Guest post by Chloë-Lynne Adriaans
Grade 12 student
The room stills. All present wait together, one baited breath, a unity of expectation. The man in the suit, the center of all attention shifts almost imperceptibly. He’s sweating lightly, beneath his expensive suit, but his expression is one of cool confidence. He’s practiced; it’s painted on his princely expression, flaws covered. And today, when an entire nation watches him, he is perfectly composed.
“I do solemnly and sincerely promise and swear that I will truly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me as Prime Minister.” The man pauses briefly, undetectable to most in the audience; a flicker of irritation passes over his face, a ripple of discomfort beneath a perfect mask. His eyes dart upwards to take in the sight of a flag, watching him from above, snow white and blood red. He closes his eyes and reminds himself of how far he has come, and everything he has done, and will do, for the country he loves so much. After all, they are only words. They mean nothing, “So help me God.”
I often wondered if that last bit of the oath of office was required and upon researching it, I found that individuals may choose to affirm their oath of office when taking it, so technically the words “So help me God” are not required when being sworn in to a position, but their absence would most certainly be noticed.
Canada is like a baby compared to other nations, but our culture is rich, and heavily entrenched with religious social norms, views, and even laws, to the point that public life as an atheist or a person of a minor religion can be difficult. While Canada prides itself on being very multicultural, those whose beliefs deviate from the major religions, particularly the Christian variety, find themselves facing a cultural roadblock. This cultural roadblock, while perhaps hidden on the surface, is shocking when thoroughly delved into.
“How can this be?” you wonder, “I know Canada, and it is most certainly not a country that represses people, holds them back or shuts them down simply because they do not adhere to the country’s most popular religion!” Well, you would be surprised. In our society, we have certain expectations, rules, or even laws that repress certain individuals or groups of people who do not fall on the ‘desired’ spot of the religious spectrum. These conventions are so well hidden though, that we barely notice their presence.
One such is Canada’s anti-blasphemy law. Yes, you read correctly: Canada has an anti-blasphemy law. Section 296 of our Criminal Code makes it illegal to publish blasphemous libel – especially if it’s not in polite language. In other words, if a pissed-off atheist decides to publish a piece of writing saying that “God or the Catholic Church is a @#$$%^&* who needs to @$@%#”, or something to that effect, he or she could, theoretically, be thrown in jail, for a maximum of two years. I say theoretically because the law has not been used for about 80 years. Nonetheless, it is there.
Supposedly, the reason we have this law is historical, a little something carried over from the motherland, Britain. But interestingly enough, as Alan Shanoff points out in his article, “Social Justice: Time for Canada to get rid of its blasphemy laws,” the United Kingdom abolished its blasphemy laws in 2008. Furthermore, the United States, also a child of Britain, has never even had such laws. So that leaves the question: why do we still have this law, especially if even Britain, the country that we apparently got it from, no longer does?
I asked Shanoff if he thought that there was any chance that Canada would get rid of the anti-blasphemy law any time soon. His response: “Definitely not.” He went on to explain that rather than there being any sort of power doing its best to keep this oppressive law in place, it seems Canada really just doesn’t care enough about these issues to actually push for a change. “Things don’t seem to happen unless there is a lot of political will to push for the change. Sometimes that comes from lobby groups. Sometimes it comes from a public campaign…This isn’t the sort of issue that a politician would think might garner a lot of votes…It isn’t so much who might try to stop the removal but rather a lack of political will to advocate for it,” he said. He also brought up the point that the very existence of these laws makes Canada a political hypocrite.
So, while this law may not be used today, and therefore causes no legal harm to Canadian citizens, the simple fact of us having it shows something intrinsically wrong with our ideals as a country. “I suspect that the existence of the law has little impact on people in this country. However, the existence of the law is symbolic and I believe supports the regimes that have and abuse such laws,” said Shanoff.
When I asked Deborah Coyne, a constitutional lawyer, author and influential political activist, about Canada’s blasphemy law, she told me that it’s
just the way I was describing our Constitution of 1867, it had all these religious school boards which are gradually getting dismantled, not yet here in Ontario, though it should be and it will eventually because that was the society in those days, it’s the same thing with this provision…it does surprise me because we used to have a law reform commission under a previous government…that’s the kind of thing a law reform commission needs to examine. The Criminal Code needs a significant cleaning up anyway. One of the things I suggested is we do need an arm’s-length criminal justice council where we have to take the power of determining what changes should be made to the Criminal Code out of the hands of the government and put it in the hands of the arm’s-length group before they get to Parliament for passage. Recreating the law reform commission would ensure that we could clean up these anachronistic provisions like the blasphemy law.
