Activists says a still-active human rights case in N.L. speaks to the lasting homophobia in Canada

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Just over 14 years ago, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador issued the province’s marriage commissioners an ultimatum: agree to perform same-sex marriages or resign.

At least seven commissioners, many of them mayors, chose to quit, arguing overseeing such marriages would contradict their religious beliefs.

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But one former commissioner, Desiree Dichmont, also filed a human rights complaint, claiming discrimination based on religious creed. The case has been snaking its way through the courts ever since – and even though Dichmont has died, the case remains alive.

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An Alberta-based free speech advocacy group, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, recently won the right to intervene in the appeal proceedings, arguing the public has an interest in the outcome. The latest appeal in the case will be heard next month.

LGBTQ activists who championed the issue of same-sex marriage more than a decade ago say the case’s renewed life speaks to lingering homophobia in Canada that has since moved under the surface.

“I feel like I’m in a time warp,” said Newfoundlander Gemma Hickey, who was president of advocacy group EGALE Canada in 2004 when same-sex marriage was legalized and fought for legalization across Canada.

“I wasn’t surprised back then and I’m not surprised now,” Hickey said in an email from Tokyo.

Should the case set a precedent for future objections based on religious belief, Hickey said the consequences would be dire for LGBTQ people in rural parts of the province.

For example, then-mayor Claude Elliott was Gander’s sole marriage commissioner when he resigned his duties as a marriage commissioner in 2005.

“My concern is for same-sex couples in rural areas who don’t have a choice between marriage commissioners. They shouldn’t have to travel elsewhere to find someone to marry them in a civil ceremony,” Hickey said.

“A wedding is something to celebrate and regardless if someone agrees or disagrees, same-sex marriage has been a reality in the province of N.L. since 2004 and in Canada since 2005.”

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Winding its way through the justice system

Dichmont’s complaint arguing discrimination based on religious creed was filed in 2005, and was at first dismissed by the Human Rights Commission for insufficient evidence.

After an appeal, the province’s supreme court ordered a hearing by the commission’s board of inquiry. A ruling finally came down in 2017 in the province’s favour.

Dichmont passed away before the adjudicator released his report, but her estate appealed the decision. A January hearing on the Dichmont estate’s latest appeal was pushed back to March following the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms’ application for intervener status.

The group cited the estate’s notice of appeal, which argues the outcome of the Dichmont appeal raises matters of “broad public and societal concern.”

It argues the human rights adjudicator unfairly placed charter obligations on Dichmont, and that her employer failed to accommodate her individual religious views by making her act as a representative of government first.

It also argues the duty of state neutrality was not applied to her.

Justice Rosalie McGrath of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador said she agreed to grant the Justice Centre intervener status because it has experience acting as an intervener and can make a “useful contribution.”

“The Justice Centre has identified a different perspective it can bring by focusing on the evolution of case law, particularly from the Supreme Court of Canada, on the issue of how the Charter applies to public servants,” McGrath wrote in a Feb. 1 ruling.

McGrath said “the issue of mootness as well as the standing of the estate remain live issues to be argued at the hearing of the matter.” That hearing is scheduled for March 4-5.

A lawyer with the province’s Human Rights Commission said in an interview that the organization’s stance, laid out by adjudicator Robby Ash in his 2017 decision, has not changed.

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Ash dismissed Dichmont’s complaint, saying her request for a system that would assign same-sex couples to a non-objecting marriage commissioner would contradict the province’s duty of neutrality in delivering public services.

“To borrow a phrase from the Ontario Court of Appeal …. requiring minorities to reveal their differences for the purposes of accommodating those who oppose what makes them different only serves as a ‘subtle and constant reminder’ of unacceptance and intolerance. A ‘single point entry’ system would do just that,” Ash wrote.

“Each marriage commissioner, vested with the authority of the state, is required to provide the service on behalf of government to all those eligible under law to receive the service.”

A spokesperson for EGALE Canada said the organization is watching the case and considering next steps, including the possibility of legal action.

