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Still-active human rights case speaks to lasting homophobia in Canada: activists

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ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Just over 14 years ago, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador issued the province’s marriage commissioners an ultimatum: agree to perform same-sex marriages or resign.

At least seven commissioners, many of them mayors, chose to quit, arguing overseeing such marriages would contradict their religious beliefs. 

But one former commissioner, Desiree Dichmont, also filed a human rights complaint, claiming discrimination based on religious creed. The case has been snaking its way through the courts ever since — and even though Dichmont has died, the case remains alive.

An Alberta-based free speech advocacy group, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, recently won the right to intervene in the appeal proceedings, arguing the public has an interest in the outcome. The latest appeal in the case will be heard next month.

LGBTQ activists who championed the issue of same-sex marriage more than a decade ago say the case’s renewed life speaks to lingering homophobia in Canada that has since moved under the surface.

“I feel like I’m in a time warp,” said Newfoundlander Gemma Hickey, who was president of advocacy group EGALE Canada in 2004 when same-sex marriage was legalized and fought for legalization across Canada.

“I wasn’t surprised back then and I’m not surprised now,” Hickey said in an email from Tokyo.

Should the case set a precedent for future objections based on religious belief, Hickey said the consequences would be dire for LGBTQ people in rural parts of the province.

For example, then-mayor Claude Elliott was Gander’s sole marriage commissioner when he resigned his duties as a marriage commissioner in 2005.

“My concern is for same-sex couples in rural areas who don’t have a choice between marriage commissioners. They shouldn’t have to travel elsewhere to find someone to marry them in a civil ceremony,” Hickey said.

“A wedding is something to celebrate and regardless if someone agrees or disagrees, same-sex marriage has been a reality in the province of N.L. since 2004 and in Canada since 2005.”

Dichmont’s complaint arguing discrimination based on religious creed was filed in 2005, and was at first dismissed by the Human Rights Commission for insufficient evidence.

After an appeal, the province’s supreme court ordered a hearing by the commission’s board of inquiry. A ruling finally came down in 2017 in the province’s favour. 

Dichmont passed away before the adjudicator released his report, but her estate appealed the decision. A January hearing on the Dichmont estate’s latest appeal was pushed back to March following the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms’ application for intervener status.

The group cited the estate’s notice of appeal, which argues the outcome of the Dichmont appeal raises matters of “broad public and societal concern.”

It argues the human rights adjudicator unfairly placed charter obligations on Dichmont, and that her employer failed to accommodate her individual religious views by making her act as a representative of government first.

It also argues the duty of state neutrality was not applied to her.

Justice Rosalie McGrath of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador said she agreed to grant the Justice Centre intervener status because it has experience acting as an intervener and can make a “useful contribution.”

“The Justice Centre has identified a different perspective it can bring by focusing on the evolution of case law, particularly from the Supreme Court of Canada, on the issue of how the Charter applies to public servants,” McGrath wrote in a Feb. 1 ruling.

McGrath said “the issue of mootness as well as the standing of the estate remain live issues to be argued at the hearing of the matter.” That hearing is scheduled for March 4-5.

A lawyer with the province’s Human Rights Commission said in an interview that the organization’s stance, laid out by adjudicator Robby Ash in his 2017 decision, has not changed.

Ash dismissed Dichmont’s complaint, saying her request for a system that would assign same-sex couples to a non-objecting marriage commissioner would contradict the province’s duty of neutrality in delivering public services.

“To borrow a phrase from the Ontario Court of Appeal …. requiring minorities to reveal their differences for the purposes of accommodating those who oppose what makes them different only serves as a ‘subtle and constant reminder’ of unacceptance and intolerance. A ‘single point entry’ system would do just that,” Ash wrote.

“Each marriage commissioner, vested with the authority of the state, is required to provide the service on behalf of government to all those eligible under law to receive the service.”

A spokesperson for EGALE Canada said the organization is watching the case and considering next steps, including the possibility of legal action.

Gerry Rogers, then a film-maker and activist and now the outgoing leader of the province’s NDP, wrote to the premier in 2005, requesting marriage commissioners declare their willingness to perform same-sex marriages.

Rogers and several others became marriage commissioners in response to the objectors’ resignations.

Rogers, a former acquaintance of Dichmont, said she was bewildered and disappointed by her decision to pursue the case, and by continued efforts from outside groups to push back against a human rights matter that has already been decided upon by Canada’s highest court.

“They’re absolute dinosaurs and they should simply take their case and go home,” said Rogers, who was the province’s first openly gay party leader. “It’s time to move on. This has already been settled in the courts.” 

Hickey said instances like this show how rights awarded to minority groups are not simply given, but are the result of ongoing, hard-won fights for change.

“I try not to let my fear paralyze me. But our rights are never given to us. We have to fight for them.”

The issue of LGBTQ rights hasn’t completely left the public square in Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly in rural areas.

Last spring, the province and country rallied in support of Springdale, N.L., teenagers after town councillors voted down the Gender-Sexuality Alliance’s bid for a rainbow crosswalk, igniting fierce debate.

“Homophobia and transphobia never went away,” Hickey said.

“In my experience, laws change faster than attitudes.”

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Stand Together Against Bullying – Pink Shirt Day 2021

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021 is the 14th annual Pink Shirt Day, a globally recognized movement to end bullying in all its forms and encourage the growth of a global community built on acceptance and support regardless of sex, age, background, gender identity, sexual orientation or cultural differences. 

Pink Shirt Day originated in 2007 in the eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia, in a local story that captured national – and eventually international – attention, when a new 9th grade student walked in on the first day of school wearing a pink polo shirt. 

Travis Price and David Shepherd are the two young men responsible for unintentionally launching the global pink shirt movement. According to Price and Shepherd, a group of students were physically and verbally bullying the young man for wearing pink to school. As senior students, Price and Shepherd saw the situation as an opportunity to set an example and take a stand against bullying in their school.
That night the two went and purchased 75 pink tank tops and released a call on social media (MSN messenger at the time) encouraging their fellow students to show up at school the next day wearing pink. According to Price, in a school of roughly 1000 students, “700 to 850 kids showed up wearing pink. It was incredible.” 

 

Since 2007, the movement has gained exponential traction and is now recognized in communities all around the world as individuals come together in an international display of solidarity against the devastating impacts of bullying.
The global movement to end bullying has led to the creation of countless local, national and internationally available resources, but there is still a long way to go.

Bullying Canada identifies 4 distinct types of bullying: verbal, physical, social and cyber. Short term and long term effects of bullying vary based on each situation, and can lead to damaging and dangerous outcomes for victims, friends, bystanders and countless others. While commonly associated with children and young adults in school, bullying impacts individuals of all ages and backgrounds in many areas of life, including the workplace.
Statistics released by Safe Canada revealed that 47% of Canadian parents have at least one child that has experienced bullying, while approximately 33% of the population experienced bullying as a child, and 33% of teenagers reported being bullied recently. Furthermore, around 40% of Canadians reportedly experience bullying in the workplace on a weekly basis.

If you, or someone you know is struggling with bullying, reaching out is the first step. You are not alone, and help is available. Extensive networks of resources exist in Alberta and across Canada to provide support, aid and solutions for those experiencing bullying. 

For support from Bullying Canada, call (877) 352-4497, or email [email protected]

The Alberta 24-hour Bullying Helpline can be reached at 1-888-456-2323, or the online Bullying Helpline Chat can be accessed here.

For more resources on how to identify a bullying situation, get help, or help someone in need, visit https://www.alberta.ca/bullying-how-to-help-others.aspx.

For more stories, visit Todayville Calgary.

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Lifestyle

Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

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The view from atop Gros Morne is spectacular.

The talk of salt cod and moose started before we’d even made landfall on The Rock. On the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland, a wizened fellow regaled us with stories of jigging for fish with his cousin and bagging a bull moose with his wife. It was late September.

He was pleased as punch that the freezer was stocked with sufficient cod and moose meat to see the family through a harsh Newfoundland winter. As

Florence and I drove off the ferry the man motioned us with a gnarly finger. I rolled down the window.

“Safe travels me-son. And don’t drive at night on The Rock,” he warned, “sometimes the moose are so thick you have to get out of the car and push them off the road.”

We were on Newfoundland’s southwest tip. The island is bigger than I had expected. The first road sign we saw proclaimed, ‘St John’s 890km’. But before heading to the distant capital on the Avalon Peninsula we wanted to explore the west of Newfoundland, Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse Aux Meadows, where Leif Erickson established North America’s first European settlement 1000 years ago—500 years before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola in the sunny Caribbean.

The drive north from Port Aux Basques was slow going. Along the highway, workers were installing the new transmission line from Muskrat Falls in neighbouring Labrador on the mainland. This project is an expensive undertaking—and considered by some Newfoundlanders just another dam boondoggle. Many Islanders also still bristle at the mention of Churchill Falls, a hydroelectric legacy from the era of Joey Smallwood, Canada’s last Father of Confederation.

