Tag Archives: CLAGPAG

Rocky Mountain Singers—Week 2

The Calgary Gay History Project recently presented the history of Calgary’s first LGBTQ2 chorus, the Rocky Mountain Singers (RMS). This is the second blog post exploring the history we uncovered as part of this commissioned research project (thanks to One Voice Chorus).

1990 proved to be a pivotal year for Calgary’s LGBT community. AIDS was in the ascendant, and the community was beginning to find its political voice—confronting the casual homophobia that was pervasive in the city. RMS had been practicing for less than a year but had scheduled their first big concert on June 22nd as part of Calgary’s growing Pride Week festivities.

RMS at the Pride Rally. Source: CBC Calgary

A few days before the concert, RMS participated in a Pride Rally in Central Memorial Park. The Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) organized the rally to agitate for LGBT human rights. In fact, this rally on Monday, June 18th, 1990, is considered Calgary Pride’s origin event. CLAGPAG handed out free lone ranger masks at the Old Y, and directed participants to gather at the Boer War Memorial for speeches and songs.

For some, the masks were a media stunt, but others worried about having their LGBT identity revealed. This concern was a reality RMS had to negotiate in the choir’s early years. Members had differing levels of comfort in being out, which affected their ability to perform in public or even have their name listed in the program.

The First RMS Concert Poster: made on a dot matrix printer by chorister Patrick O’Brien!

However, the concert went bravely ahead. Luke Shwart remembers: “Pride 1990 felt like our very first concert. It was set up cabaret-style and sold out. It went very well, but backstage the level of anticipation was through the roof! People were terrified about walking out there and performing—there was a great sense of exhilaration, accomplishment and relief afterward.”

The concert was a hit. Karen Whyte in Modern Pink Magazine wrote, “a special highlight of [Pride] week was the outstanding performance by Rocky Mountain Singers. Over 200 people attended the concert, and everyone loved it!”

Later that summer, 15 RMS choristers flew to Vancouver for the Gay Games. They participated in the Festival Chorus: a choir for anyone who wanted to sing and was coming to the Games. The Gay Choral movement had been spreading across North America, and hundreds came to sing.

The Festival Chorus was directed by choral conductor Carol White from Denver, Colorado. The Calgarians in attendance found the experience electrifying—the sheer volume of that many voices was profound.

Patrick O’Brien remembers: “We had to learn about 14 songs. One of the songs was called Living With AIDS. It had a hymn-like quality. Carol directed it professionally—cutting it into bits for us to practice. At one point, she paused and said, ‘If there is anybody who is comfortable standing up who is currently living with AIDS—can we as a group collectively acknowledge your strength?’ RMS member Karl Siegfried stood up, and then and men started standing up everywhere in their sections. It was an amazing, powerful moment. I think the women from our chorus looked around and thought: what do you know….”

Part of the Vancouver Festival Chorus in Rehearsal
Carol White conducting the Festival Chorus at the Gay Games Closing Ceremonies. Source: communitystories.ca

The Festival Chorus rehearsed every morning for a week. They performed at the Gay Games opening ceremonies on August 4th, marched in the Pride Parade on August 6th, gave an evening concert on August 10th and delivered a final performance at the closing ceremonies on August 11th.

The Gay Games ended with Carnaval! A fantasy parade. Fantastical creatures and people in extravagant costumes led the audience, choristers and athletes, out of the stadium and towards the Plaza of Nations for one last party together. The exhilarated Rocky Mountain Singers had found joy in a larger community and new energy and purpose for their fledgling Calgary chorus.

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Vriend vs. Alberta

In 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gave all Canadians equal rights “regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” However, the Charter was initially silent on sexual orientation.  It was not until November 1989 when the Federal Court of Canada first accepted sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Charter. It ruled that Timothy Veysey, a gay prison inmate in Ontario had the right to conjugal visits with his same-sex partner.

Up until then, Canadian Courts had mostly manifested a double-standard in discrimination cases. Discrimination based on race or religion, for example, was clearly defined and remedied. Homosexuality, on the other hand, was up for debate whether it could be a protected ground at all. Judges either deferred to society’s objection to homosexuality, based on diffuse religious grounds: “rebutting a millennium of moral teaching ” or punted it back to legislators to decide.