Ms. Coyne informed me that we used to have The Law Reform Commission of Canada, which operated from 1971 to 1993 and from 1997 to 2006 (as the Law Commission of Canada) to keep federal laws relevant to the changing times. According to Voices-Voix, then Treasury Board President John Baird said the government was not interested in funding an organization that had opposed the government’s legislation and that LCC was not “meeting the priorities of Canadians and was not providing “good value for money”. So we lost the ability to get rid of old laws due to partisan politics and budget cuts.
The same Conservative government which got rid of the Law Commission of Canada, a body which could have eliminated this old law, also implemented the Office of Religious Freedom to protect certain religious minorities in other countries. It does sound hypocritical.
This is an important detail that we must remember. While it is easy to say that the existence of such a law is harmless and can do no real harm to Canadian citizens, such a law could be taken, theoretically, to a huge extreme. Take, for instance, Saudi Arabia, a country which kills its citizens who choose to renounce Islam. Such regimes are viewed with horror by many Canadians, but we as a country symbolically support these countries simply by having a blasphemy law.
This very fact was something that particularly disturbed the next person I interviewed. A girl in my grade 12 class, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of ill treatment for her religion becoming known, was nearly speechless when I explained to her in greater detail what exactly the anti-blasphemy law is. Head shaking in disbelief, the modern day Wiccan said, “We’re fighting in other countries for freedom of speech for other people, but people don’t realize that we have the same problem in our country…whether they use [the law] or not: if the law’s there, then the country still kinda says that they stand behind it.”
This girl is one such person whom the anti-blasphemy law affects. As a person of a minor religion in today’s society, she didn’t feel comfortable revealing her name for fear of the reaction other Canadians might have. “I feel like when it comes to a lot of the minor religions, a lot of people stereotype it and they don’t really get what it actually is,” she said, “there’s a lot of stigma around minor religions, and it just seems that people don’t actually know.”
When I asked her about what she felt would be deemed acceptable religious behavior, she rolled her eyes, “I think religious expectations, people kind of push for being Catholic or Christian or any of the major religions is what it seems.” When I asked her to elaborate, she leaned forward, “Well,” she said, “I was at the mall the other day, and I was in the washroom, and this lady walks in, and she’s like, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but Jesus loves you and he has a plan and a purpose for you in this life.’ People will do stuff like that but they don’t realize that what they’re saying…it’s kind of rude… [Jesus is] not actually in my belief system so… And then there’s Salvation Army and they put up kettle bells and ‘God bless you’ if you donate change. I’m donating change to feed people I’m not donating to have ‘god bless you’, no thank you. It’s like society doesn’t look, they hand out candy canes with Bible verses!”
The fact that a modern day Canadian teenager should feel uncomfortable revealing her religion, the fact that she feels mainstream society doesn’t even look at, is blind to, her concerns is unacceptable. Moreover, this self-consciousness is not something caused by her own mind, but by the way in which our society treats people such as her. We tout ourselves as accepting, but in many ways we are not.
Recently, I was traveling with a secular non-profit organization that was looking to find a building to house an outreach program for people who had recently left their families due to religious differences. That is to say, these distraught people were cast out by their families simply because they made the personal decision to leave the religion. After renting out a space for a day, this non-profit company received a call from the facility and was told that they should find another building to house their outreach program because they weren’t “the right fit” for the facility. This non-profit was distinctly atheist and secular in nature trying to offer social support program and the building management decided that the non-profit was an undesirable client. Entrenched expectations as encountered by the modern day Wiccan or the secular non-profit derive their strength and seeming validity from the established and symbolic laws and norms of the government.
Another piece of legislation that affects each and every Canadian citizen is touched by similar symbolic religiosity. This document is in fact, the most important to our country; The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The preamble to this document states, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” Unlike the anti-blasphemy law, there is absolutely no historical cause for the preamble of this secular document to include a mention of any deity. Until 1982, we did not even have our Constitution, so why should we have such a preamble in it? I explained to my classmate about the preamble and her reaction was laughter. After about a minute of giggles, she shook her head and said, “It’s ridiculous. It’s like, let’s set out these laws, but then point out, there’s this thing that’s above it”. And the point she makes is a valid. Why should we create a document that is secular in nature, that lays out the principles of democracy and freedom, and states every individual has the right to freedom of religion (including, one should hope, the right to not have a religion, or to have a religion that doesn’t have a conscious God) and conscience, but then place that the rule of God is recognized above all. Moreover, whose God? Mine, yours, whose?