Gerry Rogers, then a film-maker and activist and now the outgoing leader of the province’s NDP, wrote to the premier in 2005, requesting marriage commissioners declare their willingness to perform same-sex marriages.

Rogers and several others became marriage commissioners in response to the objectors’ resignations.

Rogers, a former acquaintance of Dichmont, said she was bewildered and disappointed by her decision to pursue the case, and by continued efforts from outside groups to push back against a human rights matter that has already been decided upon by Canada’s highest court.

“They’re absolute dinosaurs and they should simply take their case and go home,” said Rogers, who was the province’s first openly gay party leader. “It’s time to move on. This has already been settled in the courts.”

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Hickey said instances like this show how rights awarded to minority groups are not simply given, but are the result of ongoing, hard-won fights for change.

“I try not to let my fear paralyze me. But our rights are never given to us. We have to fight for them.”

The issue of LGBTQ rights hasn’t completely left the public square in Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly in rural areas.

Last spring, the province and country rallied in support of Springdale, N.L., teenagers after town councillors voted down the Gender-Sexuality Alliance’s bid for a rainbow crosswalk, igniting fierce debate.

“Homophobia and transphobia never went away,” Hickey said.

“In my experience, laws change faster than attitudes.”

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This retired surgeon turns classic paintings and N.L. landscapes into rugs like it’s no big deal

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If it wasn’t for Twitter, nobody but a lucky clutch of close family and friends would ever know about Alan Kwan’s astonishingly intricate hooked-rug renderings of classic French paintings and Newfoundland scenes.

« I just thought, ‘This is amazing, people need to see this, » said Nikki Gagnon, Kwan’s daughter-in-law.

So she posted a pic of a rug he made from a picture of the north shore of St. John’s, taken from Signal Hill, to Twitter.

Alan Kwan holds up his masterpiece. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

« She didn’t tell me, » Kwan said, laughing, adding that he was fine with it.

« But I just do it for a hobby. »

Kwan is remarkably nonchalant about his « hobby, » saying the work ethic, perfectionism, steady hand and excruciating attention to detail each of his works demand all come naturally — he was a surgeon for 35 years, arriving in St. John’s in 1975 after training in New York City and Montreal.

« I guess it fits my personality, » he said.

A hooked-rug rendering of George Seurat’s 1884 classic painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte looks almost like an early Regatta day on the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

But his inspiration for taking up rug hooking in the first place also has a connection to the medical profession.

A few years before he retired, he visited St. Anthony and saw some of the hooked rugs made during the mission established by Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell. He even bought a few of the rugs he found in antique shops in the area.

« I thought that I could do it, I could try it. » 

Kwan says rug hooking suits his personality. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

So when he retired in 2010, his wife enrolled him in a few courses at the Anna Templeton Centre in St. John’s.

« It was a retirement project, really, » he said.

Rug hooking is the ideal retirement project, he said, because it doesn’t cost much money — he uses burlap and yarn made of wool — but it keeps him creative and gives him something to do.

Making intricate hooked rugs like this copy of Claude Monet’s The Poppy Field Near Argenteuil is just a hobby for retired surgeon Alan Kwan. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

He figures he spent about four or five months on the St. John’s hillscape, noting he didn’t work on it every day.

Though rug hooking aligns well with his disposition, he said, he still learns a lot from it.

« When I started … I wasn’t sure I could finish it, I wasn’t sure I could do it. But you keep on plugging at it, and making mistakes and changing it and correcting it and all that stuff that goes on and you’ve finished it, » Kwan said.

« It takes time, that’s all. »

Pitcher plants, rendered in yarn. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

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19th-century firearms retrieved from ocean bottom being restored in N.L.

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Twenty rifle-muskets, with walnut stocks and brass fittings, sit in a partially intact wooden crate at the department of archeology at Memorial University in St. John’s, where they are being conserved.

The iron barrels have corroded, but the P53 Enfield rifle-muskets are in remarkable shape after spending close to 150 years at the bottom of the ocean. 

They were dragged to the surface in 2011 by the Newfoundland Lynx, fishing 150 nautical miles east off Cape Freels in 800 metres of water.

