting every Canadian.
Murray Billett [00:07:36] Let’s not forget that the Delwin Vriend Supreme Court case invoked the Charter on the province of Alberta to include sexual orientation. As a result of that, every province that didn’t have sexual orientation in their provincial legislation also had to amend their legislation. So the impact goes beyond the borders. This is a decision that, not just Alberta, is impacting the rest of Canada.
Doug S [00:08:05] It did affect the lives of sexual minorities across the country. There were a couple of other jurisdictions as well that had not included sexual orientation in their, uh, legislation. And so, when the Vriend decision came down, it was clear that those laws were unconstitutional as well.
Julie [00:08:23] And so, it helped the queer community in a really important way because it added the queers to all of the huddled masses, ragtag groups of other people who have been subject to historic discrimination. So we were tossed into the crowd with people of colour, women, religious minorities. Finally we were one of the gang because up to that point, “queer” had a little asterisk beside it. That was a minority status it was okay to discriminate against. You couldn’t discriminate against people of colour or women. We all knew that. But gays? Meh, maybe.
And Vriend actually just cleared the decks of that saying, “Uh-uh,” you know, “Sexual orientation, it belongs right up there with all the enumerated grounds of discrimination that have historically bedeviled modern civilization.” And so, that was a huge thing. We were part of the team, and that was nice.
The other part of it is that— And again, the magnificence of the decision really made people understand how wrong we had been by wondering whether it was okay to discriminate against gay people because it was actually a fight between religions and gay people… or it was a fight between morality and gay people. And the Supreme Court of Canada sliced and diced those decisions quite beautifully.
Darrin [00:09:41] During and after the case, many religious groups and opponents of queer inclusion argued and warned that the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected ground in human rights legislation could be the first step in the erosion of the traditional codes, and could lead to societal-altering change, like marriage equality.
As Doug Stollery and Kris Wells point out, they were not wrong.
Doug S [00:10:06] Well, it had been described by the… the leader of the Alberta Women, the Federation for Families, as a slippery slope. This was more of a cliff, frankly, than a slippery slope. Once this decision came down, case after case after case struck down discriminatory legislation where there was discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And that changed the lives of gays and lesbians across the country.
Attitudes changed remarkably quickly. This decision and the strength with which the Supreme Court of Canada wrote this decision, the way they explained how fundamentally wrong discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was, and how inconsistent it was with the fundamental values that we have in our society… that had a real impact.
Dr. Kristopher Wells [00:10:58] Yeah… the Vriend decision from the Supreme Court of Canada was one of those important dominoes. And I-I like to think of them as dominoes because you have to line, uh, the first few ones up. So that requires a lot of, you know, strategy. A lot of, uh, community energy and investment. But once you eventually start to line the dominoes up, and then you push, and then they all start to fall, you know, quickly and rapidly. And that’s, um, you know, the metaphor for— often for social change is the first few battles are often the hardest. And then right, the floodgates start to open. So Vriend was, you know, hugely, uh, significant.
Doug S [00:11:40] But having had this victory at the Supreme Court of Canada, case after case after case that followed started knocking down discriminatory legislation on a whole range of fronts, including discriminatory legislation relating to marriage. So… a year after, in a case called M. v. H. before the Supreme Court of Canada, the Court found that having different rights and benefits as between opposite sex mar— uh, married couples and same-sex couples was unconstitutional. And two or three years after that, first court in Ontario determined that the definition of marriage was unconstitutional, followed by decisions to the same effect right across the country. And a year or so after that, the Government of Canada changed the law, uh, on marriage in Canada in order to, uh, enable same-sex marriage.
Darrin [00:12:38] Canada had stepped into a new future and by doing so, had opened a door globally by establishing a precedent of equality without exception. Soon other nations were looking to that precedent for guidance in their own struggles for equality.
Doug Stollery and Sheila Greckol share some examples of the wide-ranging impact of their years of hard work.
Doug S [00:12:58] So the impact of the Vriend decision isn’t limited to Canada. For example, in the— uh, in a case in Belize, the Supreme Court of Belize struck down the anti-sodomy laws, the laws that created— that criminalized same-sex relationships. And in their decision, they cited the case of Vriend v. Alberta. It has been cited in ca— in cases in countries around the world. And I think has had a worldwide impact.
