Monday, March 31, 2008


i've been working with some people on an event to commemorate the vriend decision. as you probably know, the vriend decision is the 1998 supreme court case ruling that read sexual orientation into the alberta human rights act and the canadian charter. it's a major landmark for queers in alberta: it's our stonewall.

but it means even more than that, at least to me. and to explain it, i want to tell you about the world of alberta 10-15 years ago. which is another way of warning you that this is a serious post. we're back in the room with the sonograph, and the tech has turned on the political augmentation. no doubt my account is dopplerized, but this is history from the heart.

i started my job at the UofA in 1993. between the time i interviewed (dec 1992) and the time i started (july 93), ralph klein was elected premier of alberta. between my first paycheque and my second, his government implemented punitive 21% across-the-board funding cuts to health, education, and social services. i say that so trippingly i forget to absorb it. take a look at your latest bank deposit. then lop off a fifth of it and try to pay your bills. that's a 21% cut. now imagine trying to run a school, a hospice, or a suicide prevention program without that fifth.

it took me years to understand what it meant to start my career under those demoralizing circumstances. indeed, it took me years -- five of 'em -- to bring home again the salary i started with that first month. more significant than the money itself is the way being under-waged distorts your sense of reality and erodes your sense of worth. it's one of the problems plaguing artists in canada, where we support art but not artists. it puts you in the position of having to argue, over and over again, that what you do has social value. having to argue for the value of art, or teaching, or crisis prevention is like having to argue that women deserve to be treated like human beings: if you have to start there.... after a while, those arguments just grind you down. you accept de-skilling. if you're an artist, you take the canada council recommended $125 for a reading, even if you have to fly across the country and miss three days' work to do it. if you're a professor, you pay for your own long distance calls. if you're a nurse, you teach people how to change their own catheter and watch them hobble out of the hospital.

worst -- most pernicious -- of all, you become so inured to the way things are that you forget they could be different.

what i want to convey is the emotional consequences of those klein cuts: the sense of collective despair we felt. it wasn't just a matter of the deterioration we faced in our individual workplaces and homes. it was the society we suddenly found ourselves living in. virtually every day we albertans were subject to hearing terrible things about the poor, women, artists, students, intellectuals and queers -- despicable things, hateful things, from our elected representatives. teachers were fat cats with too much holiday, people on AISH were scammers, the homeless were lazy. women should be happy they are allowed to work at all. got an addiction? a mental illness? here's a bus ticket to BC. kindergarten? who needs it.

things were being torn down so rapidly that you didn't know where to turn first. increased class sizes, decreased salaries, increased patient loads, decreased insurance coverage, increased violence, decreased intervention programs. one day we came to work and discovered that the alberta government had closed the dentistry school. the dean himself learned about this from the newspaper. never mind that it's the only dentistry school in western canada. never mind that it's a major source of dental work for people throughout northern alberta. it was just summarily struck out of existence. students started working 20, 25 and 30 hours a week to keep up with exponentially rising tuition. professors worked unpaid days, while avoiding (at least i did) desperate pleas from the development office. food banks ran out of food. did you catch that?: food banks ran out of food. it was all so very, very evil that we could not stand undismayed. we stood dismayed, and bewildered, and exhausted, and terrorized.

and for the most part, we stood alone. on the one hand, this is alberta's fault. call it alberta pride, alberta separatism, alberta exceptionalism, alberta fear (of falling short, of being found out, of being called out, of not being the centre of anything, of not being toronto), but we've never been very good at initiating liaisons and inviting solidarity. on the other hand, the rest-of-canada has to share the blame. nothing's easier or more fun to despise, neglect and gloat over than alberta.

so when the vriend decision was announced on april 2, 1998, it was momentous not just for queers (though certainly that), but for the possibility that something, anything could be different, more hopeful, than it had been. i cried for many reasons that day, but one was relief at the fact that the rest of canada had not forsaken us. i know this sounds pompous, inflated and precious. but that's how it felt to me: we were not forsaken. we couldn't do it alone, that much was clear by 1998, and suddenly we didn't have to. my country was not going to stand back and let alberta turn into a bullies' backwater.

