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Trans activists push for inclusion in Alberta human rights act

Province adding sexual orientation to legislation, 11 years after Vriend

Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett announced last week that the provincial government plans to amend the province’s Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act to formally include sexual orientation.

Blackett’s announcement comes 11 years after the historic Vriend vs Alberta case in which the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that sexual orientation must be included under human rights legislation across the country. Alberta was the only jurisdiction in Canada to not embrace the ruling.

NDP MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona, Rachel Notley, has continually brought up the Vriend decision during her time in politics and she welcomes Blackett’s plans. But she says that 11 years of resistance has created “a validation of homophobia that still exists in sectors of Alberta.”

While many from Edmonton’s queer community applaud the province’s step forward, some have concerns about the proposed changes to the Alberta Human Rights Commission and a provision that would allow parents to exclude their children from learning about sexual orientation in school.

Trans activists are also concerned. While specifics are still vague, there has been no mention of gender identity in the proposed legislation.

Activists hoped that by the time the Progressive Conservative government got around to including sexual orientation into the legislation, gender identity would also be included.

“It’s frustrating to offer to get involved with the push for human rights and do whatever is needed to secure our inclusion only to see that trans is never put on the table for discussion at all,” says Alberta-based trans activist Mercedes Allen. 

“The exclusion of trans people from this legislation is disappointing, but hardly surprising,” says fellow activist Josie Cross. “Perhaps I am just cynical but I can hardly see Alberta taking a lead in human rights. If gender identity and expression are ever protected under human rights legislation I would expect this to happen on the federal level before Alberta takes similar action.”

Notley is puzzled by the culture minister’s exclusion of gender identity in the new plan. “It is interesting that they have gone that way,” she says.

Cross hopes that a possible backlash could put pressure on the government to include gender identity under the proposed new legislation. “I think it is only a matter of time before trans people are protected under law,” says Cross. “Both the Greens and NDP made the inclusion of such protections part of their platform in the last federal election. I only hope that the trans community and their supporters realize this, and seize the opportunity to place pressure on political parties.”

In the face of exclusion, both Cross and Allen see this as a monumental time for trans activism in Alberta.

But as Allen points out, “transgender peoples’ desire to remain invisible” will be a challenge in activating the community for change.

Cross agrees but is a bit more prosaic. “Transgender people are characteristically quiet about their status, but I believe this is a time at which solidarity is very important, as it will make a great difference in the long run.”