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Alberta civil liberties group revived

ACLA was an intervener in Vriend vs Alberta

A group of concerned citizens in Calgary is reviving the Alberta Civil Liberties Association (ACLA) — motivated in part by the passage of Alberta’s Bill 44.

The ACLA has been defunct since 2002, but Janet Keeping, who is spearheading the revival, says the volunteer-run advocacy organization has new life.

“It’s very energizing,” says Keeping, president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership and a former active member of the ACLA. “I think people are really excited about the rebirth of the [Alberta] Civil Liberties Association.”

Founded in 1977 as the Calgary Civil Liberties Association, the ACLA has been a longtime advocate for freedom.

In 1998, the ACLA was an intervener in the Delwin Vriend Supreme Court case, which ruled that sexual orientation must be included in Alberta’s human rights legislation. The ACLA was also granted intervener status in a case concerning the right of Sikh RCMP officers to wear turbans and a case involving the fairness of electoral boundaries.

The ACLA was also concerned about breaches of privacy access regulations, municipal bylaws dealing with parade permits and public signs, discrimination against aboriginals by Calgary landlords, prayers in public schools and police whistleblowing.

But in 2002, the ACLA’s members ran out of energy. Former ACLA president Stephen Jenuth continued to make comments in the media on behalf of the group, but the ACLA was struck off the provincial government’s registry of societies in 2002.

Calgary lawyer Brian Edy, who worked on the Vriend case for the ACLA, is glad to see the group’s revival.

“Civil liberties [are] an important aspect of our lives,” says Edy. “There is a need for moderate voices to constantly probe what discrimination is, how laws are affecting people and to try to get people more engaged in society.”

Keeping says she was concerned earlier this year when very few organizations spoke out against Bill 44 — a provincial law that gives parents the option of pulling their kids from class if sex, sexual orientation or religion is discussed. According to Keeping, several organizations feared the provincial government would cut their funding if they publicly opposed Bill 44.

“What that said to me was this is a terrible situation,” says Keeping. “It’s absolutely imperative that there be more citizens’ groups of volunteers who’ve got nothing to lose.”

The University of Calgary is home to the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, a registered charity founded in 1982 by the ACLA. The Research Centre has a mandate of research and education, but because of laws regulating charities, it is prohibited from engaging in advocacy.

For legal purposes, the new entity will be called the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association, and it will be an independently-funded advocacy group organized under the Societies Act of Alberta. The group will sell individual memberships and won’t accept government funding.

“If we ever have money at the [Rocky Mountain] Civil Liberties Association, it won’t be from government because that’s what cripples you and your ability to criticize government,” says Keeping. “And, after all, that’s what a civil liberties group is largely created to do.”

According to Keeping, the group has filed for provincial registration, and if all goes well, the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association will be a legal entity within a month.

Until then, the group is already busy organizing its first public event to be co-sponsored with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. The event, Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Canada Today, will be held on Jan 28 at the Kahanoff Centre in Calgary.

“Once we start to speak out and hold some public meetings, I know we can get a lot more people engaged,” says Keeping. “I think our goal is that by this event at the end of January, we’ll be able to announce to the world that we exist.”

Contact Janet Keeping at jkeeping@chumirethicsfoundation.ca.