The 2017 strategy

I’ve already talked about what’s planned for Canadian Atheist in 2017. But now I want to widen the scope, and talk strategy for 2017 in general.

Let me start off by clarifying that I don’t speak for anybody but myself. I don’t speak for Canadian Atheist, or any SHAFT group, Canadian or otherwise. I certainly don’t speak for all atheists, or all secularists, humanists, or freethinkers.

And what I’m doing here is not intended to be any sort of official statement of policy in any case. You don’t need to agree with my priorities, or my ideas at all.

But what I’d like to do is propose a strategy for SHAFT activism in 2017. It is my hope that by identifying a small set key issues – solvable key issues, as in issues that we have a realistic chance of actually making real progress toward solving in 2017 – we can focus our efforts more effectively. 2016 was such a shitty year that we really need to batten down and focus on the positive to get 2017 rolling.

I’d like to have a sort of “to do” list of plausibly achievable goals for SHAFT progress in 2017, so that come 2018, we can have a metric to judge how much we accomplished. And hopefully, we’ll accomplish a lot. Some of the goals will be easily quantifiable, but others will be more nebulous; I don’t think a simple checklist is practical, because we’re talking about ongoing struggles.

Naturally, I don’t intend for this to be a private venture. I’d like you, dear readers, to offer your own suggestions to augment this list. I’d like to hear your opinions on the items I have chosen. But most of all, I’d like to invite you to join me in trying to achieve as many items as possible.

Repeal the blasphemy law

It shouldn’t surprise any CA readers that Canada has a blasphemy law.

Section 296 of the Criminal Code reads:

  • Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
  • It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
  • No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.

While the law hasn’t been successfully prosecuted since the 1920s, and it would certainly not hold up under the Charter, it remains a stain on Canada’s integrity and reputation as a free and open society. It looms over Canadian freethinkers as a threat, and it undermines our ability to criticize other countries that actually use their blasphemy laws to suppress speech and oppress minorities.

Starting in 2015, several Canadian SHAFT organizations – led by the Centre for Inquiry Canada – have been calling for the repeal of Section 296. Last year saw an organized push, including a petition to Parliament that garnered over 7,000 signatures and was presented in the House .

We have momentum on this issue, and unlike the previous administration, a government that might just heed our concerns. The most plausible path to victory seems to be by convincing a brave MP to sponsor a private member’s bill calling for repeal. Private member’s bills have a very low rate of success (around 1–2%), but there is evidence that they do have influence on the direction the government takes.

Thus, the first item on 2017’s strategy list.

What I’d like to get done: Get a member of Parliament to sponsor a private member’s bill calling for the repeal of Canada’s blasphemous libel law.

The plan of action: a campaign of letter-writing to MP, backed by frequent posts providing extra information and sound arguments justifying the repeal that can be used to bolster the case we make to those MPs.

This is an easy plan to get started on, as the groundwork has already been laid. In fact, CFIC already has a letter you can send to your MP. The letter is a bit dated – I’ve already asked for an updated letter – but don’t let that stop you from printing it out, signing it and mailing it (remember, mail sent to MPs at their Ottawa office is free!)… then printing out the updated version when that comes out and mailing that, too.

Here on CA, I will also be preparing some letters you can basically print, sign, and send, and providing the information you’ll need to write your own (personalized letters are always better than form letters). (I’m also thinking of making a tool on my personal site where you can just pick your MP’s name from the list, select from a list of points, add a few personal touches, and voilà, create a personalized, customized letter – because “Dear [your specific MP]” letters are always better than generic “Dear Member of Parliament” letters.) Send letters to your MP’s Ottawa office… send them to their riding office… even better, deliver them by hand, if you can. Look forward to posts here on CA describing your options and how to go about helping the campaign.

Start writing Canadian SHAFT history

If I asked you to give the names of five Canadians who were significant in secular, humanist, atheist, or freethought history, could you do it? Could you give me one name?

Search the web for influential or historical SHAFT people (or even events), and you’ll find a glut of American names, with a few others peppered here and there. Canadian names are in short supply.

2017 is a significant year, because we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canada. Naturally this will include a lot of looking back over Canadian history. But no one will be celebrating Canada’s secular, humanist, atheist, or freethought history if we don’t do it ourselves. We can hardly expect politicians and others take our SHAFT identity seriously if we won’t do it ourselves.

What I’d like to get done: Create a list of biographies of Canadian secularists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, past and present.

The plan of action: Write a few bios myself, and solicit others to provide names and bios of others.

It is important for our own identity, and our ability to present ourselves as a somewhat unified force in the Canadian public sphere, that we have a history we can learn from and build on. And an important part of that is identifying people and events that shaped Canada’s SHAFT history – the shoulders that we stand on today.

