Tag Archives: Delwin Vriend

Vriend vs. Alberta

In 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gave all Canadians equal rights “regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” However, the Charter was initially silent on sexual orientation.  It was not until November 1989 when the Federal Court of Canada first accepted sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Charter. It ruled that Timothy Veysey, a gay prison inmate in Ontario had the right to conjugal visits with his same-sex partner.

Up until then, Canadian Courts had mostly manifested a double-standard in discrimination cases. Discrimination based on race or religion, for example, was clearly defined and remedied. Homosexuality, on the other hand, was up for debate whether it could be a protected ground at all. Judges either deferred to society’s objection to homosexuality, based on diffuse religious grounds: “rebutting a millennium of moral teaching ” or punted it back to legislators to decide.

In December 1987, Delwin Vriend began working for King’s College: A Christian Liberal Arts College in Edmonton. Throughout his employment, he was given positive evaluations, salary increases and promotions for his work performance. On February 20th, 1990 in conversation with the President of the College, Delwin was asked about his sexual orientation. He disclosed he was gay. Causing much anguish and hand-wringing, the College developed a position statement on homosexuality which was adopted by its Board of Governors on January 11th, 1991. Shortly after that, the College asked Vriend to voluntarily resign – he would be paid 3 months severance. He declined and was fired.

{Read the King’s College Memo of Jan 14, 1991, communicating its position statement on homosexuality: here. Source Library and Archives Canada}

Within weeks, Gay and Lesbian Awareness (GALA), an Edmonton-based civil rights organization, began organizing actions to “respond to this dreadful and unacceptable firing.” With Delwin’s support, they set up a “Delwin Vriend Defense Fund” to assist with legal costs, and began soliciting donations from the community.

In June of that year, Vriend and GALA tried to file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission on the grounds that his employer discriminated against him due to his sexual orientation. The Commission gave Vriend a pass explaining he could not make a claim because the Individual Rights Protection Act (IRPA) did not include sexual orientation as a protected ground.

In early 1994, GALA wrote to their sister organization, the Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) seeking moral and financial support to sue the Government of Alberta. They need $6,000 more dollars to take the case to the Court of Queen’s Bench.

Financial support rolled in and on April 13th, 1994, Judge Anne Russell decisively ruled that Alberta’s human rights law was inconsistent with the Charter of Rights. In her decision, she wrote: “Regardless of whether there was any intent to discriminate, the effect of the decision to deny homosexuals recognition under the legislation is to reinforce negative stereotyping and prejudice thereby perpetuating and implicitly condoning its occurrence.” The Alberta Human Rights Commission would now have to investigate discrimination cases based on sexual orientation.

On May 5th, the Government of Alberta appealed Russell’s decision and asked the courts to freeze the Human Rights Commission’s new mandate.

The Alberta Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 in favour of the Government, against Vriend, on February 23, 1996. Justice John McClung made national headlines with the sensational phrasing he used in his decision, including the number of times he used the word “morality.” He was bold enough to invoke both sodomy and a link to serial killers Dahmer, Bernardo, and Olsen. He wrote: “I am unable to conclude that it was a forbidden, let alone a reversible legislative response, for the province of Alberta to step back from the validation of homosexual relations, including sodomy, as a protected and fundamental right, thereby, ‘rebutting a millennium of moral teaching.'”

This mobilized Alberta’s gay community into action like no other court case had before. Fundraising efforts redoubled, and there were cheers heard when on March 6, 1996, Vriend decided to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada which agreed to hear the case. Garden parties, garage sales, collection plates at gay bars – there were solicitations for the Delwin Vriend Defense Fund seemingly everywhere.

On November 4th, 1997, the Supreme Court hearings began. The Court heard from 17 interveners including provincial governments, religious organizations and civil liberties groups. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein pandering to his socially conservative base threatened to invoke the notwithstanding clause (section 33 of the Charter) in order to override any defeat the Court might deliver. The entire country appeared to be hooked on the Court Case and vitriol filled newspapers and airwaves.

Then on the morning of April 2, 1998, the Supreme Court was about to deliver its verdict. Vriend recalled: “I remember standing outside the door of the lawyer’s office in Edmonton, just after nine o’clock in the morning. I just couldn’t bring myself to step inside. Then I heard the cheers from inside the office, and I just started crying.”

delwin-vriend-after-winning-his-case-against-alberta.jpg

Victorious Vriend at a News Scrum on April 2nd, 1998: Source CBC News Edmonton

The Supreme Court minced Appeal Justice McClung’s previous legal arguments and ruled unanimously in favour of Vriend. They wrote that the exclusion of homosexuals from Alberta’s Individual Rights Protection Act was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

They further wrote: “the exclusion from the IRPA’s protection sends a message to all Albertans that it is permissible, and perhaps even acceptable, to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. Perhaps most important is the psychological harm which may ensue from this state of affairs. In excluding sexual orientation from the IRPA’s protection, the government has, in effect, stated that “all persons are equal in dignity and rights” except gay men and lesbians. Such a message, even if it is only implicit, must offend” Section 15 of the Charter.

