Kristopher Wells is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta.
'My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. It saddens me to say, but totalitarianism is alive and well in Alberta." These were the opening words in Calgary Bishop Fred Henry's pastoral response to Alberta Education Minister David Eggen's new LGBTQ educational guidelines, designed to support students, staff and families with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions in the province's K-12 schools.
More recently, Father Stefano Penna, the vice-president of Newman Theological College and a trusted adviser to Edmonton Catholic Schools, went a step further and compared advocates for LGBTQ inclusion to Nazis, and university gender studies programs to a modern-day eugenics movement.
For many, the dogmatic remarks of Bishop Henry, Father Penna and other religious leaders are not new and hardly surprising. After all, Alberta has variously been portrayed as Canada's Bible Belt and Texas of the North.
What all these dogmatic comments and stereotypes have in common are a view of Alberta as stuck in some kind of regressive 1950s time warp, where "men were men" (cowboys), "women were still women" (housewives), and gays quite simply couldn't even exist.
As a province, we are challenging these tired stereotypes. Alberta is young. Our average age is now 36, which makes us the youngest province in Canada. We are also an educated province. And, perhaps most important, we are a progressive province. The recent provincial election saw the most women elected of any government in Canadian history – a staggering 45 per cent of caucus, compared with the 21 per cent of women elected to Ottawa in the last federal election.
Attitudes in Alberta are also changing rapidly. The Citizen Society Research Lab at Lethbridge College has been polling Albertans on six key public policy issues since 2009. Their research indicates Albertans are increasingly pro-choice, support legalizing marijuana, are in favour of doctor-assisted death and strongly support same-sex marriage. Notably, support for same-sex marriage in all regions of Alberta has increased by more than 15 percentage points over the past seven years. The days when Premier Ralph Klein famously threatened to use the notwithstanding clause to exempt Alberta from having to legally recognize same-sex marriage are clearly relics of the past.
Progress Alberta, in a recently published report, describes progressive Albertans as the province's new "quiet majority," noting the elections of mayors Naheed Nenshi in Calgary and Don Iveson in Edmonton as prime examples of changing demographics and shifting attitudes.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising to see a newly elected NDP government looking forward rather than backward by taking the lead on important societal issues such as climate change, fossil fuels, poverty reduction and family violence.
What may be most surprising is how quickly Alberta has emerged as a national leader on LGBTQ human rights issues. Just recently, the NDP government introduced gender identity and gender expression as protected grounds against discrimination in the province's Human Rights Act. Before that, the government under a series of Progressive Conservative premiers (Alison Redford, Dave Hancock and Jim Prentice) restored funding for sex-reassignment surgery, updated the Marriage Act to be inclusive of same-sex couples, removed restrictions for transgender individuals to have their birth certificates changed and legislated support for gay-straight alliances in K-12 schools. The rainbow pride flag, for the first time, also waved proudly over the Alberta Legislature to stand in solidarity with LGBTQ athletes and individuals during the Sochi Olympics.
The reality is that stereotypes are dangerous things. They often lull us into a sense of certainty and complacency. They distort reality, perpetuate misconceptions and often keep us from seeing the truth before our eyes.
When it comes to LGBTQ youth, stereotypes are perhaps the most harmful.
When religious leaders use the power of the pulpit to perpetuate misinformation and spread fear, it is our children who suffer the most. When Bishop Henry calls LGBTQ inclusion in schools a "madness," which he describes as a form of "narrow-minded anti-Catholic ideology," it only serves to reinforce the message of a vengeful God who would cast LGBTQ youth out of their schools and homes.
Sadly, for many LGBTQ youth, this is far too often a disturbing reality. Contemporary research indicates that between 20 and 40 per cent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ. When your schools are not safe spaces, your homes are not welcoming and churches are not affirming, where do you go?
While LGBTQ human rights may still be a religious issue for an increasingly small minority of Albertans, they clearly are no longer a partisan issue. A 2014 Leger poll found that only 18 per cent of Catholics in Alberta opposed gay-straight alliances in schools. Even the ultra-conservative Wildrose party has remained noticeably silent about, and in some cases supportive of, LGBTQ issues. Perhaps they've learned a lesson that Bishop Henry and Father Penna haven't: Alberta is no longer your father's province.