This project is related to one of the projects I was hinting at when I mentioned that I was working on several new utilities. Ultimately, in the very long term, I’d like to have a “Canadian SHAFT encyclopedia”, giving information about the major events and people in Canadian SHAFT history and present. In the short term, I’d like to start small by setting up a list of notable Canadian secularists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, past and present.

In a way, this project has already started. Last year I wrote a series about Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), which naturally included information about the plaintiff in the case: Alain Simoneau. Simoneau, who was responsible for perhaps the most important court case about secularism in modern Canadian history, is certainly a candidate for the list.

Also in the coming weeks I will be writing about Eugene Sterry, the defendant in the last successful prosecution of Canada’s blasphemy law. His story is pretty cool, and he certainly deserves a mention in Canadian SHAFT history.

I don’t have a long list of names yet – and I have very little information about most of them – but the kind of candidates worth including are historical SHAFT activists, like Sterry; contemporary SHAFT activists like Simoneau and our own Veronica Abbass (both for her contributions here and for her efforts in the Peterborough prayer case); leaders of Canadian SHAFT organizations; Canadian scientists, philosophers, and so on.

It’s a big project which I don’t even expect to come close to completing in 2017, but I’d like to see it started.

Reach out to Aboriginal Canadian communities

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wrapped up in , and it’s open to debate how much impact it has actually had on Canada since. The Commission’s report highlighted the role religion played in the injustices inflicted on Aboriginal Canadians. That would seem to suggest that there is a role Canadian SHAFT organizations can play, both in helping with the healing from past crimes, and in protecting Aboriginal Canadians from future exploitation.

Unfortunately, Canadian SHAFT activists have never really connected to Aboriginal Canadian communities. There is no shortage of evidence that Aboriginal Canadian communities continue to be exploited by religious and anti-science groups – for that we just need to look at the case of Makayla Sault, who tragically died from a curable disease for stupid reasons. Even our response to the TRC report was hideously bungled.

We need to do better, for their sakes, and for our own – we can’t claim to represent and care for everyone if there are entire communities we can’t be arsed to reach out to.

Of course, there are always complications. I can’t very well waltz into an Aboriginal community and play white saviour. What we need are SHAFT activists within those communities to step up and reach out to their neighbours. But how can we find and nurture SHAFT activists within those communities to begin with? It seems like a catch-22.

The solution I’ve come up with is to reach out indirectly. Basically, rather than marching into Aboriginal communities and proselytizing my views to them, I will open a door and raise a flag signalling to humanist and atheist Aboriginal Canadians that I want to connect with them, and they are welcome to reach out to me on their own terms, at their leisure.

The key to doing that is language.

What I’d like to get done: Create and foster a relationship with Aboriginal Canadian SHAFT activists and organizations.

The plan of action: Create translations for important SHAFT documents in Canadian Aboriginal languages.

There are a number of documents that are very important to the SHAFT universe, either historically, or because they describe important fundamental ideas, or both. For example:

I could probably also include notable historical essays on the topic, such as Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian”.

Many of these documents do not have translations into any Canadian aboriginal languages, and most of them don’t have translations into any beyond the “safe” languages (the languages not considered in danger of extinction: Cree, Inukitut, and Ojibwe). There are some translations out there – for example, this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Mi’kmaq. But even then, these translations are scattered all over the web.

I would like to have a Canadian secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethought library – this is yet another of the several new utilities – with all of these important documents (so far as possible considering copyright issues) translated into all Canadian languages. Not just English and French; all Canadian languages including aboriginal languages. This is a huge undertaking, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to make a start at it. For example, here is Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in English:

Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

  1. freedom of conscience and religion;
  2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  4. freedom of association.

And here’s what it might look like in Inukitut (here’s hoping WordPress doesn’t mangle it):

ᑭᓇᑐᐃᓐᓇᑦᑎᐊᖅ ᐅᑯᓇᓂ ᑐᓐᖓᕕᒋᔭᐅᔪᓂᒃ ᐃᓱᒪᖅᓱᕈᑎᕐᑲᖅᐳᖅ:

