On 15 April last year, the Supreme Court released their judgement in the most important case to do with secularism in Canada in recent history. Even now, a year later, it’s still hard to appreciate the full impact of the ruling.
The case was Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16. What started as a perfectly reasonable request by a citizen and a perfectly assholish response by a celebrity mayor made its way over the course of nearly a decade all the way up to the highest court in the land. Proponents of both sides rallied for support, pitting the Mayor’s deep pockets against movement atheism’s grassroot fund-raising efforts. Both sides realized that this fight wasn’t just about praying before city council meetings.
I’m sure all Canadian Atheist readers know how the ruling went: Secularism won the day. A flurry of celebration followed. Here at CA alone we had Veronica Abbass breaking the good news then mocking some of the many silly declarations of defiance and privileged, self-absorbed whining that followed. Diane Bruce was on board too, praising Ottawa’s immediate compliance and calling out Oshawa mayor John Henry’s cluelessness about what “Canadian” means. My favourite response has to be Diana MacPherson’s proposed reinvention of the old “moment of silence” canard. Even I wrote about it more than once, both before and after the judgement.
We weren’t the only ones celebrating the decision, of course. There was no shortage of crowing about the Canadian Supreme Court getting so right what the US Supreme Court bungled so spectacularly. And there was no shortage of discussion about the implications of the decision; one of the better examples was Terahertz Atheist’s “10 reasons the Saguenay ruling establishes Canada as a secular country”.
But then, predictably, the Canadian atheist blogosphere moved on. MLQ v Saguenay did come up again occasionally, usually in the context of a hijab ban (which, incidentally, the judgement implicitly but clearly condemns) or some other similarly petty harassment of Canadian Muslims. A number of municipalities continue to pray before council meetings, openly flouting the judgement. In the grand scheme of things, it would seem that not much has changed since MLQ v Saguenay.
Back in June of last year, I started research for a post on the implications of MLQ v Saguenay for secularism in Canada. That quickly grew into a 4–5 part series before I ultimately shelved it, realizing it was just too big, and too soon after the judgement itself to get a clear grasp on its scope.
Most of the constitutional and civil rights experts I talked to about the judgement spoke at length about how wide-ranging its influence had the potential to be, and not just in Canada. There has been a struggle in Western world over the right way to do secularism, with the two warring viewpoints broadly labelled “North American secularism” and “European/French secularism” – or sometimes just “secularism” versus “laicity” (from the French “laïcité”) – that can be summarized roughly as “government should be uninfluenced by religion” versus “all signs of religion should be removed from the public sphere”. The MLQ v Saguenay judgement may be the first major decision in the vein of (North American) secularism, and it does an admirable job of making the case for it. (The US had the opportunity the previous year, but massively fucked it up.) With countries all over the world facing a crisis of how to define the state’s relationship with religion, this decision has the possibility of being quite influential globally.
On a more local scale, in addition to enshrining secularism in Canadian law, the judgement actually provides some important lessons for secular, humanist, atheist, and freethought (SHAFT) activists in Canada. (For reasons that will be explained later in the series) the decision is already having an enormous impact on Canadian administrative law.
So now, the first anniversary of the judgement, seems like a good time to start digging a little more deeply into exactly what MLQ v Saguenay was, and what it means. I’m dusting off the series I shelved back in June, and expanding it.
Over the next few weeks, starting next week, I’m going to be publishing posts weekly on Fridays, covering many aspects of the judgement, including:
- the judicial history of the case
- the history behind it
- how it defines secularism; and
- what SHAFT activists can learn from it.
I warn you in advance that these are going to be big, meaty posts, discussing heavy and complicated topics like Canadian administrative law, the nature of secularism, and the human rights complaint resolution process in Canada. That’s why I’ve opted to make the series weekly, rather than twice-weekly or publishing them all within a week or two; there’s just so much to digest in each instalment that a day or two doesn’t seem enough time. Of course, the downside of this is that the series will be spread over two or three months.
But I think the end result will be worth it. If you stick with the series, you’ll not only learn how MLQ v Saguenay happened, and what happened, I think you’ll learn quite a bit about Canadian law. It might even change your perspective on the nature of secularism.