EDMONTON—The kaleidoscope of rainbow flags swirl around a man as he stands on his pulpit.
On this cool autumn day, a pair of LGBTQ activists gleefully dance around Dale Malayko, a retired Edmonton firefighter turned evangelist street preacher, as he shouts about sin, salvation and eternal damnation in a lake of fire.
But his sermon on this street corner is being drowned out by the upbeat bubblegum music blaring from a set of nearby speakers. Over the past two years, the prominent street preacher has been cast away from his usual location, across the road, which he occupied every Friday for about 13 years.
Pride, it seems, was his undoing — or, more specifically, Pride Corner: a gathering place for the LGBTQ community that formed during the pandemic in response to evangelist street preachers making homophobic rants on Whyte Avenue, known for its trendy bars and boutiques.
The preacher’s exile was made semi-official when the city of Edmonton recognized the intersection as Pride Corner, complete with its own street sign. Now members of the LGBTQ community and supporters show up here every Friday evening to hold dance parties, wave their flags in solidarity and display signs with messages such as, “This is homophobia disguised as Bible quotes” and “You can’t pray this gay away!”
As the preacher warns passersby that they will one day pass through the valley of the shadow of death, a woman confronts him and calls him obnoxious.
“You’re so important that you think everyone has to listen to your message?” she accuses.
“It’s not me that’s important, it’s the message that’s important,” he responds. “You have an eternal soul, young lady.”
Claire Pearen, the activist who started Pride Corner, does all she can to distract from the preacher. She and Malayko get into a heated back and forth as he accuses her and her supporters of bullying him.
Pearen, in turn, accuses him of bullying local LGBTQ youth, contending that he singles them out and creates an unsafe atmosphere for queer kids passing through this busy intersection.
He denies passing judgment on individuals.
“To point somebody out and say you’re going to go to hell for your lifestyle or anything like that? Never,” he says, his response thundering through speakers from a mic on his headset.
“You literally pick queer kids out, you see their backpacks and you point them out, don’t even lie, Dale,” Pearen counters as people walk by and gawk in amusement.
It’s not long before Malayko packs up his speaker and podium to find a different location.
The street preacher is but one manifestation of how religiosity plays out in the province. But this scene unfolding regularly on Fridays in Edmonton is a hyper-visible example of the tension between an increasingly young, diverse and progressive Alberta and some of the vestiges of the Christian conservatism that some argue has shaped the province’s political trajectory for decades.
In Old Strathcona — an NDP-dominated riding that is sometimes described as a blip of orange in a sea of blue — it can be hard to remember that much of the province is still rural, religious and conservative outside of Alberta’s two largest cities.
This demographic found a home in Alberta’s now-defunct Wildrose Party, which dissolved when it merged with the more centrist Progressive Conservative party under Jason Kenney’s leadership. Political scientists say it was Wildrose supporters who were largely responsible for booting Kenney and electing Danielle Smith as premier.
The preacher’s reference to a “lake of fire” has a particular resonance in Alberta and its politics. It was Smith who, in 2012 as leader of the Wildrose, refused to condemn a candidate who said gay people would spend eternity suffering in a lake of fire. She defended him and said it was not her role to judge someone who made their remarks as a minister.
Her refusal to remove the candidate is widely accepted as one of the main factors that cost her party the 2012 provincial election. Some argue the vote was a repudiation of social conservatism and religious moralism from Albertans. Others point out the Wildrose Party gained 13 seats, mostly in rural Alberta.
The UCP’s membership has given Smith a second shot at Alberta’s top job. It remains to be seen if the general electorate will follow suit.
Smith, unlike her predecessor, has shown no particular public affinity for religion. But she’s managed to win over the socially conservative wing of her party by building her political brand around libertarianism and opposing pandemic restrictions.
Her political ascendance has raised concerns among some members of marginalized groups about which direction she’ll take the province, and if they belong in her vision of Alberta. They still remember the “lake of fire” comment — and Smith’s failure to denounce it.