  1. ᐃᓱᒪᒥᓂᒃ ᒪᓕᒡᓗᓂᐃᓱᒪᓕᐅᕈᖕᓇᖅᐳᖅ ᐊᒻᒪᓗ ᐅᒃᐱᕆᔪᒪᔭᒥᓂᒃ ᒪᓕᒍᖕᓇᖅᖢᓂ;
  2. ᐃᓱᒪᒥᓂᒃ ᐃᓱᒪᔪᖕᓇᖅᐳᖅ, ᐅᒃᐱᕈᖕᓇᖅᐳᖅ, ᐃᓱᒪᒥᓂ ᕐᑲᓄᑐᐃᓐᓇᖅ ᓂᓪᓕᐊᔪᖕᓇᖅᖢᓂᓗ, ᐊᒻᒪᓗ ᑐᓴᒐᒃᓴᓕᕆᔩᑦ ᑐᓴᐅᒪᕐᑲᑦᑕᐅᑎᑦᑎᕙᒃᑐᓪᓗ ᓂᓪᓕᐊᔪᒪᔭᒥᖕᓂᒃ ᓂᓪᓕᐊᔪᖕᓇᖅᖢᑎᒃ;
  3. ᐃᓱᒪᒃᓱᕐᓗᑎᒃ ᑲᑎᒪᔪᖕᓇᖅᐳᑦ ᐅᓇᑕᖕᒋᑐᐊᖅᐸᑕ; ᐊᒻᒪᓗ
  4. ᐃᓱᒪᒃᓱᕐᓗᑎᒃ ᐃᓚᒋᔪᒪᔭᒥᖕᓂᓪᓗ ᑲᑎᒍᒪᔭᒥᖕᓂᒃ ᐱᔪᖕᓇᖅᐳᑦ.

This multilingual library of important SHAFT documents will, of course, be useful to Canadian atheists and humanists in general. But I believe that having a library of documents translated into Canadian aboriginal languages will be useful to Aboriginal Canadians, too. It benefits everybody, and it gives Canadian Aboriginals a reason to come to us. And that, I believe, is an important first step in building a relationship between our two communities on equal and respectful terms.

Summary

I have other goals I’d like to accomplish in 2017, of course. But these three items are the three primary things I’d like to accomplish as a SHAFT activist this year. The three items represent:

  • making progress as a society in Canada;
  • creating a foundation for ourselves – as secularists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers – to build from; and
  • reaching out to new people – people we haven’t really been reaching out to before – and expanding our community.

None of these three items is a pipe dream, but almost certainly none of them will completely finished in 2017. I don’t hope to complete any of these projects this year, but I do hope to make real, objective progress on them. If I manage to accomplish everything I’ve laid out, I will have made concrete achievements each in its own right, but also in each case, achievements that can be built on for even greater progress in the future.

All of them already have some groundwork laid. I know where to start, and I know where to go. These are not idle fantasies. These can be accomplished this year.

I’d prefer not to tackle these projects alone. I’d like help, if you can offer it. I can make more concrete requests for specific types of help in future posts about each of these projects, but for the time being, it would be helpful enough to know if there’s any support out there. Or at least an interest.

What do you think? Do you agree with the items I’ve chosen, and/or how I plan to go about them? Certainly there are many other things one could resolve to do that would be of enormous value to SHAFT activism this year. Does anyone have any other ideas?

One of my favourite quotes comes from Alan Turing: the closing words of his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. I find them particularly appropriate here, so I will close this post by quoting them:

We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

6 thoughts on “The 2017 strategy

  1. The database of Canadian players is a great idea. I would add to this a DeSmogBlog-like database of those working *against* us. E.g. MPs and think tank members who aim for laws erosive to secularism.

    Personally I would like to see action on ending Ontario’s Catholic school system, to address the UN human rights critiques.

    You mentioned tools at some point. Do you need help with web-development?

    • To be honest, all I had in mind with the database mentioned above was creating a library of Canadian SHAFT *history*, not so much focusing on the present.

      But your suggestion is genius. It would be even better if we could somehow aggregate data from sources with more specific focus – for example, if the Canadian Secular Alliance published a list of scorecards for MPs or other public figures based on their performance on secular issues in machine-readable form… and Humanist Canada published scorecards based on humanist standards… and so on for other groups… we could read all that data and put together aggregate scorecards that cover a whole range of SHAFT issues. But even without that, having a list of “people to watch” (both positive and negative) would be a phenomenal help to SHAFT activism (and to writing about SHAFT activism! it would be so nice to have a database to look up names that pop up to see if they’ve come up before!).

      I have another idea (among the many I’m sketching out and discussing with others) about the creation of an “issues database”. Basically it would be a site that tracks a list of issues of interest to SHAFT activists: you mentioned Ontario’s public Catholic school system; the example I’ve been using is “God in the anthem”. The site would watch other sites like openparliament.ca and government sites to watch for mentions of these issues, or progress of legislation on these issues, and you could subscribe to the issues you care about via an Atom feed. For example, you would subscribe to the “Ontario Catholic school funding” issue, and get updates whenever something about is published in the media, or on CA, or by any of the SHAFT groups, or updates when something happens in the House of Commons (or Ontario legislature), etc. … basically, if you subscribed to the “Ontario Catholic school funding” issue, you’d be always up to date on the status of that issue.

      The “issues database” is just a vague concept at the moment, but I wonder if there might be a way to connect it with a “people to watch” database. That’s something to consider!

