The final award in the 2018 Canadian Atheist Awards is “Person of the year”. This award goes to the person who had greatest positive impact in Canadian secularism, humanism, atheism and freethought in 2017.
If you’d like to review the list of nominees before finding out the results, check out the nominations announcement.
Before we begin, I’d like to offer congratulations to all the nominees. Although there can only be one final winner, every nominee earned their spot. Every one of them has worked heroically to advance the cause of humanism, secularism, freethought, or atheism in Canada. Every one of them is a winner in their own right.
The criteria for this category is broad. Nominees – and the winner – don’t necessarily need to be Canadian, though that will certainly help their chances. But they do need to have done something over the course of the year to advance the cause of atheism, humanism, secularism, or freethought in Canada. It could be a single big act, or it could be a pattern of action throughout the year. They don’t need to have acted explicitly in the name of atheism, humanism, secularism, or freethought, though, again, that will help their chances.
The people nominated have earned the right to use the following images or any other method they prefer to declare themselves nominees for the 2018 Canadian Atheist Person of the year:
And so, with no further ado, let us get to the awarding of the 2018 Canadian Atheist Person of the year.
And the runners-up are:
Beverley McLachlin was the first woman Chief Justice of Canada, and the longest serving Chief Justice by far – more than 4 years longer than the runner-up William J. Ritchie (who died in office in 1892) and even outlasting her own successor Louis LeBel.
But what earns her a nomination here is that during her tenure – not just as Chief Justice, but even during her time as a Puisne justice – she shaped Canadian law in the post-Charter era with reason and compassion, and always a very humanistic touch. One needs only look at the dumpster fire that is US law – with their “corporations are people” and “religious freedom” rulings – to know that there, but for the grace of Bev, we might have gone.
And in true Canadian fashion, she did all this without fostering a culture of divisiveness – of right versus left – on the Court. Oh, she was willing to stand on principle when necessary. She stared down difficult Prime Ministers like Harper, and won. She championed the cause of marginalized peoples like indigenous Canadians in open defiance of politicized criticism. But she was known above all as a consensus-builder.
If McLachlin’s long career had been entirely compressed into 2017 – or if this award were for lifetime achievement – Beverley McLachlin would almost certainly win hands down. She is a Canadian icon – a Canadian hero – and while never waving its flag, always a champion of humanism. But alas, this award is for contributions specifically in 2017. So we’ll just raise our beers and give an honest, heartfelt thank you to Beverley McLachlin: you made it possible for humanists to be proud Canadians.
Like Beverley McLachlin, if we were to take all of Julie Payette’s career into account, she’d be one of the strongest contenders for the top spot. But unlike McLachlin, Payette was the central figure in one of the most talked-about atheist stories of 2017.
Payette is a computer engineer who flew two shuttle missions – operating the Canadarm – and in October was named Governor General by Trudeau. Less than a month after taking on the job, Payette made a speech in defence of science at the Canadian Science Policy Convention. During that speech – which, remember, was to a roomful of scientists considering the issue of science policy – she made some mild pokes at climate change denial, creationism, homeopathy, and astrology. Specifically, she expressed incredulity that these things were still being debated
in houses of government. Nothing about that should be controversial – it is ridiculous that governmental science policy is taking such blatantly non-scientific ideas into account. But of course, believers took it as a personal insult, and blew a gasket.
To their credit, government officials stood behind Payette. Payette never backed down from her comments either, but she later made a speech praising religious freedom and tolerance in Canada, which seemed to mollify the right… or perhaps they realized that other than riling up their base, there was no way to win this fight.
Payette deserves her nomination for her courageous defence of science and science policy, and for not backing down in the face of politicized outrage. But ultimately, what made her actions headline news was not what she did, but rather just the theatrics of her opponents. It would be awesome if she doubled down and made such a bold defence of science the defining issue of her GG career, but for now, she hasn’t quite done enough to earn the top spot this year.