Since then, the P53 Enfields have spent most of the time submerged in a tub of chemicals, including polyethylene glycol, a bulking agent that prevents the wood from collapsing.

Conservationist Donna Teasdale has been working on the crate of P53 Enfields since 2011. (Todd O’Brien / CBC)

Donna Teasdale, a conservator at the university, said the British-made weapon was common in the 1850s and ’60s.

« The interesting part is that they’re in a crate. [That’s] very rare, and we only know of one other example and that was found in Chesapeake Bay. »

It’s very rare to find P53 Enfield rifle-muskets in their original crate. (Todd O’Brien / CBC)

More than a thousand hours of work has gone into restoring the crate of guns alone.

That is nearly complete, and once they spend a few weeks in a vacuum freeze dryer, they’ll be ready for display.

But it’s not settled where they’ll go from here.

« My hope sincerely is that somewhere like The Rooms takes them and puts them on permanent display, » said archeological conservator and graduate student Alexa Spiwak.

« They’re a fantastic find. They have such huge heritage value. They’re such a one of a kind thing. And I think the public loves them and they deserve to be seen. »

The P53 Enfield was ubiquitous in the British army and used during the American Civil War and the Crimean War.

Spiwak has been working on the rifle-muskets for 2½ years.

When the firearms and crate arrived, they weighed around 270 kilograms. They’re now down to half that.  

Along with cleaning out lots of packing grease, silt and iron particles, Spiwak spent time researching the guns’ origins.

Conservator Alexa Spiwak has been busy cleaning and restoring the guns. (Todd O’Brien / CBC)

« These were actually what they called first class, the finest that Enfield made at the time, » she said.

They were machine-made and parts were interchangeable, dating from around 1860 onwards.

Spiwak thinks the P53s were in use, possibly in Canada at the time, and were on their way back to Britain.

« In 1866, the British government actually recalled P53s across the empire because what they wanted to do was actually modify the stocks themselves to be breech-loading. »

Until that time, soldiers would use a ramrod to pack in the bullet and gunpowder from the muzzle.

The P53 Enfield rifle-muskets are weeks away from being fully restored. (Todd O’Brien / CBC)

The project is being funded by the provincial Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation.

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Heroism and tragedy of 1918 Spanish flu remembered in N.L.

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Ethel Dickinson was one of hundreds of people who died when the Spanish flu ripped through Newfoundland in 1918.

The virulent influenza pandemic is estimated to have killed between 20 to 50 million people worldwide. 

The names of many people who died have been forgotten, but Dickinson’s sacrifice has been immortalized. 

This is a woman who basically gave up her life to work with the sick influenza patients.– Larry Dohey, archivist 

She contracted the flu and died at the age of 38 in October 1918 while volunteering to help the growing number of influenza patients in the city.

She’s named on a monument in St. John’s that celebrates her sacrifice. It’s deep in the east end of the city, in Cavendish Square, behind parking meters and obscured by trees and shrubs.

Most people don’t know it’s there, but local archivist Larry Dohey says people should seek it out.

Larry Dohey is an archivist at The Rooms. He recommends people seek out the monument to Dickinson to learn more about the Spanish flu. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

« This is a woman who basically gave up her life to work with influenza patients. She didn’t have to do it, » said Dohey, the director of programming and public engagement at The Rooms cultural facility.

« She had already given her service over at the hospitals in Europe. She’d seen the suffering over there, but she came home and volunteered again. » 

Dohey said almost 1,600 people on the island of Newfoundland were infected with the Spanish flu and it’s estimated that more than 200 of them died.

But the flu hit Labrador even harder.

A disaster for the Inuit

More than 500 Inuit, about a third of the Indigenous group’s population in Labrador, died after passengers infected with Spanish flu arrived in coastal communities by boat.

The Rooms Museum and Archives has many photographs of Labrador Inuit in its collection. (The Rooms)

Angus Andersen, who is Inuk, grew up in coastal Labrador hearing stories from his grandparents about what they saw when the flu hit.