In December 1987, Delwin Vriend began working for King’s College: A Christian Liberal Arts College in Edmonton. Throughout his employment, he was given positive evaluations, salary increases and promotions for his work performance. On February 20th, 1990 in conversation with the President of the College, Delwin was asked about his sexual orientation. He disclosed he was gay. Causing much anguish and hand-wringing, the College developed a position statement on homosexuality which was adopted by its Board of Governors on January 11th, 1991. Shortly after that, the College asked Vriend to voluntarily resign – he would be paid 3 months severance. He declined and was fired.

{Read the King’s College Memo of Jan 14, 1991, communicating its position statement on homosexuality: here. Source Library and Archives Canada}

Within weeks, Gay and Lesbian Awareness (GALA), an Edmonton-based civil rights organization, began organizing actions to “respond to this dreadful and unacceptable firing.” With Delwin’s support, they set up a “Delwin Vriend Defense Fund” to assist with legal costs, and began soliciting donations from the community.

In June of that year, Vriend and GALA tried to file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission on the grounds that his employer discriminated against him due to his sexual orientation. The Commission gave Vriend a pass explaining he could not make a claim because the Individual Rights Protection Act (IRPA) did not include sexual orientation as a protected ground.

In early 1994, GALA wrote to their sister organization, the Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) seeking moral and financial support to sue the Government of Alberta. They need $6,000 more dollars to take the case to the Court of Queen’s Bench.

Financial support rolled in and on April 13th, 1994, Judge Anne Russell decisively ruled that Alberta’s human rights law was inconsistent with the Charter of Rights. In her decision, she wrote: “Regardless of whether there was any intent to discriminate, the effect of the decision to deny homosexuals recognition under the legislation is to reinforce negative stereotyping and prejudice thereby perpetuating and implicitly condoning its occurrence.” The Alberta Human Rights Commission would now have to investigate discrimination cases based on sexual orientation.

On May 5th, the Government of Alberta appealed Russell’s decision and asked the courts to freeze the Human Rights Commission’s new mandate.

The Alberta Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 in favour of the Government, against Vriend, on February 23, 1996. Justice John McClung made national headlines with the sensational phrasing he used in his decision, including the number of times he used the word “morality.” He was bold enough to invoke both sodomy and a link to serial killers Dahmer, Bernardo, and Olsen. He wrote: “I am unable to conclude that it was a forbidden, let alone a reversible legislative response, for the province of Alberta to step back from the validation of homosexual relations, including sodomy, as a protected and fundamental right, thereby, ‘rebutting a millennium of moral teaching.'”

This mobilized Alberta’s gay community into action like no other court case had before. Fundraising efforts redoubled, and there were cheers heard when on March 6, 1996, Vriend decided to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada which agreed to hear the case. Garden parties, garage sales, collection plates at gay bars – there were solicitations for the Delwin Vriend Defense Fund seemingly everywhere.

On November 4th, 1997, the Supreme Court hearings began. The Court heard from 17 interveners including provincial governments, religious organizations and civil liberties groups. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein pandering to his socially conservative base threatened to invoke the notwithstanding clause (section 33 of the Charter) in order to override any defeat the Court might deliver. The entire country appeared to be hooked on the Court Case and vitriol filled newspapers and airwaves.

Then on the morning of April 2, 1998, the Supreme Court was about to deliver its verdict. Vriend recalled: “I remember standing outside the door of the lawyer’s office in Edmonton, just after nine o’clock in the morning. I just couldn’t bring myself to step inside. Then I heard the cheers from inside the office, and I just started crying.”

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Victorious Vriend at a News Scrum on April 2nd, 1998: Source CBC News Edmonton

The Supreme Court minced Appeal Justice McClung’s previous legal arguments and ruled unanimously in favour of Vriend. They wrote that the exclusion of homosexuals from Alberta’s Individual Rights Protection Act was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

They further wrote: “the exclusion from the IRPA’s protection sends a message to all Albertans that it is permissible, and perhaps even acceptable, to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. Perhaps most important is the psychological harm which may ensue from this state of affairs. In excluding sexual orientation from the IRPA’s protection, the government has, in effect, stated that “all persons are equal in dignity and rights” except gay men and lesbians. Such a message, even if it is only implicit, must offend” Section 15 of the Charter.