Fall colours were near peak as we drove past lovely Corner Brook and leafy Marble Mountain. We enjoyed a late-season round of golf at Humber Valley Resort, ranked Canada’s 6th best public golf course. The rolling fairways were flanked by yellow, gold and red-hued deciduous trees and stoic evergreens. There were no moose on course, but a solitary black fox did greedily eye my ball on the green at the signature par 4 10th.  A little further down the TransCanada we made a sharp left at Deer Lake onto Hwy 430, bound for Gros Morne and the rugged west coast.

 

Life is hard on The Rock.

Gros Morne National Park is remarkably diverse. The pebbled shoreline of Rocky Harbour gives way to a series of finger lakes, forming magnificent inland fjords. South, across Bonne Bay, lie the Tablelands where Earth’s mantle has squeezed to the surface and only the odd pitcher plant and a few other hardy species can survive the acidic, infertile ancient soil. And lording over all is Gros Morne, Newfoundland’s second highest mountain, which we intended to climb.

The night before our ascent we stopped at Park Headquarters to pick up a trail map.

“Be careful me-loves,” warned the ranger, “specially if you see a tick fag.”

“We most certainly will,” I assured her, glancing over my shoulder. In the morning, low dense clouds roiled out over the sea but the sky above Gros Morne was crystal clear. No tick fag up there.

The hard part about summiting Gros Morne Mountain isn’t the summit itself. The top is flat as a pancake, a broad sparse plain where caribou graze on lichen—and rock ptarmigan nest. The difficult portion of the ascent is ‘the Gully’ a breathless hour of bouldering through frost-shattered rock that precedes the Arctic tundra of the plateau. ‘Big Lone Mountain’ tops out at 806m (2600 ft) and since the hike starts pretty much at sea level, the elevation gain is just that. As we exited the Gully, our calm fall day rapidly deteriorated into wintery conditions atop the windswept barren.

A rock ptarmigan strolls the summit.

We snapped a quick pic at the signpost marking the high point before scurrying toward the descent on the far side of the mesa. There we met two young women who had stopped for a terrifying selfie on the precipice overlooking Ten Mile Pond. I could barely stand upright as we screamed at each other over the wind. The Parks Canada brochure warns trekkers to be prepared for an arduous climb and that “hikers have fallen from the ledge… and died.” Watching the gals pose near the cliff in this gale, I wondered, “Fallen? More likely blown.”

That night, at the Ocean View Hotel in Rocky Harbour, we enjoyed our first Newfoundland kitchen party, where we were screeched in and kissed the cod, courtesy of local celebrity Dave Shears. I joined our host on stage for a couple of songs.

“Stick around and strum a few after the others have left,” he offered, “and we’ll have a cuffer ‘bout dis and dat.”

So, long after the cod had been smooched, the screech ‘inned’ and the bar doors barred, we were still singing, quaffing—and trading yarns with our convivial hosts.

Western Brook Pond is a glacier-carved, masterpiece of nature. A cruise on this fresh-water fjord is mandatory for any visit to Gros Morne. But check the forecast. Chances are that you’ll walk 40 minutes from the parking area to the pier only to find the boat ride has been cancelled due to foul weather.

But even if the outing is kiboshed, the 2km hike through tuckamore forest, with long stretches of boardwalk over peaty bogs and around fragile wetlands, is worth the amble. Luckily we had a good day for it. The boat meandered slowly to the far end of the long, narrow lake, squeezing between sheer, 750m high cliffs. Everywhere waterfalls cascaded to the surface from the dizzying heights. Since Newfoundland is a land of perpetual impromptu music, the boat’s crew couldn’t refrain from scratching their musical itch during the two-hour tour.

When not attending to his maritime duties, the first mate played the spoons. Passengers clapped accompaniment while Celtic jigs blared over the ship’s loudspeakers.

Sheer cliffs define the fresh-water fjord.

The next evening the live entertainment continued at the Gros Morne Music Festival in Cow Head with fiddling, percussion and a sad, a capella ballad recounting the hard life of early Newfoundlanders. After midnight, walking back to our campground, the wind began to freshen. At 3am we were shaken awake by a strong sou’ wester – and slept only in fits and starts for the rest of the night.

Our plan was to hit the road early for the 350km drive to l’Anse aux Meadows on the extreme tip of the Northern Peninsula. But by morning the gusts were blowing in at 100kph – a sad portent for motor home travel. We decided to hunker down and wait out the tempest. But one by one our resolute fellow campers pulled up stakes. Soon we were the sole remainders. Suffering from FOMO, I threw caution to the gale-force wind, pulled out onto the narrow, winding highway and, as they oddly say in Newfoundland, steered north ‘down the coast.’

Next time: L’Anse aux Meadows and more tales from The Rock.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Kimberley, BC!

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