National Post

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Thursday, April 06, 2000

'The flames of hatred were roaring'
REVISITING THE COURT'S KEY CASES: From its 1973 decision that an Alberta farm wife seeking a divorce -- after 25 years of marriage -- was not entitled to half of her husband's ranch, to its definition of the nature of aboriginal title, to its controversial gay rights decision against the province of Alberta, the court has defined itself by its landmark rulings: Decision impacted legal matters, not societal
James Cudmore
National Post

Tom Hanson, The Canadian Press
Delwin Vriend, right, and his partner, Andrew Gagnon, at the Supreme Court in Ottawa in November, 1997. Vriend had been fired from his job at a school in Edmonton in January, 1991, because he was gay.

EDMONTON - With the words, "Ha, ha, I win," Delwin Vriend, the man at the centre of a seven-year legal saga that polarized the nation along lines of social values, stepped off the pedestal fashioned for him by the gay and lesbian community, and disappeared.

It was April 2, 1998, and Mr. Vriend had, in fact, just been declared the victor by the Supreme Court of Canada in a controversial gay rights decision against the province of Alberta.

Mr. Vriend is gay, and because of that, in January, 1991, he was fired from King's University College, a Christian school in Edmonton, where he was a laboratory co-ordinator.

Mr. Vriend took the matter to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, which ruled that the province's human rights legislation did not specifically include sexual orientation as prohibited grounds for discrimination -- a decision that formed the substance of the Vriend case.

By the time they reached the Supreme Court, six years later, Mr. Vriend and his supporters had appeared before 13 separate judges in three different courts in Alberta and Ottawa, and faced intense opposition on the streets and in the press, says Sheila Greckol, Mr. Vriend's lawyer.

"One thing about living in Alberta is that you can see and experience in a very visceral way the pain that people who are discriminated against feel. This was a very emotional issue here," she added, "and Delwin's life really was not his own until long after the court's decision."

It was a remarkable decision, according to June Ross, an associate dean and professor of constitutional law at the University of Alberta, and co-counsel on the Vriend case.

"Alberta had made it very clear that they had no intention of changing the IRPA," and claimed that the omission of sexual orientation from their human rights legislation was non-discriminatory.

"What the Supreme Court did with Vriend [v. Alberta] is decide that Alberta had indeed entered into the arena of legislating what is discriminatory and had purposefully omitted sexual orientation."

In other words, the government of Alberta had discriminated against gays and lesbians not through any action, but through a purposeful failure to act. A very significant legal distinction.

"In that sense, the Vriend decision had less of a societal impact," Prof. Ross said, "and much more of a legal impact."

Nevertheless, it was a pivotal decision for gay activists, and it turned Mr. Vriend from a simple lab instructor into a hero.

"But for Delwin, this wasn't about getting his picture on the front page of every newspaper across the country," said Murray Billett, a close friend and one of Mr. Vriend's most vocal supporters. "Delwin is a shy guy, and he didn't really enjoy the spotlight. But if he's wronged, he'll set out to ... get that wrong corrected."

And according to Mr. Billett, it was a battle fought not only before the court, but also on the streets.

"The flames of hatred were roaring in Alberta," he said. "It happened too many times to count, but people used to come up to [Delwin or I] on the street and holler and scream -- calling you every name in the book.

"It was really quite scary."

The magnitude of the opposition, not only in Alberta, but across the country, affected Mr. Vriend and his family, Mr. Billett said, and despite the Supreme Court victory, he never did go back to the science lab at King's University College. "I don't think he even tried," Mr. Billett said.

Now, nine years after he was fired from the small Edmonton Christian College, and two years after one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the Supreme Court was awarded in his favour, Mr. Vriend has left the country.

He now lives in Paris, where he is a Web designer for a multi-national computer company based in San Francisco.

"We all miss him," Mr. Billett said. "But it was time for Delwin to move on."

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