Joyce Arthur’s name may not be familiar to most CA readers, but she is one of the most influential pro-choice activists in Canada. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada – the only political group in Canada fighting for abortion rights at the national level. She is most well-known for an article she wrote back in 2000, “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion”, which consists of anecdotes by abortion providers of cases where they performed abortions for anti-choice women – I highly recommend giving it a read. (Arthur is also an activist for sex worker rights, fighting to decriminalize prostitution in Canada.)
While Arthur is a long-time target of anti-choice ire, what put her on the radar in 2017 is a remarkable idea she has championed along with Dr. Christian Fiala. One of the major controversies of 2017 was the issue of institutions and medical practitioners being allowed to refuse to perform legal medical procedures – in particular assisted dying. To put the debate in simplified terms, it is broadly agreed that medical practitioners should have the right to refuse to perform any procedures they ethically object to… the sticking point is whether institutions have the right to issue blanket refusals – in other words, can a hospital have a “moral objection” to a procedure, and thus refuse to allow it to be performed on the premises even though the doctors themselves may feel the procedure is not just acceptable, but perhaps even ethically mandated. Arthur, however, makes an end run around the whole issue, and instead challenges the idea of whether even the practitioners themselves have a right to refuse to perform legal medical procedures.
According to Arthur, the concept of “conscientious objection” by medical practitioners is incoherent. It was borrowed from powerless soldiers drafted against their will to commit violence; it makes no sense in the context of voluntary and generally quite powerful medical practitioners being asked to perform legal and sometimes necessary medical procedures. What is called “conscientious objection” is simply a refusal to provide medical treatment; it is doctors putting their personal beliefs over the welfare of their patients. It’s a brilliant argument, and hard to refute, even if Arthur didn’t also have data to back up her claims… which she does.
Arthur has actually been floating this idea for a few years, but with the debates about institutional “conscientious objection” capturing the public interest, 2017 was a really good year for it. (Arthur’s focus is on “conscientious objection” to abortion, but the same logic applies to medical assistance in dying, which was really what all the debates in 2017 were about.) Unfortunately, the idea doesn’t seemed to have gained much traction. It may be that people fighting for access for assisted dying think that Arthur’s idea is a step just too far – in trying to end institutional “conscientious objection”, activists are willing to let individual “conscientious objection” slide… for now at least. It’s too bad; Joyce Arthur may just be ahead of her time – she may be the person of the year for ending the right of religious refusal to treat… but that year wasn’t 2017. Maybe 2018?
Daphne Bramham is an award-winning journalist and author who writes for The Vancouver Sun. She covered numerous topics of interest to humanist readers in 2017, such as the poor state of seniors’ residential facilities. But the topic that got her the nomination this year was her coverage of Winston Blackmore.
Bramham has been following polygamous fundamentalist Mormon sects for years – she even wrote a book about it. This year the Bountiful FLDS Church made headline news when Winston Blackmore was found guilty of polygamy. It’s been a messy, messy case, in no small part because prosecutors made a mess of it out of fear that the polygamy law was unconstitutional, but it’s not like there’s been any shortage of incompetence on Blackmore’s side. Blackmore has been actively challenging the law for years, essentially yelling “come at me, bro” to the Attorney General of BC, brazenly boasting about his marriages to 15 year-olds and jetting about in a private plane while his followers live humble lives. Following this chaotic story would take army of journalists.
Luckily for us, Daphne Bramham has been an army of one. Through all of the messy legal shenanigans, she has calmly reported the facts and engaged in insightful analysis of what the facts may mean. And it hasn’t been easy.
Bramham is another nominee whose victory would be almost assured if this award was for long-term activism, but alas, it is for 2017 only. Even then, Bramham’s efforts in 2017 alone made her a strong contender.
