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Vriend Case has been closed for 20 years, but the Alberta political story continues

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Jason Kenney in 2008. Photo: mostlyconservative/Flickr

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in Vriend v. Alberta in which the court ruled Alberta was legally obligated to protect its residents from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

The circumstances of the legal case are well known, and need not be recited in detail here.

The outline: Delwin Vriend, a lab instructor at a private Edmonton religious college, was fired because of his sexual orientation. The Alberta Human Rights Commission refused to do anything about it because discrimination for sexual orientation was not specifically protected by the Alberta Individual Rights Protection Act. The case made its way, slowly, through the courts, and when it reached the Supreme Court, the Justices ruled unanimously that exclusion of homosexuals from the act's provisions was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and they must be included.

Case closed.

The political story? It continues to this day.

As is well known, the Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Ralph Klein came under enormous pressure from the Usual Suspects on the social conservative religious right to employ the Charter's seldom-used Notwithstanding Clause to opt out of having to obey the court's ruling.

If you don't opt out, a tsunami of conservative callers warned the premier's staff, Civilization As We Know It will come swiftly to an end. There were some rougher and more threatening things said too, troubling memories for some members of the premier's staff at that time.

Not everyone is so unlucky as to be troubled by memories, though.

Jason Kenney, who in 1998 was a Reform Party MP in Ottawa, opined in the days before the ruling that if Vriend's case succeeded, it could be blamed on the "virus" of judicial activism.

Well known then and now for his social conservative leanings, Kenney urged Premier Klein to use the Notwithstanding Clause to continue violating the rights of gay Albertans.

"If the court rules to enforce gay rights, and the Alberta government rolls over, they will clearly be implicated in the decision," he said at the time. "If, on the other hand, they have the courage to invoke Section 33, to use the one remedy in the Charter, they will have begun the recovery of democracy."

Nowadays, Kenney leads Alberta's United Conservative Party Opposition. Late last month, queried by reporters, he said "he doesn't recall comments he made 20 years ago about the Vriend decision," wrote the Edmonton Journal's Emma Graney.

In the end, Klein decided to do the right thing and Section 33 was not used to perpetrate the legal persecution of a group of citizens. Based on objective reality, no one can argue now that anything bad has happened to Alberta and Albertans as a result of that historic decision.

Of course, although Civilization As We Know It is still functioning, a few social conservative voices are still making dire predictions.

John Carpay, like Kenney a former operative for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and one of those calling for the invocation of the Notwithstanding Clause when the Vriend case was still before the courts, recently wrote in a social conservative publication that as a result of the Supreme Court's ruling we're on a "slippery slide away from freedom."

Carpay, who ran for the Wildrose Party in 2012, is named from time to time as a likely candidate for Kenney's UCP in the expected 2019 general election.

One thing Kenney got right back in May 1998 was his prediction to the loony right Alberta Report magazine that the bitter reaction by Alberta social conservatives like himself "opens the window for a provincial grassroots, populist party with conservative values."

If you define conservative values as social conservative values, isn't that exactly what happened with the creation of the Wildrose Party and its rebranding last year as the UCP?

Does anyone really imagine that, behind closed doors in UCP ranks with Kenney presiding, things have changed all that much?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: mostlyconservative/Flickr

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