Sheila [00:13:26] I know for sure in South Africa, it was an important piece of the puzzle that went into affirming rights for gay and lesbian people in South Africa. Um, I know that in other parts of the world, it has become part of the international jurisprudence. Um. I, for example, was in— training judges in Jamaica. And Jamaica, the struggle is ongoing, but, you know, to be able to go there and say, “In Canada, this is what happened. This is what I was involved in. We have gay marriage now in Canada.” To be able to go and say that I’m so proud of our country. I’m so proud of the things that have happened. And every time, it’s another step in the road to equality and freedom in these countries where, you know, the struggle is ongoing as we speak where people’s lives actually are in danger.
Darrin [00:14:12] For Murray Billett, pride in the triumph he had been part of was amplified at every level of life in Alberta.
Murray [00:14:19] There was a sense of triumph. There was complete exhaustion. There— The— A sense of pride, of family, of community, of city, of province. Because what people don’t understand, the support that we had was not just in the queer community. It wasn’t just in the allies community. We had support under the dome. We had support in major corporations, in small business, in big business. So… the pride that we have as-as a city and a community shouldn’t be lost. And the sense of accomplishment has to be remembered. Think about that, you guys. We’ve been involved in a case that has… that has had an impact, not just in our city and our country, on the whole damn world. So if you think you can’t make a difference… yes, you can.
Darrin [00:15:15] For Julie Lloyd, the impact was personal and profound.
Julie [00:15:19] Yeah, I remember… th-the feeling that hit me the most was a feeling of, “I belong now.” You know, “I belong. I’m a queer person in Alberta and I belong here now.” I remember sitting, looking at the legislative dome… the legislature building in Edmonton, and just thinking, you know, “That place is my place now.” And so, that was the most profound feeling to me was to move from an outsider… and part of an unrecognized, reviled minority to belonging. And that was a huge effect. Very powerful for me.
Darrin [00:15:55] This concept of inclusion and belonging and how fundamentally important they are to society could be one of the most important legacies of the Vriend decision.
Justice Frank Iacobucci, one of the nine Supreme Court justices that had presided over the hearing, and along with Justice Cory, the co-author of the written reasoning behind the decision, was reminded of the importance of the concept of belonging after reading a letter to the editor in the Ottawa Citizen a week or so after the ruling was released.
Justice Frank Iacobucci [00:16:26] When the Vriend case came out, I think it was maybe a week later, my wife at breakfast said, “Frank, you should read this letter to the editor.” And it was a mother writing to say that she had read about the Vriend decision, and she was encouraged to write a letter to the editor because her son had took his life ‘cause he was depressed. He was gay, and she speculated that, perhaps, if her son had been alive when that decision came out, that it might have given him some inspiration, uh, for looking at the world more positively.
I admit openly that I was moved so much by that and so sorry for her having to say that and commending her for the courage, uh, to write to the editor in such a wonderful way to salute her son and, uh, share with all of us her grief. And so, uh, I was really deeply touched.
Darrin [00:17:31] In the decades since the ruling, diversity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging have become pivotal objectives for institutions across Canada. Now let’s bring our story full circle back to where we began. One of those institutions is the King’s University, the very institution that fired Delwin Vriend for being gay in 1991.
Let’s listen to the President of King’s University since 2013, Dr. Melanie Humphreys.
Dr. Melanie Humphreys [00:17:58] 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 and, in very real ways, we feel like we failed Delwin.
I personally believe that you can only engage well with your education if you are seen as fully human in all its aspects. And so, you can call that safety. You can call it being brave. You can… you can go at it a number of different ways. But unless you feel fully able to be engaged in a space, you’re never gonna be able to learn what you need to learn.