If there is one thing that 2017 will probably be remembered for, it is the incredible arc of the far-right in Canada – its meteoric rise in the first few months following the election of Trump, Brexit, and M-103, followed by its spectacular fall in the last half of the year after the exposure of its very racist roots in Charlottesville and the explicit neo-Nazism on The Rebel Media. There are a number of journalists who deserve credit for their part in documenting the Canadian far-right: Brigitte Noël, Mack Lamoureux, and of course the Anti-Racist Canada Collective. But for my money, the most influential among them has to be Evan Balgord.
Like his colleagues, Balgord has been tirelessly following the various and sundry far-right groups in Canada as they rise, fall, schism, or simply dissolve into the æther from whence they came, both at the national level and at the Toronto-local level. He’s been writing the big stories of the far-right’s influence in Canada and the “small” stories. He’s even been active in sussing out far-right, islamophobic sentiment within our own Canadian secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethought community.
All this would be enough to rightfully earn his nomination spot, but Balgord went so much further. In addition to reporting on the Canadian far-right, Balgord has freely offered to share his expertise with anyone interested in learning about it. And share he has, and not just to “big”, or “professional” news outlets. He appeared on Polite Conversations with Eiynah for example, and I highly recommend checking out the conversation he had with the hosts on BC’s PolitiCoast. He’s even helped out student journalists, and his input was vital in my own piece on the relationship between the far-right and Canadian atheists. Add it all up, and Evan Balgord has very quietly been one of the most important people in the fight against far-right extremism in Canada.
That’s why Evan Balgord is one of the nominees for Canadian Atheist’s Person of the year, and arguably the only thing that kept him from taking the title was an even better candidate. But even though he didn’t take the (imaginary) trophy, Evan Balgord’s work this year deserves a standing ovation; he should never again have to pay for his own beers in any bar with a Canadian atheist in it.
… AND THE WINNER… IN THE CATEGORY OF PERSON OF THE YEAR… IS…
This is a very difficult time for secularist, humanist, atheist, and freethought activists in Canada, not because of the rise of the far-right – that’s just setting up a big ol’ target for us to poke at – but because of the widespread anti-Muslim animus. SHAFT activists find themselves between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand we really do need to criticize the inane, regressive, and dangerous ideas in Islam (just as with any other religion)… but on the other hand, we find ourselves increasingly forced to defend Islam and Muslims from the frankly batshit crazy and even more regressive and dangerous ideas of the far right, many of whom masquerade at being a part of our own movement. But as difficult as it is for me – a white man with no religious background – it’s orders of magnitude more difficult for ex-Muslims.
Eiynah is a pseudonymous Pakistani-Canadian illustrator who started out as a sex-positive blogger focusing on a godless, South Asian perspective under the banner Nice Mangos (“no ‘e’ in mangoes!”). But in SHAFT circles, she became more well-known as an ex-Muslim activist. In 2016, she started a podcast, Polite Conversations which quickly attracted several big-name guests, and was a featured speaker at the Non Conference in Niagara Falls.
Among the many ex-Muslim SHAFT stars, Eiynah distinguished herself by challenging the extreme, often wildly uncritical positions taken by many of her peers. As the rhetoric of big-name atheists and ex-Muslims shifted further right, Eiynah became the rare voice of reason willing to call out the hypocrisies of some on the left without abandoning the principles of the left. She has actively refused to become a political football to be used by anti-Muslim bigots, but at the same time she has been unabashedly vocal in her criticisms of Islam and of the tolerance of Islam’s nastier aspects by Western “progressives” afraid of appearing racist. Understandably, this is a very precarious path to walk, and Eiynah has been the victim of no shortage of hate from all sides.
So why is Eiynah the Canadian Atheist person of the year?
Staking out a position of reason in a battlefield rife with irrationality deserves commendation enough on its own. Debates about Islam and Muslims in Canada have been pitched, sometimes even bordering on hysterical, but even as Eiynah courageously tackled every new issue, she has managed to maintain her integrity through it all. And she wasn’t just a voice of reason in the chaos, she was prolific. She was everywhere in 2017. She wrote a widely-shared Cracked article about the peculiar challenges of being a progressive ex-Muslim. She partnered with popular YouTuber Contrapoints for some brilliant discussions on complex topics … as well as a few more amusing topics like fascist fashion (which is a real thing!). She spoke with David Pakman, Thomas Smith (before and after the Mythicist Milwaukee debacle), and did a speech for the BC Humanist Association.
