It can be jarring as Canadians to see that Canada scores so much worse in the Freedom of Thought Report’s ranking than the US. Comparing ourselves to the Americans is a national pastime, and we know quite well that when it comes to the broad acceptance of secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethinking (SHAFT) principles, we beat the pants of the Yanks. So what gives?
The answer, both simple and profound, is that the report specifically focuses on systemic issues… not cultural issues. The report is about discrimination by states and their agents, mostly via legal or official mechanisms. Here’s how the report describes itself:
Specifically, this report looks at how non-religious individuals—whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, or are otherwise just simply not religious—are treated because of their lack of religion or absence of belief in a god. We focus on discrimination by state authorities; that is systemic, legal or official forms of discrimination and restrictions on freedom of thought, belief and expression, though we do also try to include some consideration of extra-legal persecution or persecution by non-state actors, social discrimination, and personal experience where possible.
In setting the parameters of this survey we focus on the global human rights agreements that most affect the non-religious: the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; the right to freedom of expression; and, to some extent, the rights to freedom of assembly and association. We consider national laws that compromise or violate these rights, or which otherwise enshrine discrimination against the non-religious. Of course, laws and practices affecting the non-religious often impact on religious groups, usually religious minorities in a national context, so we also consider corresponding impact from discriminatory laws on other groups. And sometimes we also consider wider social and ethical issues indicative of the marginalization of humanist values.
See? While they don’t completely ignore what they call
social discrimination, it’s not what the report is actually about. The report is about laws and practices of the state and its officials.
Once that’s made clear, the next thing I hear complaints about is that this focus is “wrong”; that they’re doing something incorrect by not focusing on cultural issues. This is a bit of a subjective opinion, of course, but I can muster a rebuttal.
By singling out and shining a light specifically on state discrimination, the report brings issues that can be practically dealt with to the forefront. If the report also made a fuss about cultural problems, that dilutes its impact. Governments’ sins don’t look quite so bad when they’re mushed together with the sins of broad populations. By identifying the issues that governments can be directly blamed for and making them the focus, it’s harder for governments to worm away from their responsibility to fix them. It’s harder for governments to say, “hey, it’s not us, look how bigoted the people are”. We can point to specific issues and say to governments, “that is not beyond your control… you can fix that.”
And I intend to illustrate that principle, right here, right now.
The method is to simply look at the report’s scores for Canada, and plot a path that will take us toward a perfect score, going for the biggest bang for the buck at each step of the way. I will be pretending that I am drafting “the Canadian SHAFT activist’s plan for 2017”, which all Canadian SHAFT organizations would work together to follow, combining our efforts to focus on each item in turn (while obvious not completely ignoring other issues).
Let me make it absolutely clear that this is not an actual proposal for action. First of all, I’m hardly in the position to dictate policy to any Canadian SHAFT organizations, let alone all. Second, the report’s data on Canada appears to be about two years out of date – I’ll just be ignoring that fact, and pretending its entirely current. And finally, if this were being done for real, it wouldn’t be done with such a narrow focus; it wouldn’t use the Freedom of Thought Report only, it would take other things into account.
So with those caveats in mind, let’s get started.
The starting point
- Constitution and government
- Education and children’s rights
- Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals
- Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
There are 56 boundary conditions (plus “insufficient information” and “nothing applies” for each strand); I’m not going to list them all because the majority don’t apply to Canada, and thus serve no purpose for what we’re doing here.
Each boundary condition is assigned a severity level:
- Grave violations
- Severe discrimination
- Systemic discrimination
- Mostly satisfactory
- Free and equal
(A sixth level exists for “insufficient information” and “nothing applies”.)
Canada does not meet any “grave violations” or “severe discrimination” conditions, so we’ll just ignore those. “Systemic discrimination” is the basic standard of “bad” in this report, without being so bad that people’s lives are in danger. “Mostly satisfactory” is “good”, with the caveat that there are still some small problems that need to be dealt with. “Free and equal” is just plain “good”. (Though, of course, bear in mind that scoring “free and equal” doesn’t mean that a country is perfect. It just means that there are no systemic problems worth being seriously concerned about.)
The country is scored by looking for the most severe boundary condition(s) in each strand, and assigning that score to the strand as a whole. So in Canada’s case, the most severe boundary conditions met in every strand are all “systemic discrimination”, meaning Canada scores “systemic discrimination” across the board.