And so, as a university, this is pretty critical in how we welcome people, how we welcome new students, how we welcome faculty and staff because, uh, this is— this is our whole mission. It’s our whole, uh, reason for being. And that is, how do we help people grow, succeed, flourish, change, be? And so, we started off with that very thing. “How do we have conversations about any topic that we disagree about?” And, uh, that led into, “Okay, what about… this topic in particular? What about LGBTQ folks? And what should our statement on inclusion look like?” And so, uh, that was a really fascinating and a long process. If you know anything about academic communities, we don’t move fast. [laughs]
Darrin [00:19:34] Harry Kits joined the Board in 2014. He recalls the university’s process as well as the challenges they faced developing the institution’s inclusion policy.
Harry Kits [00:19:46] Well, why don’t I start with where— how it started to become recognized as being needed? Um. As I said, there were sort of that range of diversity that existed amongst the student body. Attention was already being paid to international students, to Indigenous students, students with disabilities. There was a student-led LGBTQ group on campus that was relatively open. And the conversations around that were starting to happen, uh, already when I first became a Board member in 2014.
“Where do we go with this? Because we know our legacy and history, but we haven’t done anything specific about it.” What we started with was just sort of starting conversations. Uh. I remember in June of 2017, there was a Board retreat where one of the topics very much was LGBTQ issues. We had a couple of case studies that we read. A trans student came and spoke to us about their experience at King’s and what that felt like. And the conversation started to sort of roll from there a little bit. And it was happening internally as well, both amongst the students, amongst the faculty and staff. Part of what, uh, president Humphreys did at the time was to set up an inclusion task force.
Dr. Melanie Humphreys [00:20:57] One of the things that I, uh, did was establish an equity, diversity, and inclusion taskforce. And… and the good, good work that happened out of that taskforce is that we examined all our policies and procedures for implicit and explicit bias. We looked at everything with multiple lenses. So we worked with faculty, staff, and students, uh, to… to really take a good hard look at everything we do.
Harry [00:21:23] Uh, and then there were lots of safe space conversations. Small groups. Then I think the sort of culmination of all of that conversation was a sort of word process that we undertook.
Dr. Melanie Humphreys [00:21:34] So in that word sort, we had words that we thought might be included in, uh… a statement on inclusion. Words that we thought, “No, these don’t belong in a statement on inclusion” and words that maybe are contested. So we just asked people. We gave people little baggies of words and we asked them to sort them into those three piles. And then we took the “no” and th-the, uh— the, uh, contentious words off the table and said, “Okay, build your statement on inclusion with these ‘yes’ words.” And once we did that, we put those up around the room, and guess what? They all looked pretty much the same. And so… some of the difficulty, I think, with this conversation is that we make a lot of assumptions. We make a lot of assumptions as to what inclusion is, or what it isn’t. And so, getting those words on a page in front of everyone was really important for our process to getting to some kind of clear commitment to statement on inclusion.
Harry [00:22:36] Certainly people didn’t agree on specifically what their own personal position was on traditional marriage or whatever. But they were willing to talk together about “How do we create a welcoming and inclusive space?” From there, we took those three statements and the Board crafted a single statement out of that. And the Board eventually voted on it unanimously to support that as the statement of King’s. That was in fall of 2018.
Darrin [00:23:04] The King’s University soon learned that doing the right thing often comes with a cost.
Dr. Melanie Humphreys [00:23:08] So the Board adopted it unanimously. And I spent probably… a year and a half, a bit more, working with different church groups to explain what exactly we meant by the statement on inclusion.
Harry [00:23:23] We didn’t necessarily come to agreement, but there was more understanding of why King’s was going the direction it was and why, as a university, it was different than a church. Church can take whatever position, but a ch— university that’s supported by that church doesn’t have to have exactly the same position.
Dr. Melanie Humphreys [00:23:39] There were a couple of churches at the end of the day that couldn’t make that journey with us. There was one major foundation that couldn’t come with King’s, but other than that, uh, it’s the same… same group. They came with us.
Harry [00:23:51] There were some churches who decided to support more because of the position that we’ve taken, and there were some supporters who also joined or in-increased their giving because of the position that we had taken. So in the end, there was a small loss overall but there was gain on the other side.
Darrin [00:24:09] Joachim Segger was a longtime professor at the King’s University and was there when Delwin was fired. He speaks to the changes he has seen at the university over the decades.
