Edmonton based filmmaker Trevor Anderson’s soon to be released film The Island begins with the vastness of Northern Alberta spread out, stark on the screen in it seemingly uncharted territories. The sound of boots on snow can be heard in the distance and soon Anderson’s voice-over is relaying his experience receiving a homophobic email.
“You Fucking Faggots,” Anderson retells in the film, “You are a disgrace to society. You should all be put on an island so you can give each other AIDS.” To which Anderson on film replies, “Hmm. Why not?”
From there the film goes on to imagine the barren landscape transforming into an animated ‘homo utopia’ where, among the perks of an all-queer male island, people living with HIV would receive the coolest tree huts to live in and enjoy the skills of the strongest ape masseurs.
Anderson’s cinematic response to a shared experience of being on the receiving end of hate is steeped in satire, humour that takes an idea to the point of its inherent ridiculousness.
It is a response to hate that perhaps should be more widely adopted as a strategy to replace the current trend to try silencing those who make it clear that they don’t like gays and lesbians.
Citizens, courts and human rights commissions across Canada are trying to find a balance between people’s right to express their view and the safety of citizens. For their part, says Melissa Luhtanen of the Calgary based Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, “Civil liberty groups across Canada are giving their opinion. People want to protect gay rights, and on the other hand freedom of expression is extremely important.”
Perhaps nowhere is the debate stronger than in Alberta. Last November, the latest round of conversation kicked off after socially conservative activist Bill Whatcott circulated anti-homosexual flyers. That followed on last spring’s announcement by the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission of a ‘remedy’ in the Lund versus Boissoin case.
Whatcott’s flyer, circulated in the mailboxes of Regina, Edmonton and Calgary, featured a new version of the song, “Kill the Christians.” The new version read, “Kill the Homosexuals.”
The lyrics were accompanied by a photo of a man performing oral sex on another man with the man’s genitalia blocked out with a photo of Lori Andreachuk, a former employee of the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission.
The flyer is part of Whatcott’s ongoing anti-homosexual activism, but it is also in part a critique of a decision in a human-rights case chaired by Andreachuk known as the Johnson case.
“I am sticking a pencil in their eye” says Whatcott.
In 2003, Quintin Johnson’s filed a complaint against record stores and labels after he bought and listened to the song, “Kill the Christians” by the group Decide on their album, Off the Cross.
The lyrics include, “In due time your path leads to me/Put you out of your misery/The death of prediction/Kill the Christian/Kill the Christian … dead.” Johnson testified that the lyrics made him feel “discriminated against by these distributors (of the music) based on his religious faith and upbringing.”
He cited two sections of the provincial act that governs human rights — the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multicultural Act. Section 2 of the act forbids publishing, issuing or displaying anything that indicates discrimination (or an intent to discriminate) against a person or group, or is likely to expose a person or group to hatred or contempt because of their race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, or family status. Section 3 of the act forbids denying a person or group any goods, services, accommodation or facilities available to the public because of their membership in the same list as in section 2.
Some rightwing Christians were infuriated when the human rights panel of Andreachuk, Beth Bryant and Delano Tolley dismissed Johnson’s complaint. They did find that “the content and tone of the communications appear on the face of them to be discriminatory.” But, they noted, “there is very little vulnerability of the target group. The expressions do not reinforce existing stereotypes, nor do the messages appeal to well-publicized issues.”
The dismissal was predictable. Christians are not vulnerable in a largely Christian society. Human-rights law is designed to protect vulnerable minorities from the majority mob.
In 1989, feeling blessed because he was no longer in prison, using drugs, employed as a sex worker, nor ‘indulging’ in homosexuality, Bill Whatcott went through what he calls his “Christian conversion” and became a social conservative activist. He started by protesting abortion clinics, then in 1994 focussed on anti-homosexuality activism.
“My idea is to convert you and make sure you don’t get rights,” says Whatcott in a telephone interview. He hopes to “to change individuals’ minds and play a small role in changing legislation.”
While studying nursing at Humber College in Toronto, Whatcott began voicing his concerns in class about his view that homosexuals were trying to push their agenda, including onto the church.
In 1998, Whatcott began what he sees as his most effective form of activism, flyering. “I realized,” says Whatcott, “that flyering is a great way to speak out without being silenced.” He points out that you can’t get kicked off the radio or have your words edited out with direct-mail action. He distributed his first flyer at a Toronto high school. As he remembers it, a Toronto Star reporter “showed up and stuck a flyer on the front page of the Toronto Star.”
He figures news exposure resulted in more publicity for his cause than he could have garnered on his own.
As was the case when he voiced his opinions at Humber Collage, his first flyers caused most people to disagree with him and even react in anger. But always some people would approach him personally to tell him know that they agreed with his perspective.