There is also another scoring system introduced in this year’s report. In this system, the report looks at the punishment, if any, for blasphemy and apostasy, and assigns a “thought crimes status” as the worst of the two. The punishments recognized, from least to most severe, are:
Canada has a blasphemy law that technically calls for two years in prison, but the law is completely unenforceable in light of the Charter. Presumably for that reason, the report has simply described Canada as having “restrictions” on blasphemy (and nothing on apostasy, of course). Thus, Canada’s thought crimes status is: restrictions.
So this is our starting point: “systemic discrimination” in all four strands, and “restrictions” for the thought crimes status.
If there were any one strand that was worse than the others, that would be the logical point to attack.
If multiple strands are equally bad – as all four are at our starting point – then we should target the strand with the fewest number of boundary conditions.
Finally, if multiple strands are equally bad and they have the same number of boundary conditions, we should look at the conditions and see if there is any way to eliminate multiple conditions in any strand by taking a single action.
If not, well, we can just pick a random condition out of the worst scoring strands with the highest number of boundary conditions.
Since all four strands are “systemic discrimination”, we should target the strand with the least about of boundary conditions. That would be the “freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values”, with a single boundary condition: “Criticism of religion is restricted in law or a de facto ‘blasphemy’ law is in effect”.
Thus we have our first target: the blasphemy law.
If Canada’s SHAFT organizations were all collaborating with a single, unified strategy, and if that strategy were based on the Freedom of Thought Report, then mission #1 in 2017 would be the repeal of Criminal Code section 296.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that Canadian SHAFT organizations actually did band together and make repealing s. 296 the priority in 2017. And let’s say that the Trudeau government actually decided to do something for the people of Canada – not just for business or corporate interests – and really did go ahead and repeal 296.
If that actually happened, our report score would now look like this:
We would have successfully taken the “freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values” from “systemic discrimination” to “mostly satisfactory”, taking Canada’s numeric score from 3 to 2.7 (where 3 is the numeric equivalent of “systemic discrimination” and 2 is “mostly satisfactory” – any score greater than 2 should be considered a fail).
We would also have succeeded in removing the “restrictions” from blasphemy, leaving us completely clear in the thought crimes status.
That’s pretty cool actually, and all of that came from a relatively small change to Canadian law and society: the repeal of a single law (that no one really wants, and that isn’t even valid anyway). That’s something that we could actually accomplish in 2017 (assuming we could actually get the Trudeau government to do something). A small change, with a big impact to our status as a truly free country, at least insofar as appearance goes.
So what next?
There’s no point in stopping after a single victory, so assuming we do succeed in getting 296 repealed… what next?
Well, let’s consider our strategy again. Now we have only 3 strands with “systemic discrimination”. Two have 2 boundary conditions, the third has 1. So lets look at the two strands with two boundary conditions:
Education and children’s rights
There is state funding of at least some religious schools
Religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment
Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals
Discriminatory prominence is given to religious bodies, traditions or leaders
Religious groups control some public or social services
Now, the two conditions in the education strand are there for obvious reasons: the separate school systems in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and especially Ontario (also the territories). But the two conditions in the society strand… I don’t really understand what they’re there for. In the descriptive text, two justifications are mentioned. One is that only ministers of recognized religions can officiate weddings in Québec. Okay, fine. That could certainly get us the “discriminatory prominence” condition, I suppose. But it’s a bit of a stretch to say that religious groups “control” marriage in Québec because of that – if you don’t want a religious marriage, they do have civil officiants. It’s discriminatory, sure, but control? Seems hyperbolic.
The other justification given is a wildly misrepresentative description of what appears to be the 2004 Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem ruling.* Even if we accept the dishonest framing of the case given in the text as gospel truth, we still only get the “discriminatory prominence” thing. So which public or social services are controlled by religious groups?