Joachim Segger [00:24:18] I know that our president, Melanie Humphreys, was instrumental in the inclusion statement and I know that she got a lot of flack from the community. But at the same time, she got a lot of support. I think the situation is that gay students are very much included in governing bodies. Certainly there are gay faculty teaching at King’s at present, also gay staff, and it’s a very different vibe.
Darrin [00:24:43] We asked… if they could speak to Delwin now, what would they say?
Joachim [00:24:48] It was a mistake. It was wrong for us to fire Delwin. That’s what I’d like to say.
Harry [00:24:54] It’s a— It’s a— Hmm, emotional question. Um. I’ve never met Delwin, and, um, I’d be happy to do that sometime, but, uh, I wish this had not happened to him… in a way that pushed him away from the community. Um. I think things have changed. It would be great if he could find, um… re-reconnections and I don’t know whether they— how many are there. But it would be great if you could find reconnections to King’s, um, in… in light of where King’s has moved from that time.
Darrin [00:25:32] It is for the current students, faculty and Board of the King’s University to speak to the effectiveness of the inclusion policies now in place. For Delwin, there is still a deep wound that is revealed when he tells the story even today. The personal toll, the years of stress, the harsh glare of attention from supporters and antagonists alike all contribute to tremendous and conflicting memories and feelings about that period of his life. And even though the events happened decades ago, he is still not ready to forgive the treatment he experienced at the institution.
Delwin Vriend [00:26:09] That it is not something to bask, no. I-I can be proud of it. Proud that I did it, that I— that I saw through to the end. But I-I more needed to move away. And that’s why today, I’m mainly in France. Yeah, there— In fact, there, it’s so funny, every once in a while, I don’t know what makes a person do it, but they-they do a, uh, search on my name and it’s like— and they know I’m Canadian, so they-they do a “Delwin in Canada” and— [laughs]
“Oh. We didn’t know this.” And that, you know— It comes up seven years after they’ve… they’ve known me and I’ve never talked about it with them. It’s like, “Why have you never told us this?” Like, “Because… it’s a different me.” I mean, it’s me, but I’m not that person now. I would be again, but I’m— Yeah, I’m… I’m living a different life. I’m— I don’t want that to be th— the focus of our relationship. I want, you know— Like, that’s something I’ve done. [laughs] That’s something I’ve been involved with. I didn’t do. It’s someone I’ve— something I’ve been involved with. But what’s important is our relationship as it’s developed. Not that.
Darrin [00:27:18] Delwin had accepted the challenge and had allowed his life to become a focus of a movement. The personal toll was immense, but something he would do again if it meant creating equality for others. This is an important message to the activists listening. And in the next episode, you will learn what has unfolded since 1998. Our rights have never been handed to us. They have always been fought for, and especially today, our vigilance is our most potent weapon. We have seen how an institution attempts to address the evolving expectations of society. But remember, this was never about the King’s University. The lawsuit that Delwin brought forward was about the Government of Alberta and its deliberate exclusion of queer and trans people from its human rights legislation.
In our next episode, we take a deeper look at how the Government of Alberta has struggled to cope with the evolution of human rights since the Vriend decision was handed down.
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Justice Frank Iacobucci [00:28:13] We can’t say the struggle is over.
Doug S [00:28:17] I don’t think discrimination will ever be fully behind us.
Sheila [00:28:21] It hits you viscerally, and you know you have no choice but to fight.
Doug Elliott [00:28:25] Human rights is a marathon, not a sprint.
Delwin [00:28:28] You can’t be throwing pearls to swine.
Dr. Kristopher Wells [00:28:31] We have to advocate, we have to agitate, and we have to educate.
Jo-Ann Kolmes [00:28:37] And collaboration matters. From the small to the big, it’s all part of this community effort.
Lyle Kanee [00:28:44] Fact that the case had as much impact as it did, should serve as an inspiration for others to… to take up the torch.
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Andrew [00:28:52] 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, Julie Lloyd, Doug Stollery, Dr. Kristopher Wells, Murray Billett, Justice Frank Iacobucci, Dr. Melanie Humphreys, Harry Kits, Joachim Segger, and Delwin Vriend. 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, the 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.