For more information, I spoke to Ms. Coyne, an expert on the subject. I started by asking what she felt was the general state of the country for people of minor religions or atheists. Ms. Coyne told me that in her view,
freedom of religion and thought and conscience is guaranteed in section two of the Charter and that does include the right to be atheist or whatever you want. I would like to think our Charter is a model in terms of its drafting and application. The model was used by South Africa when Apartheid ended, the legal structure is there. We can talk about the preamble and things that are by default still in there, because certainly when Canada was created in 1867, it was Catholic and Protestant. As a political or sociological commentary on our society, I still would be fairly defensive in the sense that we are in a fascinating country. We are extremely diverse compared to even the United States, which has millions more people than us….we are having to accommodate multiple different religions at an incredibly fast rate. I was for a while on the Immigration and Refugee Board and I frequently met with people coming from Muslim backgrounds. I would remind them that this country does not recognize polygamy that their children would be growing up with other kids who are Jewish or atheist or whatever…that’s the kind of country we’re building.
I asked Ms. Coyne if politicians might be afraid get rid of the preamble or the anti-blasphemy law based on the experience in Quebec with the Charter issue of 2013 and 2014. She told me that, “these are in different categories” and that removing the “anachronistic provisions from the Criminal Code” wouldn’t be a problem in the same way. According to Ms. Coyne, “In terms of the Quebec Charter, you’ll see that it was controversial in Quebec. It all got caught up in identity politics…it became a political football and it hinged on religious freedom in a sense”.
Ms. Coyne felt that the Quebec Charter was also different from the preamble because, “we never had a proper preamble for our constitution. It was just a placeholder, as they called it back in 1982, and it was only because there was so much going on, guaranteeing equality rights, and all that kind of stuff, and the politicians didn’t want to bother having to deal with the religious right.” She went on to tell me that, “It was just a miracle that we even got the Charter in place, so this just got left there.”
She also told me that
preambles are value-based, they’re not going to give rise to justifying xenophobic thinking…it was just, this sounds good, let’s leave it; and of course, it has no impact, so those who hated it…to be quite honest, it does not have much legal impact. So anybody who tries to use it, say an extreme person trying to use it to outlaw atheists, it wouldn’t work.
What Ms. Coyne told me was troubling and I wanted to understand more. I asked if it doesn’t do anything, why put it there at all? Ms. Coyne indicated that “a document like that has to have a preamble; it was too controversial to get into writing something like the South African or the US preamble with “We the people…etc.” which describes the country.” Ms. Coyne told me that legislators wouldn’t “have been able to do that 10 or 12 or 15 years later. We’ve got a lot more people now; we’re a lot more diverse.”
I asked when we might be able to get rid of that preamble and Ms. Coyne told me,
You know what, it’s going to depend on your generation, I believe. The debate will come back at some point. This would be a unifying thing to do….why don’t we try it for 2017, when we turn 150…wouldn’t that be nice? There are people who think this way…who want to advance our democracy.
I finally asked Ms. Coyne if politicians should be inspecting these details more closely or simply backing off. She said,
It’s always a balance. You have the separation of church and state, it is a fundamental basis for our democracy. So that leads you to saying “back off”…..on the other hand, we can be tolerant, but being tolerant does not mean saying to every single person that comes here that they have the right to their religion and we’re not going to interfere with you. No, that’s not true. We want people to integrate. We want religion not to be an instrument of hate, which it is on the fundamentalist side. We will actively oppose that. It is a public discussion that you have to have…whether you are atheist or non-atheist, what is the role of religion? It is not to get involved in politics or set up enclaves…we have a secular society, but you have a right to a religion to help you determine right from wrong, whatever your thing is. Even atheism is another method of thought for determining right from wrong with ethics and things like that. We have separation of church and state, get rid of these anachronistic things, I would say, by the way, get rid of the Catholic school boards in Ontario…Canadians, get it right.
The preamble is just words: words that mean nothing. Anachronistic laws are just words; they mean nothing. For my generation, though, these words do mean something. They are a symbol of the ways that the entrenched social systems do not represent us. They are a symbol of hypocrisy that we don’t accept. We want to be recognized and included – whether we are members of a minor religion or not a member of any kind of religion at all. Our reaction is to laugh at the Constitutional preamble and laws which don’t represent us. We want a preamble that reflects our values: one that describes and unifies our country. We want to get it right.