This was never meant to become a battle, and Evan Wiens didn't expect to find himself in the thick of it. Instead, it all began as routine: Manitoba's government, spurred by the high-profile suicide of B.C. teen Amanda Todd, tabled a bill that would beef up its bullying laws.
Worded as a largely boilerplate protection of "a safe and inclusive learning environment," Bill 18 drew little attention at first. But it has become a flashpoint. Opponents say the bill threatens religious freedom by broadly defining bullying and protecting gay-straight alliances (GSAs) but not mentioning faith groups.
The backlash is most acute in Steinbach, a small city of about 13,500 people southeast of Winnipeg. It's there that the local MP – cabinet minister Vic Toews – has joined the local MLA and religious leaders in speaking out against Bill 18.
And it's Evan's home.
The 16-year-old is trying to start a GSA at the public Steinbach Regional Secondary School, where he's the only student who has come out as gay. He's become the face of Bill 18 in the city where it's most strongly opposed. And it's not easy.
During Evan's interviews, with cameras rolling, other students shout slurs at him. He shrugs it off as best he can, saying he's fighting for those who feel they can't speak out.
"They should not have to feel ashamed, and they should not have to feel like they have to hide themselves," said the 16-year-old, who was shy, at first, about his fight. "But then I thought about it, and I thought if a church is allowed to vocally oppose a bill, what's so bad about me standing up for my rights?"
He has many opponents. In a sermon last month, Steinbach pastor Ray Duerksen of the prominent Southland Church called Bill 18 "the biggest challenge the Canadian church has ever faced." He opposes bullying of any child, but argues the bill protects gay kids more than religious ones.
"It's going to be the beginning of an incremental attempt to destroy the Christian church. That's what's taking place. That's the agenda behind the scene," he said in the sermon, likening same-sex intercourse to adultery, bestiality and pedophilia. A local Christian high school held an information and prayer session on Bill 18 later that night.
Mr. Toews, a lawyer, said in a recent letter to constituents he believes Bill 18 represents an "unconstitutional infringement upon the freedom of religion." Through staff, he declined an interview.
Specifically, critics say the bill defines bullying very loosely and offers no clear punishments in the guidelines. "The issue we have here is how do we get a bill that protects all kids?" said Kelvin Goertzen, the local Progressive Conservative MLA. Bill 18 has "gotten more attention than any bill I can remember," he said.
The bill allows schools to respond to bullying that takes place after-hours, including text messages and social media, while GSAs – clubs for all kids who support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered rights – would be specifically permitted.
"The sad reality is homophobic discrimination is still an accepted form of discrimination in some circles. And Bill 18 is the best way to support some of our students," Education Minister Nancy Allan said, adding: "This is about safe schools, young people reaching their potential." She spoke to Evan earlier this month, congratulating him. "He is just remarkable," she said.
Manitoba's education system is the latest in Canada to find itself weighing religious and gay rights. GSAs saw the Toronto Catholic District School Board square off with the Ontario government. A Catholic high school in Whitehorse was under fire this month for saying homosexuality is immoral. Alberta passed a law four years ago allowing parents to pull children from any class in which sexual orientation would be discussed.
Randy Dueck, the superintendent overseeing Evan's school, said current policy already allows for GSAs, and Bill 18 wouldn't change that. But Evan said current rules ban him from putting up any posters as church groups do."They already have all the freedoms. I'm just trying to put up a poster," he said.
He laughs when asked about the big names opposing him, saying it's empowering. "People never expect a youth to challenge the government, or challenge what your local MLA's stance is on something," he said. He has a simple message for bullied teens.
"I've gone through a lot of hard times, but I've grown as a person. I want them to know that it's not a bad thing to be yourself, and you don't have to be ashamed to walk down the hallway and say, 'Hey, this is who I am.' "