When you lose a third of your population that’s a big impact. We lost culture, heritage and language.– Angus Andersen

Andersen paints a vivid picture of the apocalyptic event in Labrador. Sled dogs that were used to hunt and travel were abandoned as their owners died. They became feral and dangerous.

« When I hear the stories of the people who survived, it’s like a horror movie, » Andersen said.

Angus Andersen’s grandparents, who were Inuit, survived the Spanish flu in Labrador and told him what they witnessed. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

« Wild dogs — starving husky dogs — actually breaking in and jumping though windows of houses to eat the dead bodies. Survivors had to hunt them down and kill them. They killed hundreds and hundreds of starving dogs. »

Many Inuit communities, like Hebron and Nutak, lost a great number of residents, but no community suffered a deeper blow than Okak. 

It’s reported that before the flu arrived, 263 people lived in Okak — after the pandemic hit, fewer than 60 people were left. 

Sled dogs were used for travel and hunting by Labrador Inuit. Many starving dogs had to be killed during the Spanish flu pandemic. (The Rooms)

Andersen says his grandparents recounted that dealing with all the corpses in Labrador called for extraordinary measures.

« After they collected all the bodies. It was impossible to bury them one at a time. My grandma said they dug a giant hole and to do that they had to light a big fire to thaw the permafrost. They dug a big hole and put all the bodies in there and covered them up, » he said.

No one lives in Okak now.

Tragic as it was, Andersen says the 1918 Spanish flu should be remembered to underscore the importance of preventative medicine, such as vaccinations.

Andersen says the pandemic has left a deep scar on the Labrador Inuit culture

« We lost a lot of history. When you lose a third of your population that’s a big impact. We lost culture, heritage and language. »

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Muskrat Falls biggest economic mistake in N.L. history, premier tells fundraiser

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Premier Dwight Ball used the spotlight at a $500-per-plate dinner to up his rhetoric against Tory leader Ches Crosbie, condemn Muskrat Falls and propose some ideas of his own.

Ball told a room of 500 party donors that Crosbie is a man « bankrupt of ideas » to steer the province in the right direction.

In a speech many viewed as kicking off the road to the 2019 election, Ball doubled down on his disdain for the hydroelectric project that threatens to hamper the province with debt and soaring electricity rates.

« I believe Muskrat Falls was the biggest economic mistake in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history, » he said. « Liberals have always been in the business of fixing PC mistakes. »

PC leader Ches Crosbie addresses the crowd at his campaign headquarters after winning the Windsor Lake byelection Sept. 20. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Ball said Crosbie had a « free ride » throughout the Windsor Lake byelection, which Crosbie won over Liberal candidate Paul Antle last week, and said he made promises without offering real solutions. 

« When I listen to Ches Crosbie I still hear that unwillingness to bring forward ideas. »

Multi-pronged approach to steady rates

Ball said the recent decision to reinstate the Public Utilities Board to its full regulatory capacity was just the beginning of his party’s plan to correct the course of the province’s fiscal future. 

« There is no single solution, » he said. « The solution will be a combination of many things, and we will leave no stone unturned. »

Ball repeatedly said the Liberals will look at increasing electricity demands in the province to increase revenue and lessen the burden on citizen ratepayers. That could include changing oil-heated government buildings to electric heat. 

In a scrum with reporters after, Ball acknowledged there could be major costs associated with that decision, but said it is something his government is exploring.

When asked how many buildings could be converted, and how big a difference it would make on electricity demands, Ball said it could be hospitals or schools and could make a substantial difference.

Rest assured, it is not on the backs of ratepayers.– Dwight Ball

He also said the government would consider « restructuring financial agreements, » which Ball later said could include increasing the amortization period on the Muskrat Falls loans.

« We need to look at all those options but we may not even need that option by 2021, » he said. « We may have enough electricity use within our province and with other customers that we may not even have to do that. »

Ball said they will « leave no stone unturned » when it comes to finding ways to lessen the blow when the hydroelectric megaproject comes online and the first loan payments are due.

« When we have more details on this, we want to share it with the public. But I can tell you and rest assured, it is not on the backs of ratepayers. »

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