GameChangers: Kris Wells, a champion of gay rights

WATCH ABOVE: Kris Wells is a local educator and advocate for the LGBTQ community, who has risen to a level of remarkable influence. Shaye Ganam explains how Wells is now sought out by politicians, pro sports leagues, and perhaps most importantly – kids in trouble.

GameChangers is a monthly series by Global Edmonton’s Shaye Ganam about people, projects or businesses that have changed the face of the city. If you have a suggestion for the series or feedback for Shaye, please email.

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EDMONTON – Alberta is known for a lot of things: oil, hockey, cowboys. But, home to one of the world’s most influential and internationally recognized centres for the advancement of gay rights?

The University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minorities Studies and Services has risen to prominence under the leadership of its co-director, Dr. Kris Wells.

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“Sometimes the work happens where it needs to the most,” Wells explained.

“People say ‘I’m not going to hide. I’m not going to move. I’m not going to disappear.’ We’re going to stand up and we’re going to speak out. We’re going to lead change.”

Wells has been a powerful voice for change in Alberta and around the world for years, but he didn’t set out on that path.  He changed direction shortly after starting out as a teacher.

One night in a local gay bar, he saw one of his students. Wells says they locked eyes and he realized they would forever share a secret, and could never talk about it.

Soon after that meeting, Wells was devastated to learn the student had committed suicide.

“I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I wanted to be part of the solution – try to make a difference.

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“These students were having the same problems I was having and no one was doing anything. The system wasn’t changing.”

So Wells took it upon himself to lead change.

One of his earliest successes was the creation of  Camp fYrefly, a summer camp for gay and transgendered youth. It celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2014, with more than 1,000 young people having gone through the program.

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“It struck a need in the community,” said Wells. “It’s about young people coming together, and a community coming to support its future leaders. When I was growing up, Camp fYrefly didn’t just not exist, it was unimaginable that such a place could be. And now it’s a reality.”

WATCH: Morning News interview with Dr. Kris Wells

Wells was also one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Institute for Sexual Minorities Studies and Services at the University of Alberta where he’s developed a global audience. The website tracks the use of homophobic language in social media in real time. It launched in 2012, grabbing headlines around the world.

“That just snowballed all over the planet.

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“For the first time, the U of A and Edmonton were being heard about in places they’d never been before.”

The timing couldn’t be better. The gay rights movement has found tremendous momentum. A little more than 50 years ago, homosexuality was illegal in Canada.  Now, same sex marriage is legal in every province and territory.

This summer, for the first time ever, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames joined thousands of people in the cities’ pride parades.

Wells is just one of a growing community demanding equality for sexual minorities, but his influence is undeniable.

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The first scheduled meeting Jim Prentice held after being sworn-in as Alberta’s 16th premier was with Wells.

“The fact that this was his very first meeting on his very first day can’t be underestimated. It signals an important message.”

A message Prentice echoed after meeting with Wells.

“I intend to carry on my personal views about protecting and standing up for the rights of all Albertans, and as premier of Alberta, that includes the LGBTQ community,” said Prentice.

While his work has brought him in contact with premiers and NHL stars, Wells still handles a shocking number of calls about kids in trouble.  He spends hours working his network, reaching out and creating safe spaces for young people – spaces that simply did not exist when he was growing up.

“If we can make a difference in just one child’s life – to give them the hope to go on, to know that they’re not alone, there’s a community that loves them and supports them – then that’s a world of difference. We’ve done our job.”