Vriend V. ALBERTA, 25 Years Later

The King’s University and the anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court case.

Chemistry professor Peter Mahaffy was there in 1991 when The King’s College (now The King’s University) fired lab instructor Delwin Vriend because his homosexuality was in conflict with the school’s newly adopted position statement on religious practices. Mahaffy appealed to the King’s board of governors at the time to reverse its decision and almost quit himself, in protest. Vriend went on to file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission on the grounds that his employer discriminated against him, but was told that Alberta legislation did not include protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The case continued all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Seven years later it ruled that provincial governments could not exclude lesbian and gay individuals from human rights legislation and that exclusion of protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. April 2, 2023, marked the 25th anniversary of that watershed moment.

Mahaffy didn’t quit. He decided to stay and help King’s change. He is still there today.
“Canadian society has changed a great deal over the past 25 years,” he reflects, “and so has The King’s University . . . Faculty and staff and students seek to hold each other accountable to consciously cultivate a safe, inclusive environment of mutual respect . . . While we fail at times, our current statement and, much more importantly, our practices of inclusion and acceptance, reflect the capacity to learn with humility from our failure to include and accept a quarter century ago.”

The current statement Mahaffy refers to is the Statement on Inclusion that King’s officially released in 2018 and which, in part, says, “We are committed to equity of access and opportunity for all our students, faculty and staff in keeping with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Human Rights Act.” There was minimal loss of donors over this, confirmed King’s President Melanie Humphreys, but there were also new donors who aligned themselves with the inclusion statement. King’s is the only Canadian Christian university with a Statement on Inclusion. Building on this, King’s Equity Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce released a report in 2021 which identified systemic barriers to inclusion, and recommendations and strategies for action. For example, one way to increase LGBTQ+ students’ sense of inclusion and safety is to use preferred and correct pronouns when addressing them in class and everyday interactions. Another example of how King’s has changed is illustrated by events during Pride Week in early March.

Centred vs bounded

Pride Week began with an address by Humphreys that included a PowerPoint presentation about the history of the Vriend v. Alberta case and what work King’s has done, and continues to do, since that time. “The 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision is an opportunity to take stock,” said Humphreys after the event. “In many ways we have to revisit this history again and again because many people and students new to King’s don’t know it.” Among those in attendance were two Alberta MLA’s (Member of the Legislative Assembly) – Marlin Schmidt and Janis Irwin. “It was an honour to join King’s for the kickoff of their Pride Week with my colleague Marlin Schmidt,” said Irwin. “We’re proud to see their explicit statement of inclusion for members of the LGBTQ+ community, and we’re thankful for their leadership in the Christian community on this issue. And, as we near the 25th anniversary of the Vriend case, we’re reminded of the importance of standing up for human rights.”

“King’s is missional at our core,” explained Humphreys to this reporter. “Faculty and staff share a core commitment to the risen Christ, through whom God is reconciling the world. We serve all students by supporting students’ exploration of how their own commitments are embodied in their theories and practices of life. It is an approach that is more centred than it is bounded.” Humphreys then provided an explanation of centred vs bounded set thinking. Rather than drawing a border or boundary to determine who belongs and who doesn’t, a centred set is defined by its core values and people are not seen as in or out, but as closer or further away from the centre. In that sense, everyone is in and no one is out (The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church by Frost and Hirsch).

Nicole and Peter were two of the “books” at the Living Library event.
Two books from a large display in the
library during Pride Week.

Sharing personal stories

Living Library was another event during Pride Week. “I’ve been hoping to host one for years,” said King’s librarian Bonita Bjornson. Living Library’s intent is to create a safe space for people to share their stories with a group of listeners to help increase understanding. Six “books” from the LGBTQ+ King’s community shared their stories. The event was well attended.

Nicole and Peter were two of the “books.” “I identify as bisexual and my pronouns are she/her,” said Nicole, who is in her second year at King’s. Peter, who identifies as transgender and whose pronouns are they/them, is a graduate of King’s. In a subsequent conversation both talked about their experience at King’s. “I was seen here [for who I am], so I could learn,” Peter said. “I was so excited I could be myself here,” said Nicole. Previously, in other places where she had studied, she had to keep part of herself hidden. “One thing that I personally would want mentioned in this article,” Nicole offered “is that although King’s has come a long way and I am so grateful for King’s supporting Pride Week, there is still more that needs to be done.”

Bjornson said Living Library was a highlight of her career. “Being able to host this event with such great results . . . happy, smiling, seen and accepted people . . . was incredible,” she exclaimed afterward.

This article was originally published in our May 2023 issue under the title “Taking Stock.” If you like that title better, you might also appreciate a print subscription!


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