At a press conference later that day Vriend said: “Shame on you, Ralph Klein, shame on you (Treasurer) Stockwell Day. You had until 7:45 this morning to do the right thing, and you demonstrated to the very end that you are not a government of the people. You are a government against the people. Haha, I win!” to the applause of supporters.

Vriend kiss

Delwin Vriend, right, gets a congratulatory kiss from partner Andrew Gagnon at a post-verdict rally at the Edmonton Legislature. [Photo Credit: The Canadian Press/Kevin Frayer]

Federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan said she was pleased with the judgment: “I believe profoundly that all Canadians, including Albertans, do not see it as appropriate to discriminate on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation.” The ruling immediately had a similar effect on Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories, the only two other jurisdictions that had not included sexual orientation in their human rights laws by then.

Many Calgarians were jubilant that night, filling gay bars to capacity. Local television journalists were doing live newsfeeds from the bars too, fervently trying to get a soundbite from joyous revellers.

Vriend, emotionally drained from the long unfolding court cases, would shortly thereafter move to Paris, France. He explained that he had had a lifetime’s fill of media attention, demonstrations, protests and hate mail.

The Vriend decision proved to be of great importance to future legal battles in Canada. It was specifically used to argue provincial cases against bans on same-sex marriage throughout Canada. Also, the decision shaped legal precedent concerning provincial and federal government relationships.

During the 10th Anniversary celebrations at Edmonton City Hall, the landmark decision was described as “Alberta’s Stonewall,” referencing the riots that sparked the gay liberation movement in New York in 1969.

Former Edmonton City Councillor, Michael Phair, who had been involved with the Delwin Vriend Defense Fund from the very beginning recalled: “I remember the immediate rally and goodwill with the verdict. People were very celebratory, but over the next few days, things began to darken substantially with the backlash. I and many others were caught in the maelstrom that occurred for about a week after the decision. Because I was an out public figure, there had been some death threats, and extra security had to be called in. It was not until Klein finally accepted the decision and said that he wouldn’t use the notwithstanding clause that things settled down.”

In 2013, Delwin Vriend travelled to Calgary and was honoured with the inaugural Chinook Fund Hero Award which is given annually by the Calgary Chinook Fund in thanks and recognition for outstanding contributions to the LGBTQ community and our history.

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The Of Colour Collective

Here is our latest history segment from this week’s broadcast of Calgary Rainbow Radio on CJSW:

Identity politics are very present in the public realm currently. The high profile Black Lives Matter protest at the 2016 Toronto Pride Festival has given the LGBTQ2 community pause to consider issues of privilege and racism within our own relationships and organizations.

Yet this is not the first time in Calgary that issues of racism within the gay community have been tackled. The Calgary Gay History Project recently interviewed a number of people who were involved with the groundbreaking Of Colour Collective, which existed in the 90s, and the work that they did addressing racism, sexism and homophobia and the intersections between them.

The origins of the group began in the feminist community. In the early 90s, a small group of women of colour connected to the Calgary Status of Women Action Committee (CSWAC) formed a collective they called WOCC – or the Women of Colour Collective. WOCC members wanted to challenge both hetero-normative assumptions in the women of colour community as well as white privilege in the local feminist community, which they felt was endemic in Calgary.

WOCC ended up having a great impact on CSWAC, and on its most high-profile project, the Herland Film Festival; eventually WOCC was invited to become a co-presenter of the festival. WOCC members who identified as queer increasingly became preoccupied with a perceived ethnic divide in the local queer community. WOCC co-founder Susanda Yee in February 1992 met some queer men of color who spoke of going through similar struggles, and they decided to form a new group.

There was some debate about whether it would be a social or an activist group and it tried to be both. When they were formulating a name for themselves different options were bandied about. Queers of Colour worked for some. Another cheekily suggested Off Colour.  But then Of Colour was proposed as a way to centralize and focus on that aspect of difference that united the group. When the noun was dropped (women, men, queers, etc.), the focus became on the adjective that united participants and defined their experience.

Through Gaylines, at the Old Y, they began meeting on the first Sunday of the month. In addition, Of Colour began socializing together a lot – going to gay bars as a group, and meeting up at art-house cinemas like the Plaza Theatre in Kensington for movies and post-film coffee discussions.

