07/11/2012 07:33 EDT | Updated 09/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta Ain't Just Conservative Cowboys


Alberta's profound changes in social attitudes are finally being recognized in political reality. For the first time in history, an Alberta premier attended and spoke at Edmonton's gay pride parade, funding was recently reinstated for gender-reassignment surgery, and the public didn't flinch.

For those who think history was made by these events in themselves, think again. Acceptance of diversity has been on the rise for quite some time. Some Alberta politicians are just finally reflecting the view of the public; others are still bumbling along. The recent election was significant evidence of the transformation, not because of a change of government, but because respect for diversity seemed to play such a major role in the public conversation of Alberta politics.

Candidate Allan Hunsperger's blog post saying, "You [gay and lesbian people] will suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering," and Ron Leech's comment that "...when a Caucasian speaks on their [the Punjabi community's] behalf, everybody is listening" solidified this fact in our political reality.

The public response to these comments was swift and near-universal condemnation. Such denunciation was not always commonplace in Alberta; our political history is full of politicians making intolerant remarks.

Recall that when Delwin Vriend was fired from his job at a Christian school in 1992 because his employers found out that he was gay, there was serious pushback from some members of the press and government. It was normal to hear suggestions that sometimes discrimination was acceptable in the name of protecting what was seen to be uniquely "Albertan." There was such concern that the government created a committee of MLAs to build fences around the inclusion of "sexual orientation" as a prohibited ground of discrimination. It was during a time when then Premier Ralph Klein referred to Albertans as "severely normal," the implication being that difference was un-Albertan.

Thanks to Vriend, on April 2, 1998 the Supreme Court "read-in" sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination in Alberta's human rights legislation. The law was now to be applied as though the words "sexual orientation" appeared in the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination even though they did not. Eleven years later, in Bill 44, the provincial government finally acknowledged this through legislative change.

Since then the public change toward accepting diversity has been far more profound.

Think back to the 2009 debates surrounding Bill 44. It also amended Alberta's Human Rights Act to add a provision allowing parents to withdraw their children from school lessons dealing with religion, human sexuality and sexual orientation and threatening teachers and school officials with human rights complaints if they fail to provide advance notice of such lessons. This was a solution looking for a problem, and seemed aimed at stifling discussion of sexual orientation in schools.

The lack of ethical leadership to support fundamental respect for all citizens served to divide people rather than prevent discrimination.

Bill 44 prompted many citizens to question the government on these issues and it was an important end to the public silence that previously allowed intolerance to flourish. It marked the beginning of a political re-examination of what it means to be Albertan.

As a result, the recent reinstatement of funding for gender-reassignment surgery was not a great leap forward but simply a remedy for the same government's previous mistake. The earlier arbitrary delisting of a procedure deemed medically necessary by physicians was yet another example of government discrimination against a vulnerable minority.

The premier's attendance at Edmonton's gay pride didn't lead Alberta toward a greater respect for diversity. It simply marked an existing public sentiment and, let's hope, the end of high-level politicians bumbling their way through diversity issues. Of course, opposition leaders have attended pride festivals for years, but recent events demonstrate that what was once regarded as oppositional or taboo is now "severely normal" too.

Alberta is not the province of two decades ago. Perhaps for the first time in our history, respect for the dignity of all has become acknowledged as a fundamental value and a political issue worth defending. The public have shown ethical leadership in rejecting tired old Alberta stereotypes about fearing difference, and it's good to see the politicians finally catching up.

The citizens of Alberta have taught our politicians an important ethical lesson: it is intolerance and discrimination that are "un-Albertan," and respect for all is a core provincial value, not the other way round.