But she wasn’t just prolific in 2017, she was impactful. Consider the case of Jordan Peterson. Peterson started 2017 as a celebrity among Canadian atheists – for reasons I frankly cannot fathom – but by the end of the year he had been thourougly exposed as a right-wing Christian crank. But Eiynah was there first. For many Canadian atheists I spoke to – as well as myself – her in-depth take down of Peterson’s bullshit was the first comprehensive dive into that nutty rabbit hole.
I think the best illustration of just how important Eiynah has been in 2017 is within the CA awards themselves. Eiynah is the only person nominated for two awards – Person of the year, and as the illustrator for Is My Family Odd About Gods? in the Art, entertainment, or culture story of the year category. And she has connections to several other nominees: she has done a show with Evan Balgord, for example, and written articles or done shows about several of the stories nominated for Story of the year.
It is the combination of her tireless integrity in standing up for reason in one of the most divisive topics in Canadian politics today, her broad impact across several issues, and her artistic contributions, that I think Eiynah deserves to be recognized as Canadian Atheist’s 2017 Person of the year.
Eiynah as earned the right to use the following images or any other method she prefers to declare herself winner of the 2018 Canadian Atheist Person of the year:
Congratulations to Eiynah!
Persons that didn’t meet the nomination requirements for one reason or another, or who were crowded out because there were simply too many high quality nominees, but which captured our attention nonetheless, are given honourable mentions.
Michael Janz: Michael Janz is chair of the Edmonton Public School Board, with a long history under his belt of fighting for humanist causes in the schools under his care and challenging the unjust privileges enjoyed by Catholic schools. This year he captured attention with a brilliantly cheeky proposal made on his personal blog. Alberta still has a constitutionally-mandated separate Catholic school system, which siphons students – and thus, funding – away from the public school system, and one of the reasons some parents opt for the Catholic system is because they want Catholic Jesus stuff in their education. Janz reasoned that since Alberta’s public school system provides special programs for other minority religions… there’s no reason they couldn’t provide a Catholic program.
It was subversive genius. If public schools offer a Catholic program, then they would be the ones siphoning students and funding away from Catholic schools. In fact, there would no longer be any justification for maintaining an entire separate school system! It wouldn’t even be necessary for the government to take any action to repeal the constitutional mandate… Catholic schools would simply become superfluous as public schools offer everything they allegedly offer and more (simply by virtue of being so much bigger and better funded). And how could Catholic school proponents object to more Catholicism being taught in schools? Of course, they did object, rising to Janz’s bait.
If Janz’s suggestion had been an actual policy suggestion, rather than just a sly tweak published on his personal blog, he would have easily earned a nomination. As it stands, he warrants an honourable mention for so brilliantly trolling Catholic school supporters.
Everyone nominated contributed to secularism, humanism, atheism, and freethought in Canada, and while not everyone can win, they all deserve commendation for what they have done for us and the cause in general.
One thing I noticed when considering the merits of the nominees is that many of them have contributions that go far beyond their contributions in 2017. I chose to limit consideration to their 2017 contributions specifically – this being an award for person of the year – but that left out so much of what these people have done. Perhaps next year I will include a “lifetime achievement award” category to make up for that shortcoming.
It goes without saying that all the nominations and the final winner reflect my own, subjective opinions, not any absolute measure. You may disagree with the nominations or the result, and you may even be able to convince me of your alternatives. However, I think the choices I made – subjective though they may be – are at least broadly reflective of our readers’ views. I think our final winner, Eiynah, really does deserve the fictional statuette.
Here’s to all the nominees! Thank you all for your efforts in 2017. And here’s looking forward to an even better 2018.