In 2001, while living in Saskatchewan, Whatcott was granted permission by the City of Regina to hold a Heterosexual Pride Parade — which by most accounts was actually an anti-homosexual demonstration. His application to hold the event in the following years was denied.
In 2005, after picketing a Regina Planned Parenthood clinic where he allegedly said things like “Planned Parenthood will give you AIDS,” the Saskatchewan Association of Licensed Practical Nurses (SALPN) fined Whatcott $15,000 and suspended his nursing license for 15 days on the grounds of unprofessional conduct for intimidating staff and patients of the clinic.
In 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada supported a Saskatchewan Appeals court when it overturned the suspension and fine. The appeals court judges agreed with Whatcott and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that the case was a constitutional issue relating to freedom of expression and not a question of where a nurse’s responsibilities end as it had been framed by SALPN.
Also in 2005, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal fined Whatcott $17,500 for his flyering.
By the time of the Supreme Court’s support of the appeal that could have seen Whatcott reinstated as a nurse, he was already living in Edmonton. “Alberta has been good to me,” he says, but complains that social conservatives in Alberta are too moderate for him. He has a few friends and lawyers that he says support him in his activism. He is now a truck driver and while his ex-wife might not agree with his activism, Whatcott says that his children remain interested in what he is doing.
Depending on whether he prints in color or black and white, his notorious flyers cost him between 5 cents and 12 cents a copy. He prints up a minimum of 500. In 2007, when he ran for mayor of Edmonton, he printed 10,000 flyers featuring an image of men dancing at a gay-pride parade. It included a headshot of Edmonton’s current mayor and then-candidate Stephan Mandel placed in-between the buttocks of one of the dancing men.
Whatcott is not afraid of ramifications from his activism. Police “hate-crime units and human-rights commissions are powerless,” he says. “They are a bunch of bigots, hypocrites and cowards.”
Marie Riddle will not comment specifically on Whatcott’s statement or the current flyers. But the AHRCC director says, “People can have their own opinions on human-rights commissions. As people can see, commissions are very active in communities and they help build a more inclusive society. In Alberta, they work towards ensuring that the province is a place with no discrimination.”
The commission won’t release the number of complaints they received about Whatcott’s flyers until a case reaches the panel stage. As for his allusion to the Johnson case through his re-appropriation and printing of the “Kill the Christians” lyrics, Riddle says it is “difficult to compare one case to another; all factors must be considered.” She points out that if parties involved in the case are unhappy with the findings, there is built-in legislation that allows for appeals.
While he might not respect commissions, Whatcott does seem to have a strong understanding of their powers. On Whatcott’s website freenorthamerica.ca, an online forum that boasts it is “North America’s Ultimate Conservative Online Community,” the following disclaimer accompanies the online version of his flyer: “This flyer SHOULD NOT BE INTERPRETED as an incitement to violence. In fact, Bill Whatcott would much prefer homosexuals repent of their sins and turn to Jesus Christ so they can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”
While Kris Wells, civilian liaison chair for the Edmonton Police Services (EPS) LGBTTQ Community Committee might not agree with Whatcott, he does share an awareness of the possible ineffectiveness of legislation and human rights commissions in dealing with hate. “There is no common definition on what a hate crime is,” says Wells. “Edmonton Police Services, RCMP and others all have different yardsticks on how to measure hate crimes.”
He cites the lack of cohesion between the provinces about how governments and police respond to hate crimes as one of the issues preventing Whatcott being charged with what Wells considers a hate crime. “An investigation is in process, but the EPS requires approval of the Crown before they can lay charges,” he says.
Whether or not Whatcott should be charged is another question. Civil libertarians have long argued that in a democracy it’s important to tolerate even seemingly intolerable opinions. Each time a citizen is silenced for expressing what they believe to be true, the range of acceptable speech is further narrowed. For much of recent history, and perhaps one day again, the state and the church attempted to silence the political speech and journalistic work of Canadian gays and lesbians.
Citing the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, civil liberties expert Luhtanen says the issue is whether someone has been exposed to hatred. If so, that expression of hatred has to be balanced against the person’s rights to freedom of expression.
With this in mind, Luhtanen refers to the Supreme Court of Canada judgment in the Trinity Western University versus British Columbia College of Teachers case in which it is written: “The freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them.”
In other words, it may be okay to vigorously express your prejudicial beliefs or your religiously inspired bigotries. But it is probably not okay to put that belief into a violent or discriminatory practice.
It remains to be seen what will happen in the current Whatcott case. At the time of this writing, no charges are laid but the Edmonton Police are working with the liaison committee and the queer community in an ongoing investigation.