Looking after a dying parent is never easy, but for Jim Smith the experience was made even more harrowing.
While caring for his father, he was also dealing with his human rights complaint based on sexual orientation going through the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Because of the toll it was taking, he felt he had to decide between the two.
“It was an awful experience to go through,” says Smith. “I only agreed to the settlement as I needed to focus my time and energy on looking after my father.”
Queer Albertans like Smith (whose real name cannot be used as part of the AHRC settlement) will be watching what steps new Culture and Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett takes to reform the Human Rights Commission, as well as how he will work with the province’s queer community.
As Smith sees it, the problem with the AHRC lies in the culture of the commission itself. “I felt the current set-up forces sides to be hostile towards each other,” says Smith, “it is a ‘I am right and you are wrong’ approach. My former employer, their staff and myself would have been far better served if there was a process for us to work together, rather than seek ways to discredit each other.”
Recognizing that the commission needs to be overhauled, Blackett has pledged to do so but has not given a specific timetable for when. “I am looking for patience,” says Blackett, “and time. I don’t want to foist it on anybody.”
As part of the overhaul he has begun talks with people like Fil Fraser, a former chief commissioner of the AHRC. He is looking at barriers that might exist and how to make the process more user-friendly. Blackett will also decide who gets the currently vacant position of chief commissioner.
“Human rights commissions are being assailed across Canada,” said Blackett last May in caucus, “because there’s a belief that they are not fulfilling the mandate they are given.” Hoping that someone with a strong background and understanding of the law and its complexities can help assuage the naysayers, Blackett is looking for someone with legal expertise to take the commissioner job.
Kris Wells disagrees with the minister’s strategy. As someone who is working on the front line through his involvement with Camp fYerfly for queer youth and the University of Alberta’s Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services, he thinks someone with more social and community experience is needed.
“There is no profile of the commission in the communities,” states Wells, “not even just in the LGBT community but in all communities in Alberta. Having someone like a judge in the position of commissioner will not change that, it will just create it to be more administrative.”
Aside from having someone more familiar with communities and their issues in the position of chief commissioner, Wells would like to see more outreach from the commission. “Wouldn’t it be great if the AHRC had a display at Pride Week to encourage the community to learn more about human rights in the province but also learn how to register a complaint,” he suggests.
Of the 659 complaints last year, only 2 percent of them cited sexual orientation as grounds. Age was slightly higher representing 50 cases, more than twice that of sexual orientation.
Wells says history is at the heart of the low amount of cases filed that cite sexual orientation as the grounds for complaint.
“Statistically, the LGBT community isn’t using the commission and I think that is the legacy of not having sexual orientation written in because they realize the political will isn’t there.”
Blackett’s hardest job will be healing the deep wounds that have been left festering between the government and the province’s queer community.
“Healing needs to happen between the Alberta government and the queer community,” says Calgary writer and artist Anthea Black. “The province needs to admit past abuses. The Alberta Government bullied the queer community in Klein’s time. With a new premier and Blackett in place now is a time rectify those wrongs.”
In many ways, Blackett’s predecessor began paving the road to reconciliation last year. In one of his last duties as chair of the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Education Fund Advisory Committee, Thomas Lukaszuk travelled the province hosting meetings with groups including the queer communities of Edmonton and Calgary. A lot was aired during the meetings, according to those that were present. There was a sense of surprise at the level of mistrust coming from the queer community directed at the Progressive Conservatives.
“There was a shocking disregard of history from the government,” recalls Heather Zwicker, board chair of Exposure: Edmonton’s Queer Arts and Culture Festival. The English professor at the University of Alberta attended the meeting and says she was reminded “that 10 years ago when you looked at the newspapers you were met with a level of hostility that was coming from the government that was directed towards our community.”
Much of the government’s hostility, which was typified by former PC premier Ralph Klein, was a result of the Vriend v Alberta verdict in which the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Alberta had not protected its citizens and ordered all provinces and territories to include sexual orientation in their human rights legislation. In all of Canada only one jurisdiction a decade later has yet to do so: Alberta, the home of the case.
During the course of the meeting with Lukaszuk last December, it became apparent to Zwicker and Wells, who was also in attendance, that Lukaszuk and the government were not aware that Vriend was still an issue within the community. When asked if he had seen the summary of the meetings created by Lukaszuk’s office Blackett admitted he had not.
As it stands, the Vriend ruling has been read in and while it is not formally recognized, it does appear as a ground in AHRC literature. Having gone through the process, Smith says that to their credit, “the AHRC staff attempted to consider the issue of sexual orientation equal to the other protected areas.”
Human rights activists across Alberta are looking to have the ruling written in, which would need a bill to be put forward to propose it.
Last April, when Delwin Vriend was in Edmonton to mark the 10-year anniversary of the victory against the province, he commented that the government was “childish” for not yet formally adopting the ruling.
In response to calls from community groups as to when the ruling would be written in, Blackett said it would be part of a larger review of the legislation. “You’re looking at all aspects, you’re not just going to look at one section,” he told the CBC. “You don’t simply just add a piece that says we won’t discriminate based on sexual orientation. We have to consult and allow others to talk about all the other different sections in it as well.”
As for what he needs from the queer community to bring forward the amendment, Blackett has a few requests. “I am looking for patience and time so we can get set up to look at the legislation piece, fix those things, bring it forward — give me the consideration,” he says. “We want Alberta to go beyond the cowboy image, we have lot of diversity in this province.”
While writing it in would largely be a symbolic move as the commission already hears cases on the grounds of sexual orientation, Zwicker thinks that formally adopting the Supreme Court ruling would have a positive affect on Blackett’s profile in the queer community, as well as the ever-growing diverse population of Alberta.
“Democracies succeed by and large by how they treat their minorities,” she explains. “Reading Vriend in would be hugely meaningful to Muslims, veterans, women, the disabled and all other minorities in the province.”
Wells agrees. “Modernizing the ministry is an important and a powerful step that could not only revitalize a culture of human rights in Alberta but also raise the profile of Blackett and his ministry,” he says.
A visible success is something that Blackett needs if he is going to fend off calls from people like opposition member NDP Rachel Notley who is leading the charge that the AHRC and related legislation should be handled by the Attorney General and not the Ministry of Culture and Community Spirit.
This November if Jim Smith’s former employee has not yet fulfilled their end of the agreement, he is within the terms of the settlement to reopen the case, which for him is a bitter-sweet consideration — last week Smith’s father passed away.
For Smith, the idea of reopening the case if need be is daunting. He hopes that there are already changes happening within the commission. As he sees it, the key for Blackett to modernize the AHRC and establish a good relationship with Alberta’s queer and other minority communities begins with taking a lesson his father instilled in him.
“My father taught me that no matter how painful it is, you have to be honest enough to admit when you have done something wrong. Once you have, then you can truly begin moving in the right direction.”