06/09/2012 06:00 EDT | Updated 08/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Alison Redford At Gay Pride: Cheers Greet First Alberta Premier To Speak At Gay Pride Event In Edmonton


EDMONTON - There were cheers at Edmonton's Gay Pride festival as Alison Redford became the first Alberta premier to participate in the annual event.

Redford spoke to the crowd in the city's downtown immediately following the pride parade, and several thousand people filled the square as Redford took the stage and donned a rainbow sash.

"Personally, it's a privilege to be able to be here to celebrate community, diversity, families, tolerance and an Alberta for 2012 where all of us feel safe, secure and confident about expressing who we are," Redford said.

Organizers of the festival called Redford's appearance "a milestone."

"I think we'll see a very different reaction and a very different sense from politicians from here on in," said Michael Phair, a member of the festival's board and a former Edmonton city councillor.

In 1992, Phair became the first openly-gay councillor in the city. A decade ago, then-mayor Bill Smith refused to proclaim Pride Week. Now, current mayor Stephen Mandel is a fixture at the parade and has been since 2005.

Redford's appearance, Phair says, sends an important message that diversity issues are important.

"For Edmonton, this is not new. But for the province, this is definitely a change."

Redford's Progressive Conservative government announced this week that the province would resume paying for sex change operations. The province had stopped paying for such surgery three years ago as a cost-saving measure.

Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, a lesbian who lives in Red Deer, Alta., said she believed the policy announcement was timed to coincide with Redford's appearance at the festival. Still, she called the appearance "exciting."

Vanderschaeghe said that she comes to Edmonton to celebrate because Red Deer doesn't have a festival, but she says that could change with more people like the premier coming forward to oppose discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

"When the premier talks about discrimination, that is going to encourage more people coming out, because discrimination hinders people coming out," Vanderschaeghe said.

Not everyone at the event was cheering, however. There were a few in the crowd who voiced their opposition to an Alberta law passed in 2009 that requires parents be sent written notice when sex, religion or sexual orientation is covered in school. The legislation also gives parents the right to pull their children out of class for the duration of the discussion.

"What about Bill 44?" several people in the crowd shouted, referring to the controversial legislation.

Critics say the law could hinder discussion of sexual orientation issues in schools.

Redford did not address the question.

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