everybody went to the leg that day. the news spread around campus by whispers and then shouts. (remember, it's 1998: no texting.) it was sunny and chill, as i recall, a spring day in every sense. all afternoon the high level bridge undulated north as people came in pairs, in groups, by the dozen and alone to stand on the legislative grounds. there were speeches, i know, and lots of cheering by the roused rabble, but when i think back to the day itself, it unfolds silently, in strange slow motion. i stood with my back up against mo, her arms around me, and we watched the crowd grow. the nurses came. the raging grannies came. the ATA was there before we were. we ran into friends and colleagues who looked as dazed as i felt, and happy. there was a lot of hugging. it was an incredible day.

that day wasn't the end of it. things got worse, rhetorically, before they got better. but one of the reasons i'll be attending next sunday's commemoration is that 2 april 1998 represents the day i learned that you can never give up on hope. it's the germ of social justice.

vriend commemoration:
sunday 6 april, 1:30-3:30
edmonton city hall
free and open to all


Anthony said...

vriend was fired when i was 14. it was the year i went away to a school where abuse, esp. the sexualised use of power to degrade, was common.

vriend was vindicated when i was 17. it was the year where i was assualted coming off the school bus on valentines day, the year that i had death threats, and had no help from the administration.

he worked for me, as a metonymy, as a convenient narrative block, as a symbol, to discuss the disruption and damage that coming out had on my psyche.

i wonder how many of us see him that way, not as delwin but as something larger and less human...

Anthony said...

i should make that clearer, because it sounds critical of you. both saint johns and bev facey, were realyl godo examples of living in alberta, it was this collection of smart people who were on this life raft--you know the gericault painting, raft of the medusa, living in alberta, at 14, at 17, even at 27 is like living on that raft--and you keep hanging on, and you love the people who are hanging on with you, you have to love them, because if you dont, then they will fall, or you will fall, and the waters are tulmotous and drowning is eminent.

that Nietzsche qoute about strength was mentioned to me daily at saint johns, and unironic retreads about brown and the board of education were mentioned about delwin, the staff were genial, and the students were viscious, and everyone was convinced that the queer problem, or the crazy problem, or the poor problem would just go away and leave.

it was the same in high school--i remember walking into social studies, that day, when the ruling came down, and have the teacher tell me that every side was legitimate, that the homophobic vitriol was legitimate. that it was just another kind of discourse. but he was nice...

it was so fucking exhausting, because you had people telling you to be reasonable, and people trying to (no hyperbole) destroy you, and the raft was caught in the middle of those waters, and there seemed no solution.

as much as i love so much of the culture of the west, one of the reasons i can leave, that i want to leave so much, is that i can no longer handle the politeness, the being genial and gentle and sweet, while people starve, or are beaten or are isolated.

(& you should link to my blog, up there ;) )

Anonymous said...

It is in these dekleining hours that we begin to let the the exceptional sadness of Alberta recent past move from our mouths and memories to our pens and acknowledged shared experience.

thanks Heather for the moving post, and Anthony for the truly complimentary comments.


Julie said...

I appreciate this very much. I was hired at U. of A. months after the Vriend decision, and had not come out yet. Ironically, I was almost interviewed for Vriend's job at King's...I wonder what would have happened if I had worked there. The Alberta I came into was one where those losses had already happened, and where the spirit of returning optimism which Heather describes was on the rise. We still haven't got the Alberta we should have (think 2-tier medical care and Ed Stelmach's attitude about the environment), but I feel lucky to have arrived when I did, and to be part of better times where I work and live. Thanks Heather for showing us what it was like.

I heard that Vriend wants little to do with Alberta now. I can't say that I blame him. But I'm sorry that I never got to meet him while he was here.