January 10, 2008
Protecting Freedoms in Alberta
— Wayne A. Holst
Recent studies released by Statistics Canada and the Conference Board of Canada confirm what Calgarians and many Albertans have suspected for some time: The lure of an unprecedented, prolonged oil boom has made Alberta the most attractive Canadian destination of in-migration from other provinces and a large draw for new Canadians from other countries. Until 1947, the province of Alberta, which celebrated its centennial two years ago, was largely a "have-not province of farmers and ranchers" where the aboriginal peoples were met by pioneering and homesteading freedom-seekers from other parts of Canada and the world. But sixty years ago oil was discovered at Leduc, just south of Edmonton. In the subsequent six decades, Alberta has evolved into the richest, most dynamic province of Canada. Calgary, a small to mid-sized city for almost a century, recently entered the Canadian metropolitan big-leagues with Toronto, Montreal , Vancouver, Ottawa, and Edmonton when its population surpassed one million. In addition, it was reported in early December that Calgary topped a list of twenty-seven Canadian cities, and enjoyed a North American third-place standing (after Washington and Austin) for attracting "the best and brightest" because of the economy, innovation, environment, education, health, society and housing.
Social transformation of this nature and magnitude is bound to profoundly impact established residents and newcomers alike, as it strongly influences politics and public values. The venerable Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, in power for four decades, is in the midst of a scramble to come to grips with reality, as traditional Albertan values — conservative and strongly influenced by an underlying "bible belt" religiosity — are increasingly under scrutiny.
Enter from stage right Craig Chandler and Stephen Boisson. Chandler was selected to represent the riding of Calgary-Edgmont in the provincial election anticipated next spring. Early in December, however, the still-reigning party decided not to allow the controversial talk-show host to represent them. The official announcement was made a day after the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC) ruled that a letter written by a former executive director of Concerned Christians Canada (CCC), a group Chandler founded, exposed gay people to "hatred and contempt."
Chandler says the media and the Conservatives have unfairly linked him to a letter published in a Red Deer Alberta newspaper, the Advocate, written in 2002 by CCC director Pastor Stephen Boisson. Boisson's article called gay activists "perverse, self-centred and morally depraved individuals" who are "just as immoral" as pedophiles, drug dealers and pimps. Two weeks after the letter appeared, a gay seventeen-year-old boy was assaulted in that community.
Darren Lund, education professor at the University of Calgary (a Lutheran, formerly from Red Deer) filed a complaint with the AHRC shortly thereafter, suggesting the Boisson missive fostered an atmosphere of violence and intimidation toward gays. The AHRC stated in its ruling that "the (Boisson) letter serves to dehumanize people who are homosexuals by referring to them in a degrading, insulting and offensive manner." It also stated that "there is a circumstantial connection between the hate speech of Mr. Boisson and the CCC" and the gay bashing of the Red Deer teen. Thus, within a matter of days, the pastor and the aspiring politician were both condemned by the AHRC: Boisson is no longer in the ministry and Chandler cannot represent the Conservatives in an election.
A satisfied Lund says the ruling sends a clear message: "It confirms we all have rights to free speech in Alberta , but there are also responsibilities that come with these privileges if we want to keep this a safe place for everyone. It reminds us that people in positions of authority have a special responsibility to protect the dignity of especially vulnerable people." For his part, Chandler was quoted as saying: "(The Conservative brass) told me my faith in Jesus Christ would interfere with how I could be a good member of the legislative assembly. Is that fair?"
The Chandler-Boisson episode suggests that Alberta 's human rights standards are evolving for the better. But Chandler 's assertion that his religious rights are being curtailed illustrates how variously "for the better" can be understood, and suggests that such evolution cannot be taken for granted, as there will always be those who challenge it. Thus, freedoms require vigilance if our province is to mature as a safe place for everyone.
Wayne A. Holst, formerly from Ontario but a proud Albertan for almost three decades, teaches at the University of Calgary and at St. David's United Church .
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