At a press conference later that day Vriend said: “Shame on you, Ralph Klein, shame on you (Treasurer) Stockwell Day. You had until 7:45 this morning to do the right thing, and you demonstrated to the very end that you are not a government of the people. You are a government against the people. Haha, I win!” to the applause of supporters.

Vriend kiss

Delwin Vriend, right, gets a congratulatory kiss from partner Andrew Gagnon at a post-verdict rally at the Edmonton Legislature. [Photo Credit: The Canadian Press/Kevin Frayer]

Federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan said she was pleased with the judgment: “I believe profoundly that all Canadians, including Albertans, do not see it as appropriate to discriminate on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation.” The ruling immediately had a similar effect on Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories, the only two other jurisdictions that had not included sexual orientation in their human rights laws by then.

Many Calgarians were jubilant that night, filling gay bars to capacity. Local television journalists were doing live newsfeeds from the bars too, fervently trying to get a soundbite from joyous revellers.

Vriend, emotionally drained from the long unfolding court cases, would shortly thereafter move to Paris, France. He explained that he had had a lifetime’s fill of media attention, demonstrations, protests and hate mail.

The Vriend decision proved to be of great importance to future legal battles in Canada. It was specifically used to argue provincial cases against bans on same-sex marriage throughout Canada. Also, the decision shaped legal precedent concerning provincial and federal government relationships.

During the 10th Anniversary celebrations at Edmonton City Hall, the landmark decision was described as “Alberta’s Stonewall,” referencing the riots that sparked the gay liberation movement in New York in 1969.

Former Edmonton City Councillor, Michael Phair, who had been involved with the Delwin Vriend Defense Fund from the very beginning recalled: “I remember the immediate rally and goodwill with the verdict. People were very celebratory, but over the next few days, things began to darken substantially with the backlash. I and many others were caught in the maelstrom that occurred for about a week after the decision. Because I was an out public figure, there had been some death threats, and extra security had to be called in. It was not until Klein finally accepted the decision and said that he wouldn’t use the notwithstanding clause that things settled down.”

In 2013, Delwin Vriend travelled to Calgary and was honoured with the inaugural Chinook Fund Hero Award which is given annually by the Calgary Chinook Fund in thanks and recognition for outstanding contributions to the LGBTQ community and our history.

{KA}

2016 Hero Awards – Nancy & Richard

{My husband Gordon is part of the Calgary Chinook Lesbian and Gay Endowment Fund. Every year they give a deserving member of the local LGBTQ community a hero award – this year they gave two! Here is his recent speech addressed to the 2016 recipients, Nancy Miller and Richard Gregory. A standing ovation ensued. Gordon also has a history blog called Edwardian Fernie; check it out if you are interested in period architecture, culture and gardens! – Kevin}

“Where were you in 1988, when the first pride workshops were being held in Calgary, or in 1990, the year of the pride rally and where were you again in 1991 the year of Calgary’s first pride parade.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-3-19-21-pm

Nancy Miller and Richard Gregory in 2015

If you were our Hero Award recipients, Nancy Miller and Richard Gregory, you were activists on the front lines of the gay rights movement in Calgary and you were leaders in organizing the rallies as well as the parades and not giving an inch to politicians and citizens who wanted to treat gay and lesbian Albertans like they didn’t exist; or if they did, like they were a lower order of citizen who were not entitled to equal rights. And not having equal rights meant you could be fired from your job, evicted from an apartment, refused custody of your children, refused service in restaurants and not ensured safety and protection when you walked down the street.

It was for many of us, like me, a time when our ability to pass, and our privilege, protected us from the vagaries of the police and their state sanctioned bullying of the LGBT community. It was a time when AIDS deaths were reaching record highs in Calgary, and the city’s response was ever greater hysteria and paranoia as well as hostility towards the gay community particularly in the form of violent gay bashings. After all what were baseball bats for? Many in the gay community were afraid and were even hostile towards activists.

I quote Nancy, who in a Metro interview acknowledged:

“I have to admit there were lots of people within our own LGBTQ community who were not happy with us. They didn’t want us to be drawing attention to the community. They had found ways to survive without rocking the boat too much and they were comfortable and felt safe there. They were afraid we were going to open a whole can of worms. Which of course we did.”