      I will be soliciting technical help, and help finding a new hosting provider, and other such things… eventually. Right now, my focus is getting CA streamlined and running smoothly without my constant attention (so that I can then give attention to these other projects). First I’m doing a bit of clean up behind the scenes, then I’m going to be campaigning for new contributors… and *THEN* I’m going to start these long-range projects.

  2. I support your plan.

    But it’s SHAFTS, not SHAFT. Deliberately leaving out skeptics is a mistake.

    • The mistake would be accidentally including climate change skeptics, evolution skeptics, vaccine skeptics, moon landing skeptics, spherical earth skeptics, etc. etc.

      Skepticism by itself is not a good a thing. Undisciplined skepticism can actually be worse than untrammelled credulity. Elevating skepticism to one of the highest virtues without painstakingly explaining that it must always be subordinate to science, evidence, and reason is only going to be seen by the kinds of skeptics listed above as blessing what they’re doing.

      The only good kind of skepticism is skepticism constrained by reason and evidence, that uses rational analysis to avoid fallacious reasoning, and takes into account the entire sphere of knowledge. That’s a bit of a mouthful for an acronym, but luckily there’s a single word for that. That word is “freethought”. It’s so important, it gets two letters in the acronym.

  3. Agreed on all fronts. I can definitely help put you in touch with some people who know much more about the history, going back to Morgentaler in the 50s and 60s.

    I’m not sure the indigenous translations are as valuable as building connections and working together on common causes would be. Following colonialism and Residential Schools, many indigenous languages are endangered (the Royal BC Museum actually has a good preservation project underway). While it might be a way to translate ideas, I’m potentially more interested in what commonalities there are between ‘Western’ secular philosophies and indigenous worldviews there are. Simply translating documents seems to be an extension of the colonial “our way is best” mindset.

    • > Agreed on all fronts. I can definitely help put you in touch with some people who know much more about the history, going back to Morgentaler in the 50s and 60s.

      See, I hadn’t even thought of Morgentaler, but now his inclusion seems so obvious!

      > I’m not sure the indigenous translations are as valuable as building connections and working together on common causes would be.

      Absolutely true. But bear in mind that this strategy is about what *I* can do (not Canadian Atheist, and not SHAFT in general), personally, practically, and with the limited resources I have at my own, personal disposal. I would *like* to engage with directly with aboriginal Canadians – particularly freethinker aboriginal Canadians – and learn directly from them what their worldviews and philosophies are like, but I don’t have any in my circles (that is, none who want to engage on these topics), and I don’t know how to seek them out.

      But this I can do. I can learn an indigenous language or two, and apply that knowledge to translate these documents. That serves the dual purpose of doing my small part in helping preserve the languages, and providing common ground to facilitate the flow of ideas between traditional aboriginal worldviews and contemporary freethought views.

      It won’t be, by itself, the bridge that connects us. But it may serve as the bridge abutment on our side.

      > Simply translating documents seems to be an extension of the colonial “our way is best” mindset.

      That seems like a bit of a stretch for several reasons.

      First, the crux of the colonial mindset was *replacing* aboriginal views with their own. Nothing about sharing the documents we hold dear with others implies that we want them to abandon what *they* hold dear. That’s especially true if we’re inviting *them* to mirror the gesture, and share their own “humanistic” texts and philosophies back with us… something that colonial proselytizers were not the least bit interested in.

      Second, trade is a two-way street. We want aboriginal communities to share their thinking and views with us, it’s only logical and fair that we’re willing to do the same on our part. Attempting to package our views in their language is a good faith gesture; it invites them to attempt to package *their* views into a language (literal and metaphorical) that we can understand.

      Third, putting it that way is really just an unjustified, unnecessarily negative assessment. I could do the same thing for the alternative: I could paint efforts to get their views in our terms without putting our views in their terms as one-way exploitation – essentially mining aboriginal communities for their philosophies to appropriate for ourselves while offering nothing in return… which is also classic colonial misbehaviour. (Yes, I know that’s not what anyone is proposing, but that’s the point. If you are *trying* to be negative, and willing to ignore the larger context, you can even paint merely *listening* as wrong.)

      Finally, you could make the same claim if I were translating mathematics textbooks for aboriginal Canadian kids to learn math in their own language, and it clearly doesn’t hold up.

      By ignoring the context of an action, you can make *any* action look good or bad. The action I’m planning may look superficially similar to translating Bibles into the native tongue – as a means for proselytizing *my* views to *them* without any regard for their views – but the context is clearly wildly different, in many ways. Not least being that my action is explicitly being taken as part of a campaign to facilitate dialogue on equal terms, in the hopes that they will reciprocate so I can learn and understand *their* views.

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