Back at Pride Corner, politics is not on the agenda. But there’s also a recognition that a certain flavour of social conservatism, interlaced with religious belief, is often the force fuelling intolerance and hate — especially against LGBTQ people.
Ryder Richard, who discovered Pride Corner on TikTok, says his family rejected his gender identity because of their religious beliefs, saying “God didn’t make you this way.”
For Richard, finding Pride Corner was life-changing.
“Pride Corner saved my life,” says Richard, a trans athlete, who transitioned to male in 2020 then found he couldn’t play on the hockey team that matched his gender.
“I was super-suicidal at that point. … And I remember just going there and Claire asking me what my preferred pronouns were. And that just changed everything.”
Pearen says it was particularly important to make a stand in this area because it’s popular with LGBTQ youth. She worries about the impact the street sermons, which are also delivered by other preachers on Whyte Avenue, could have on young LGBTQ folks, especially those who are unhoused.
About 25 to 40 per cent of all youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ.
“There are youth that we don’t see anymore, there are lives that are gone because they didn’t feel safe enough to stay,” Pearen says, holding back tears. “And that breaks my heart.”
While the atmosphere at Pride Corner on Friday nights is usually celebratory, they’ve also been witness to the kind of hate that reminds them why this space exists.
On Sept. 2, a man showed up with a baseball bat and started threatening people. Police say he then walked away and was located nearby. They have charged a 32-year-old with possession of a dangerous weapon and uttering threats to cause death or bodily harm.
One week later, as the group streamed their Friday gathering online for people who didn’t feel safe attending in person, a person entered the chat channel and said they were walking over with a gun to shoot participants.
Janis Irwin, an Alberta NDP MLA who embraced the title “MLGay” after her advocacy for LGBTQ issues started getting attention, is all too aware of the kind of hate that exists in Alberta (and everywhere).
“I get a lot of internet hate, a lot of homophobic and transphobic remarks even though I’m not trans,” she says. “Which is a reminder of the work we have to do especially when it comes to trans rights.”
Irwin grew up in small-town Alberta and didn’t come out until she was an adult. She says she sometimes hears from young people at Pride Corner how much it means for them to see a high-profile politician like her at the intersection.
“It’s not easy for somebody who has privilege, somebody who’s never been marginalized, to truly understand just how important that visibility is,” Irwin says.
David Paturel, a straight man who attends the Friday dance parties in allyship, was present at the Friday event when the person threatened to show up with a gun.
“With the way things have been going politically, I’m not super-surprised. You see people that don’t agree with the LGBTQIA+ community … even news pundits, they’re kind of going harder on it. So it’s like it was a matter of time before something happened.”
While it was distressing for many, he says it only reinforces why they must be vigilant.
“This is one of the most, if not the most right-wing provinces in Canada and it’s so important that this is here,” Paturel says. “This is like a golden beacon for anyone in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in such a conservative province.”
Religion has long been woven into Alberta’s political tapestry. Two of the province’s most prominent premiers — William Aberhart, who earned the nickname Bible Bill, and Ernest Manning, Alberta’s longest serving premier — were also preachers well known for their radio evangelism.
Alberta as a whole is not more religious than the rest of Canada. But the Prairie provinces have the highest percentage of people who identify as “religiously committed,” or who are more likely to routinely read Scripture, attend faith services and raise their children in a religious environment.
Where Alberta does stand out is in its proportion of evangelical Christians — believed to be among the highest in Canada based on survey responses.
Jim Farney, an associate professor at the University of Regina and the author of “Social Conservatism and Party Politics in Canada and the United States,” says evangelicals are distinct because they tend to be socially conservative, are well-organized, vocal about the issues they care about and more likely to attend church regularly — meaning they’re ready to be mobilized.
Evangelicals, Mormons and other conservative Christian denominations formed Alberta’s “Bible Belt” during its inception. The religious and social conservative wing of the province’s conservative parties have long been a force in steering government policy, says David Rayside, co-author of “Religion and Canadian Party Politics.”
