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The legacy of Edmonton’s Michael Phair

Gay city councillor ends his 15-year run

'CITY COUNCIL'S CONSCIENCE': Described as a 'profoundly influential politician and role model,' Edmonton's pioneering gay councillor wraps up 15 years in office this month. Credit: Photo courtesy of Michael Phair's Office

Michael Phair pauses when asked about his 15 years in power as an Edmonton alderman. “I think I’ve done all right,” he says. “Things have gone pretty well.”

For those who know Phair and have followed his political career, it’s a typically modest understatement. And for many, it’s also a time of sad reflection.

Several months ago, Phair announced that, after 15 years as city councillor, he would not be running again, and that this term would be his last representing the downtown district of Ward 4.

“The time just felt right,” he says now, from his office in Edmonton City Hall. “I had done this for a while and I wanted to move on to other challenges.”

As of late October, the city of Edmonton will be losing an institution. Meanwhile, Phair says he’ll be taking some time out to reflect and then seek out new opportunities.

The soft-spoken Phair, as usual, appears to be taking it all in stride.

But Phair has witnessed — and been a pivotal part of — major changes in Edmonton and, by extension, Alberta. He’s spearheaded and been a part of many of the progressive policies the city has adopted, among them hot lunch programs for inner-city schoolchildren, recycling programs (considered among the best in North America), protection of city wildlife, promoting the city’s vibrant cultural festivals and the restriction of electronic gambling machines, to name only a few.

Phair’s multifaceted approach to the job prompted one local columnist to refer to him as “the Will Rogers of civic politics” because “he never met an issue he didn’t like.”

Edmonton gay activist and police commissioner Murray Billett sums up Phair’s achievements over the past 15 years: “Michael has enriched our community, city and province in his stalwart representation on many issues. As city council’s conscience for the past 15 years he has proven a profoundly influential politician and role model.”

But for many people, one trait of Phair’s will always stand out: when first elected in 1992, he was the first openly gay politician to be elected in Alberta, widely regarded as the unofficial capital province of homophobia in Canada.

As a gay man who grew up in Alberta, coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s, I can speak very directly to this achievement. Simply put, what Phair did took guts. Lots of guts.

“When I first pondered it, I had worked on other political campaigns, and people said that I should consider running,” he recalls today. “But I did think about the possibilities. I certainly was aware that there was homophobia out there and that when you’re running a public political campaign, things can get ugly.”

Phair had already been working in the trenches for various activist causes, including founding Edmonton’s AIDS Network, the city’s first organized response to the epidemic, in the ’80s. Fear of the disease ran so high that Phair remembers real estate firms refusing to rent the Network space when they learned that it would be associated with AIDS.

Phair simply continued to run the Network out of his own home, rather than give up on those who were struggling with HIV.

His contributions were duly noted by the local press. In 1986, the Edmonton Journal named him Citizen of the Year, in recognition of his hard work on behalf of the AIDS community.

It was high-profile work like that and the accompanying recognition that led Phair to think he had what it took to become a solid city councillor. As well, he was already public about being gay, which meant the question of keeping his private life private would effectively be a moot point. “I can’t imagine having done it any other way — I was very grateful to have already been out.”

Part of Phair’s appeal during that first campaign appeared to be his very honesty on the subject. The electorate either didn’t care that he was gay or connected with his bravery and honesty. In 1992, he was elected to office.

“The media had tagged me as the gay candidate, and some of my campaigners reported some homophobia when they went door to door. But we won — I’ll never forget how exciting that was. There were points in the campaign when I thought I wouldn’t have a chance. As things grew closer, I was anxious to win.”

The victory brought a good deal of attention to Phair and, along with other Canadian politicians like Svend Robinson (the country’s first openly-gay MP) and Glen Murray (the Winnipeg city councillor who would eventually graduate to mayor), indicated a change in attitudes towards gays and lesbians. But there were tough times, too.

“During the second campaign in 1995,” Phair recalls, “there was a downturn in the Edmonton economy. There was a lot of hostility towards politicians. At one debate, my opponent brought up the issue of my sexual orientation. Luckily, the crowd that had gathered would have no part of it, and actually booed him for it. The public didn’t respond to an effort to appeal to homophobia.”

But other moments were gathering; the worst, undoubtedly, when the Supreme Court of Canada came down with its Delwyn Vriend decision in 1998.

Vriend, a chemistry schoolteacher, had been fired from his job in 1991 because he was gay. The college that did it made no secret of why they fired him — they sacked him because he was a gay man and wasn’t prepared to deny it.

The notoriously homophobic Alberta government refused to help, stating there was no law against discriminating against gay and lesbian people in the province, so the college had the right to fire him.

Vriend fought back, repeatedly taking the case to court through a series of lengthy challenges and appeals. It finally wound its way all the way up to the Supreme Court and, in April 1998, the justices made their ruling: Alberta would have to protect its citizens against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Gays and lesbians across Canada were elated; the court had again moved the legal bar forward a notch for us all.

But a whole load of people in Alberta were none too happy that the feds were telling them what to do. Some argued it was another case of eastern arrogance; others suggested it was an infringement of an employer’s God-given right to discriminate on whatever basis they saw fit.

Vriend held one press conference that was carried live on national television, then understandably took a break from being in the public eye.

And that left one very public figure standing in the media spotlight, one person to take all the wound-up hatred and bile that so many Albertans, sadly, were feeling in their bigoted little hearts.

Phair’s home and office were besieged by phone calls, most of which, he notes, were supportive. But a loud, very hostile and sizable minority were anything but.

“I was taken aback by how vitriolic some of the callers were. They were saying things like, ‘You should be hung up by your balls,’ and ‘I’m going to shoot your head off.'”

Phair lays the blame for the high tide of anti-gay resentment firmly at the feet of the provincial Conservative government, then run by Ralph Klein, which he says waited far too long to react to the negative backlash. He also says the local press spilled a lot of ink reflecting the hostile reactions of many Albertans, but not enough went to showing different perspectives on the ruling.

“In the weeks following the Supreme Court decision, all the newspapers, TV and radio shows were dominated with the issue, and the views were overwhelmingly hateful. I wasn’t sure of what to do, but I spoke with several prominent citizens who I knew were supportive of gay rights and asked them to speak out. They said they’d already made their views clear to the press, but that the press was choosing simply not to quote them.”

The national media was soon reporting on the hate bandwagon, neatly reinforcing Alberta’s stereotype as the official province of majority tyranny.

But as upsetting as this was for Phair, he still sees good in many Albertans. He estimates that in the municipal ridings of Edmonton and Calgary, most calls (anywhere from 60 to 80 percent) were in favour of the Vriend decision. Support in rural ridings, he believes, was about 50 to 60 percent at the time, with a couple of possible exceptions in southern Alberta, where conservative values run deep. “I’m convinced that if you added up all the calls, it’d be 60-40 in favour of the Supreme Court decision.”

But the hate calls kept coming in, and one of Phair’s employees simply had to leave the office, overwhelmed by the response.

The calls became so nasty and frequent — over 300 in one day — that Phair himself had to leave a city council meeting, too emotionally distraught to focus on the affairs at hand.

Then-Mayor Bill Smith, responding to questions from the media, sensitively said that Phair “is an emotional kind of fella… these things may bother him more than someone else.”

Phair concedes this amounted to his darkest time in office, saying that the thought of simply packing up and leaving the province altogether did cross his mind. Instead, he held a press conference the next day, slamming Klein for not speaking out on the issue and calling the anti-gay atmosphere overwhelming the province a “witch hunt,” evoking the spectre of McCarthyism.

Klein was ultimately forced to say the decision on Vriend would stand, and that he would not use the contentious Notwithstanding Clause to override the ruling. Klein even acknowledged being taken aback by the extremity of some of the responses to the decision. Phair, it seemed, had even had an impact on King Ralph.

Phair is philosophical about that pivotal moment in his political career now. “You know what? That was a real watershed in Alberta’s history. I think that was a turning point. Things have really changed very significantly since then. Who would have thought that last year we’d have a gay Pride parade in Edmonton where the mayor, the deputy prime minister and me would be riding at the front of the procession? I was just so thrilled to be a part of that — I never thought I’d see that happen.”

And then the quiet, unassuming Phair changes subject, and focuses on an issue that people used to dismiss, but now recognize as paramount.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that we’ve protected our trees in Edmonton,” he says. “People love the river valley here, and our parks. We have over 65,000 stunning elm trees in our city. That may not sound like a big issue to some, but it is to me. I feel like I’ve watched Edmonton go from being a town to a great city.

“That’s been very rewarding.”