A formative moment for the collective occurred in the fall of 1992 when they travelled to Vancouver for a national human rights Conference called Outrights whose aim was to form a pan-Canadian queer organization. It was there that they met similar groups such as Khush: South Asian Gay Men [and Women] of Toronto. The Calgarians were both inspired and politicized by the experience and left with the sense that they were not alone. Queers of colour across Canada were striving for self-expression, to be more fully seen and to move beyond stereotypes.

Upon their return to Calgary, Of Colour divided into two overlapping groups – the working collective devoted to political action and the general collective who worked on social events.

In the Spring of 1993, the Collective was invited to speak at the Calgary Networking Club, an organization for gay and lesbian professionals. After their presentation, the audience started asking pointed and hostile questions such as: “Don’t you think YOU’RE being racist?” Or: “Why are you so angry at white people?” One person even told the speakers that: “immigrants need to go, because we were here first.” The Of Colour Collective representatives were shocked but the group doubled down on their commitment to educating and representing.

The larger queer community though was not universally hostile. Around the same time, the Calgary Lesbian And Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) invited Of Colour to be part of their diversity education campaign for service providers in Calgary. Of Colour accepted the invitation and the project, which created posters for agencies to display in their offices and lobbies, was deemed a success.

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On June 20, 1993, Susanda Yee and Paul Fernandez spoke at the Pride Rally at City Hall representing the Of Colour Collective.  They said that gay media such as Speak Sebastian (on CJSW) and CLUE! Magazine and the gay community at large ignore the issue of racism within the queer community.

That September, Clue Magazine did a cover story on diversity, which includes a guest editorial by Of Colour Collective member Kevin D’Souza. Controversy erupted over the feature article when Paul Fernandez strenuously objected to his published interview in a strongly worded letter to the editor and a Clue! Magazine investigation of the interview tapes confirmed that there were indeed misquotes and quotes taken out of context. Clue Magazine issued an apology.

Until 1995, the conflicts and controversies were largely contained within the queer community but in June of that year, the Of Colour Collective’s work blew up in a way that attracted national attention. Some members of the Of Colour Collective had experience producing film festivals; they thought to organize a Queer Film Fest titled: The Fire I’ve Become. The Collective booked the Glenbow Museum as their screening venue and there were no issues until their program came out. Some of the films being shown had racy titles and perceived X-rated content, which quickly attracted the ire of social conservatives.

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Pastor Ron Goodhew of the Jubilee Christian Centre contacted MPs, MLAs, and leaders of over 200 local churches to have their members protest the festival. He explained: “I don’t think the majority of people in Calgary would approve of their tax money paying to show restricted movies in a government-funded building.”

Ruksanna Makris, a spokesperson for the festival said in the Calgary Sun: “We contacted the police and nothing we are doing is against the Criminal Code.”

Yet many politicians of the day threw their disgusted 2 cents in: for example, Calgary Southeast Reform MP, Jan Brown, said she was appalled that the festival was funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Glenbow Museum decidedly did not like the heat from the hundreds of calls protesting the venue rental and had reservations about letting the festival go forward, but after an intense meeting with the Of Colour Collective and their supporters, the Glenbow Executives allowed it.

Some members of the gay community were also hostile about the festival, worried about losing face and moving backward on human rights in Alberta. Michele Sharpe, Executive Director of Project Pride said in a Globe and Mail interview: “They have put the community back 20 years. They expect the entire gay community to support them and they are not going to get that. There are people, including myself, who are upset with some of the titles.”

Filmmaker Michelle Wong from the Of Colour Collective was given a crash course in media relations and was the official media spokesperson over the controversy. A couple of her main talking points were the fact that the festival crystallized gay issues and brought them to a larger public. She also countered that gays pay taxes in Canada and have every right to access public funding and public venues for their events.

The four-day festival turned out to be very popular. Its audience members had to cross through a picket of anti-festival demonstrators – but they filled the theatre every night.

In 1996, the festival presented its second iteration of the Fire I’ve Become at the Uptown Cinema.  Audience numbers disappointed the organizers and Michelle Wong said that the 1996 festival felt like a failure. That blow, combined with the fact that some key members of the Of Colour Collective had begun to leave Calgary, meant the group became less active. By 1998, the group was effectively dormant. They then formally wound their operations down handing over their accounts to the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Association (GLCSA), the organization known to us today as Calgary Outlink.

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