“It is certainly true that there’s a kind of social conservatism which is partly influenced by conservative religiosity … It is a factor and it’s probably still a more important factor in Alberta than anywhere else in the country,” Rayside says. “But it’s nowhere as significant as it is south of the border.”
Still, Rayside has written that issues around “morality” — especially sexual diversity, and to a lesser extent reproductive rights — arise in Alberta more than any other province. And conservative parties have long tried to pander to social conservatives, either by actively trying to block legislation or throwing them symbolic bones.
Ideas originating from the religious right in Alberta have found their way into public policy for decades, says Lisa Young, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
The most prominent example is when the Alberta government actively tried to block sexual orientation from being included in its Human Rights Act after Delwin Vriend, a teacher at a private Christian post-secondary institution, challenged his termination for being gay.
Ironically, Alberta’s refusal to include sexual orientation as a protected ground for discrimination led to Vriend’s challenge making its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which agreed with him and established stronger LGBTQ rights for the entire country.
The influence of religious moralism has waned in Alberta and nationwide over the past 15 to 20 years, Young says, mainly because of Stephen Harper, who avoided divisive socially conservative issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.
But there are still indications in Alberta that the governing UCP knows it needs to placate its socially conservative base: for example, recently rolling back a law that prohibited schools from informing parents if their child joined a Gay Straight Alliance.
“The legislation around GSAs and the narrative of the family and parents being best positioned to be informed and to direct choices around their children, that was absolutely a nod to the social conservative base,” Young says.
She further highlights how at the party’s recent annual general meeting, they held an event called “religious services,” which is made to sound non-denominational, but took place on Sunday morning.
Young also points to a group who swept up half the seats on the UCP’s board called Take Back Alberta. One of the group’s four tenets is protection of “God-given freedoms.”
“Take it back from whom?” Young asks. “Religion is absolutely a dimension of that. All of this is an objection to the urbanization of Alberta, the diversification of Alberta — Alberta has become a place that that these individuals no longer feel is theirs.”
Smith has won over the party’s religious wing with her pledges to defend their freedoms, but that could grow more challenging over time if social conservatives start pushing on reproductive or trans rights, Young says.
And while Harper avoided abortion and same-sex marriage, he delivered on less “explosive” social conservative priorities, such as family income-splitting and the office of religious freedom, says Jonathan Malloy, a professor of political science at Carleton University.
“Canadian evangelicals in particular are splitting even more between militant American-style Trump lovers, and the historically more moderate Canadian evangelical mainstream that has avoided political confrontation,” Malloy says. “Kenney failed to manage that split, and Smith seems to be casting her lot with the former while hoping to keep the latter.”
No mainstream politician in Canada is going to use opposition to abortion rights or gay marriage as an election issue, Rayside says. But trans rights around universal bathrooms and athletes are gaining traction in the U.S. and are the litmus test to see if these issues have political currency in Canada, he says.
It’s analogous to the same-sex marriage debate of the ’90s, he says.
“It’s always framed as protecting children … Trans politics is in some respects a modern iteration of a very old hymn book,” Rayside says.
One stance Smith has made clear is her intention to prioritize rural voices, and she also said she’s confident her party can form government with a majority of rural seats.
Young says this is worrying for Alberta’s diverse and marginalized communities. About four out of five Albertans live in cities.
“One of the one of the terrible costs of polarized politics where you see people coming into government and trying to govern only to their base is that it excludes huge swaths of the population … Everybody who’s left out of that, who she sees as her winning coalition, looks and wonders if they belong in this province.
“And I think that’s what we’re seeing with Danielle Smith.”
Richard, the trans athlete who says Pride Corner saved his life, says it’s the one place he found that accepts him unconditionally. He has contemplated leaving Alberta, but says it would be too financially difficult because he has a disability.
He says when he hears Smith say my style of conservatism is very “rural based,” he’s essentially hearing — if you live in the city and aren’t part of my base, you don’t matter.
“That’s exactly what she’s saying,” Richard says. “And if she doesn’t care about us, then I would ask her. Who do you care about?”
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh