Damage control is what a St. Albert 2SLGBTQ+ expert and advocate called premier Danielle Smith's walk back on comments she made over discrimination against the unvaccinated.
“She's got her leadership off on the wrong foot and is trying to correct that. So only time will tell whether those words are followed up by meaningful actions,” said Dr. Kristopher Wells, an associate professor at Macewan University and Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual & Gender Minority Youth.
On Oct. 12 Smith released a written statement saying she did not intend to trivialize the discrimination of minorities and that she will be reaching out to meet with minority community stakeholders to better understand the concerns of their communities.
During her first media availability as premier of Alberta on Oct. 11, Smith said those who made a choice not to vaccinate were the most discriminated group in her lifetime.
“I don't think I've ever experienced a situation in my lifetime, where a person was fired from their job, or not allowed to watch their kids play hockey, or are not allowed to go visit a loved one in long-term care or hospital are not allowed to go get on a plane to go across the country to see family, or even travel across the border. They have been the most discriminated against group that I've ever witnessed in my lifetime,” she said.
The comments were made after a reporter questioned Smith — who would like to include vaccine choice as a protection under the Human Rights Act — how she see’s vaccine choice as on par with race, gender, and sexuality, which are protected because they are not choices.
After what Wells calls a “swift and visceral response” to Smith’s comments about unvaccinated people, the premier released a statement.
“I want to be clear that I did not intend to trivialize in any way the discrimination faced by minority communities and other persecuted groups both here in Canada and around the world,” she said.
Wells said he thinks her initial comments about the unvaccinated being the most discriminated against were uninformed and disingenuous.
“It's a false comparison to make … People who are racialized or Jewish or from the 2SLGBTQ+ community, don't make a choice,” he said.
Wells said it is a bit ironic to hear these comments come from the premier as October is LGBTQ history month.
Historically speaking, Alberta was the last province or territory in Canada to provide basic human rights protections on the grounds of sexual orientation, said Wells.
It wasn’t until April 1998 with the Vriend v. Alberta decision, a “milestone landmark, legal case from the Supreme Court of Canada which read sexual orientation into Alberta's Human Rights Act,” said Wells, that gay, lesbian, bisexual people were legally protected from being fired from their jobs, denied housing, health care, or service at a restaurant.
“We've seen in this province that for the 2SLGBTQ+ community, they've had to fight for every right that has been given to them and had to in many cases, take the government to court,” he said.
And the battle continues for those in the 2SLGBTQ+ community. It wasn’t until Dec. 2021 that the federal government passed a bill that banned the use of conversion therapy.
When it comes to the experiences of people who are a gender or sexual minority today, Wells said it sometimes feels like it’s “two steps forward and one step back. We've made gains in terms of legislative equality, protecting human rights and policies and in some areas, but the daily reality is still one often fraught with discrimination and prejudice.”
Wells said young 2SLGBTQ+ people are still experiencing bullying and discrimination in their schools.
“We still don't have any provincial K to 12 curriculum that explicitly and meaningfully addresses the realities of today's 2SLGBTQ+ youth.
“That's worrisome because if we want to create a more inclusive and welcoming province that needs to start with education,” he said.
Wells said he knows many same-sex couples who are not comfortable holding their partner’s hand in public spaces for fear of violence and discrimination.
Hate crimes, according to LawCentral Alberta, are criminal acts against a person or property motivated by hate or bias against a victim’s race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability.
According to data from Statistics Canada, hate crimes have been on the rise in Alberta since 2017.
Data from Statistics Canada showed in Edmonton in 2017, there were 66 reported hate crime incidents, 70 in 2018, 73 in 2019, 79 in 2020, and there were 116 hate crime incidents in 2021.
The data doesn’t break down who is the target of these hate crimes, but these may be the minority groups who felt a sting after Smith’s words.
Wells said minority communities want to see action from the premier and not just words or meetings. He would like to see a 2SLGBTQ+ action plan “that charts out what needs to happen across the province and tasks the various ministries with the responsibility and resources to enact those kinds of changes.”
Wells thinks it’s important to be able to have dialogue and to educate the government on the daily realities minorities face.
“They can make informed policy decisions, but at the end of the day, words are the easy part. It's the actions that are hard.”