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.
- 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:
- the Charter of Rights and Freedoms;
- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
- the Amsterdam Declaration;
- Humanism and its Aspirations, and maybe its predecessors;
- and so on.
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:
- freedom of conscience and religion;
- freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- 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:
- ᐃᓱᒪᒥᓂᒃ ᒪᓕᒡᓗᓂᐃᓱᒪᓕᐅᕈᖕᓇᖅᐳᖅ ᐊᒻᒪᓗ ᐅᒃᐱᕆᔪᒪᔭᒥᓂᒃ ᒪᓕᒍᖕᓇᖅᖢᓂ;
- ᐃᓱᒪᒥᓂᒃ ᐃᓱᒪᔪᖕᓇᖅᐳᖅ, ᐅᒃᐱᕈᖕᓇᖅᐳᖅ, ᐃᓱᒪᒥᓂ ᕐᑲᓄᑐᐃᓐᓇᖅ ᓂᓪᓕᐊᔪᖕᓇᖅᖢᓂᓗ, ᐊᒻᒪᓗ ᑐᓴᒐᒃᓴᓕᕆᔩᑦ ᑐᓴᐅᒪᕐᑲᑦᑕᐅᑎᑦᑎᕙᒃᑐᓪᓗ ᓂᓪᓕᐊᔪᒪᔭᒥᖕᓂᒃ ᓂᓪᓕᐊᔪᖕᓇᖅᖢᑎᒃ;
- ᐃᓱᒪᒃᓱᕐᓗᑎᒃ ᑲᑎᒪᔪᖕᓇᖅᐳᑦ ᐅᓇᑕᖕᒋᑐᐊᖅᐸᑕ; ᐊᒻᒪᓗ
- 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.
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.