Nancy and Richard did not take the safe or comfortable route, though they might have, instead, they got busy organizing the lesbian and gay community so that finally by the 1990’s Calgary’s activists were working hard to establish gay rights through the Pride moniker. Some of you will remember that a pride rally or parade in the early 90’s was not the feel good happy events attended by tens of thousands like today. The organizers and participants, who numbered in the hundreds, were literally facing the prospect of physical violence from police and anti-LGBT homophobes as well as the risk of possibly losing their jobs, their homes and their families. It is no wonder that some opted to wear lone ranger masks or paper bags!

Our Heroes, Nancy and Richard, were not only involved with fighting for our rights through the idea of Pride, they were involved with CLAGPAG, the Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild, an organization which is where we find the roots of Pride. This was merely one aspect of CLAGPAG and their activism. They were involved in the struggle for gay and human rights on many levels, including the Delwin Vriend legal battle. But it was not only with the big battles that our award recipients made a difference, it was the many smaller day to day skirmishes that also moved forward the struggle for our rights.

I found copies of the Calgary Herald in the early 90’s in which Nancy was out and proud and asserting the right to equality. The journalist wrote, “that Nancy Miller isn’t crazy about interviews, but she speaks up for the record anyway – for a couple of reasons. For one thing, she believes clear, honest, open dialogue is the only way to promote understanding.  For another, she doesn’t have a thing to lose.”

“She’s not afraid she’ll be fired for telling the world she’s lesbian.” She was not afraid to insist that, “We in the LGBT community contribute a lot to the city that goes totally unseen and recognized.” You have to remember by that time Nancy had reason to be afraid for she had been discharged from the Canadian Military for being a lesbian and had also had the courage to refuse to cooperate in the naming of lesbians and gay men in a military investigation.

For four decades, Nancy Miller has been advocating for social justice, human rights and reproductive choice. In addition to being involved with CLAGPAG, she has been an organizer of Take Back the Night marches, served as a board member for the Calgary and Alberta Status of Women Action Committees, Women Looking Forward, The Lesbian Information Line (co-founder), Planned Parenthood Alberta and the Calgary Sexual Health Centre (formerly CBCA). A proud feminist, today Nancy provides strategic communications, writing and video production services to progressive candidates, non-profits and small businesses.

Like Nancy, Richard Gregory was not only critical to developing Pride he was, in addition to being a leader at CLAGPAG, an Aids Calgary volunteer as well as board member, and in 1989 organized the Aids Quilt project’s visit to Calgary.

In 1995 he ran for council in ward 8 as the first out gay man in Calgary to run for political office. He was at that time also chair of the advisory committee of the social services program at Mount Royal College.

During those years he was also a committee member of the OXFAM-Canada Human Rights Initiative Project and worked for the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary.  Today he is the president of Alberta College of Social Workers Council. And is the department chair of the health and human services program at Medicine Hat College.

I want to close with something which Richard Gregory wrote for CLUE Magazine in 1994. He reported in the month of October that he went to an open house held by MLA Mark Hlady of Calgary Mountainview, given that there weren’t many people in attendance he spent a half an hour with a clearly extremely homophobic MLA, who even believed Alberta should opt out of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in order to avoid giving the LGBT community equal rights.

Richard quizzed him about his understanding of the charter, of the bible, its connection to human rights, the rights of LGBT citizens. I could only think the MLA must have been very happy when someone else finally showed up to take their turn. That month he also attended a conference on human rights in Alberta, and I will quote his take away message from the conference:

“I suggest we go to town hall meetings, confront them in their own territory, be really clear on what we want. There is no time like the present to demand equal rights in this province. Each voice must stand and be heard. I guarantee that if only half the gays and lesbians and members of the transgender communities in Alberta wrote a letter to the Premier – rights would be extended to us. Many people state they are not political – this is not about being political – it is about being equal and being treated as such. Don’t expect someone else to do it.”

Richard Gregory and Nancy Miller did not expect someone else to do it, they did it, and are still doing it and we are all the better for it and that is why they are our Heroes. Please join me in paying tribute to this amazing duo – they make us proud!”

{GS}

 

In the Big House

This week we are in Ottawa combing through the stacks of Library and Archives Canada. Having just gone through the Klippert Supreme Court Case files (hooray), there are now three boxes from the Delwin Vriend Supreme Court Case files to go through…

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-1-22-02-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-29-at-1-23-35-pm

Library and Archives Canada is virtually next door to the Supreme Court, and it is poignant to be researching historical documents at the place where they were originally created.

We are on a mini-hiatus now until our upcoming 25th Anniversary screening of My Own Private Idaho on Tuesday, October 11th with the Calgary Cinematheque Society. Look for our next Calgary gay history blog post on Thursday that week.

164

{KA}