(* For the record, the truth about the Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem is not that the religious people magically got their way even though they signed an agreement where they waived their Charter rights. Actually, whether Charter rights can be waived away was never even ruled on. Nor did the ruling have anything to do with religious beliefs having precedence over “freely contracted obligations”, and no, it is not true that you can renege on contracts because of religious beliefs. The truth about the ruling is so much more mundane. The contract the tenants signed said that they could put stuff on their balconies once they had the consent of the co-owners or the directors. The issue was why the consent was not given… and it turned out that the reasons for not consenting were stupid. Thus the owners had no reasonable argument for not giving the consent they had implied they would give in the contract, especially given the very reasonable request made for Constitutionally-protected reasons. To put it in perspective, it was as if a person in a wheelchair had signed a contract for a building that said “you must only use the stairs unless you get permission to use the elevator”, then asked permission to use the elevator (for obvious reasons), and was denied for stupid, illegitimate reasons; if the contract had simply said “no one gets exemptions to use the elevator at all”, they would have no argument – they signed the contract that said so – but since it said that exemptions are given, it is only reasonable to assume they would be given for reasonable requests on Constitutionally-protected grounds. The building contract did allow exemptions (and, in fact, there were no complaints made about Christmas decorations some tenants put up), so the onus was on them to explain why they were denying that exemption in this case, and they failed. The Jewish residents did not “renege” on their contract, their religious beliefs were not “given precedence” over the contract… what really happened was that they complied with the contract in good faith, but the owners did not, and the owners lost. Simple as that. Whoever came up with the text about the case in the report was either ignorant or dishonest.)
So I don’t know how to solve the conditions in the society strand, because I don’t know what triggered them. If I were doing this for real, I would have to track down the organization(s) that suggested them – probably Humanist Canada – and ask them for an explanation. But that’s not worth it for this thought experiment, so I’ll just tackle the other strand.
That would mean the next target to tackle would be separate schools.
Now, this is a much bigger target than the blasphemy law. This is something that has to be dealt with both at the federal level and the provincial level in multiple provinces. The report actually suggests one possible way to trigger change: striking section 29 of the Charter. But that would be a hell of a fight. Generally speaking, this fix would be a hell of a battle.
But it’s also a much more rewarding fix. Obviously it would eliminate the two “severe discrimination” conditions (“there is state funding of at least some religious schools” and “religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment”), but it would also strike the “mostly satisfactory” condition “state-funded schools offer religious instruction with no secular or humanist alternative, but it is optional”. That would leave the entire “education” strand as “free and equal”!
Not only that, but it would also eliminate the “state-funding of religious institutions or salaries, or discriminatory tax exemptions” condition in the government strand, and probably also the “legal or constitutional provisions exclude non-religious views from freedom of belief” (as far as I can think of, aside from the blasphemy law section 29 is the only thing in Canadian law that specifically gives advantages to some religion or religion in general). I’ll leave the latter in just to be safe. It’s also possible that the “preferential treatment is given to a religion or religion in general” would be dropped, since the elimination of the blasphemy law and all separate schools-related laws would make us basically equivalent to the US, broad speaking – in that we would still have some discriminatory laws on the books, but essentially the same ones they do, and they don’t trigger the condition. However, I’ll leave that there, too.
That would mean that if we were able to fully eliminate the stank of separate schools, this is what our score table would probably look like:
That gives us an overall score of 2.25.
Note that all of the remaining “systemic discrimination” conditions would now be somewhat difficult to justify. It’s possible that laws or practices remain that might still call for them, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. So it may be the case that I’m being unnecessarily conservative, and if we were to eliminate both the blasphemy law and the laws relating to separate schools, we would be left with nothing worse than “mostly satisfactory”, giving us these results:
And an overall score of 1.5.
Always more work to be done
And the process would continue in much the same vein. There’s plenty of other stuff that needs to be cleaned up: discriminatory tax laws (churches and such being tax-free), privilege for religious “charities”, God in the anthem, and so on and so forth. There’s plenty to do, but it is possible to see a path to a future where freethought and reason are fully respected and protected in Canadian law and government.
And that is why the report’s “narrow” focus on systemic discrimination is so useful. While it is certainly a worthwhile goal to want to change Canadian society and culture to be more accepting – and even supportive – of secularism, humanism, atheism, and freethought, it’s not always clear what or who we should target to accomplish that, or what specific actions we should take. But with systemic issues… we know exactly who to aim at, and we know exactly what to ask them for. The report’s focus on those issues easily translates into a practical “to-do” list for SHAFT activism.
The secret to understanding the reason for the Freedom of Thought Report’s focus, in the end, is to view the report’s conclusions not as a judgment, but as a blueprint for action.