2018 Canadian Atheist Awards – Story of the year

The next award in the 2018 Canadian Atheist Awards is “Story of the year”. This award is for the news or cultural story that captured the most interest or had the most impact among Canadian atheists in 2017.

[Canadian Atheist 2018 Awards]

If you’d like to review the list of nominees before finding out the results, check out the nominations announcement.

The story of the year is the story related to atheism, humanism, secularism, or freethought in Canada that generated the most interest among Canadian atheists or Canadians in general. It could be the story that was the most talked about, or that captured the most media attention, or that had the biggest impact on Canadian politics, society, or culture. The focus is on primarily Canadian stories, so a story like #MeToo would not qualify; while it may have had significant impact in Canada, it was an international phenomenon rather than a primarily Canadian one.

Because the story of the year is awarded to a news or cultural story broadly speaking – and not a specific story or stories written by one or more journalists – there is no actual recipient of the award.

And so, with no further ado, let us get to the awarding of the 2018 Canadian Atheist Story of the year.

Runners-up

And the runners-up are:

Runner-up: The Peel District School Board becomes a lightning rod for anti-Muslim bigotry

[Photo of protesters marching in Mississauga, with a large sign reading: No religious practices in public school.]

Islamophobic protestors marching in Mississauga, pretending to be secularists.

This story actually started in 2016, when the Peel District School Board – the second-largest school district in Canada, serving over 150,000 students at over 250 schools in Brampton, Caledon, and Mississauga – made a very, very stupid decision. Hoping to avoid the controversies other school districts had sparked with regards to Muslim student prayer in schools, the Peel board floated the idea of maintaining a list of board-approved sermons that Muslim students wanting to do prayers would have to choose from. Naturally this sparked an outcry not just from Muslims, but also from secularists who think school boards should not be in the business of dictating what is religiously acceptable for students. The Peel board quickly ditched that idea and returned to allowing students to pray as they please, issued a sorry-not-sorry “apology”, and then retreated to lick its wounds.

That should have been the end of the story, but it was just the beginning.

At some point, anti-Muslim bigots discovered the controversy, and decided that allowing Muslim students to pray at all in school – even on their own, without official school guidance – was simply intolerable. Some of the biggest names in islamophobic bigotry started coming to the Peel board meetings, and creating havoc. The Board tried to ban people from bringing up the issue at their meetings, but bigots slipped in under false pretences anyway, and put on a shit show. The Board repeatedly tried issuing “fact sheets” (see here and here) to explain the situation in simple terms, but nothing seemed to get through to the bigots.

And the circus spilled out of the Board meetings and onto the streets. The Peel Board Muslim prayer issue became the cause for anti-Muslim bigots to rally around in the beginning of 2017.

Ultimately, the whole thing petered out as bigots found a bigger issue to rally around (coming up below!), and by mid-April, the whole issue was more or less forgotten. The fact that the whole story was just forgotten when the bigger story came up is why this story only gets a runner-up position.

Runner-up: Trinity Western University wants every law society in Canada to endorse its bigotry

Trinity Western University is an evangelical school in BC that created a “community covenant” that requires all students to abide by certain (evangelical) standards of conduct. That includes things like no getting drunk, no sex outside of marriage, and if a student violates these rules, there are processes for dealing with them that the student must go through. But the real problem at issue is that the community covenant is particularly discriminatory to LGBT people; when it says that only sex within marriage is allowed, it specifies heterosexual marriage. That means that even if you’re in a legal marriage, if your partner is a same-sex partner, you’re not allowed to have sex with them, under threat of sanctions by the school which may go as far as expulsion (though that’s never happened, as of this writing).

[Trinity Western University logo.]

Trinity Western University

The school, being a private institution, has the right to enforce whatever discriminatory rules it pleases. However, TWU decided they wanted to create a law school… and they wanted their graduates to be automatically accredited by every provincial law society in Canada (which is typical for law schools). Some of the law societies objected, saying that they have a mandate to make the legal profession non-discriminatory, and accrediting a discriminatory school would violate that mandate.

The case was fought in Ontario, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia, but it was handled very differently in the three provinces.

  • The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society made their case with wording that suggested TWU was breaking the law. That turned out to be a mistake, because the Society has no legal authority to decide whether anyone is breaking any laws – let alone laws in BC. Thus, TWU won, and Nova Scotia gave up the fight.
  • The case of The Law Society of British Columbia is really messy. Even I’m not sure of what exactly happened (I’d welcome anyone offering clarity in the comments), but as I understand it, the LSBC initially decided they would accredit TWU… but then the actual membership of the Society (that is, BC lawyers) forced some kind of referendum, where they voted overwhelmingly against accrediting. TWU sued, saying the whole process was dodgy or one-sided, and won. That case was one of the two heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.
  • The Law Society of Upper Canada – Ontario’s law society – took the problem head on. They argued that they had a legally-mandated responsibility to keep access to Ontario’s legal profession open and unprejudiced, and that if they accredited discriminatory schools, they would be failing in that mandate. They won their case, and it became the second of the two heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Early in 2017, the Supreme Court said it would hear both cases – the BC case and the Ontario case – jointly, in what may be one of the most important cases for religious freedom since 1985’s R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd.

The ruling is expected within the next few months, but there was already plenty of drama over the case, probably the most infamous being the issue of the intervenors. An astounding 30+ groups applied for intervenor status, but initially only nine were granted… and the really controversial aspect of that was that then-Puisne Justice (now Chief Justice) Wagner had not selected a single LGBT or non-religious group, despite allowing a few religious groups – including a Catholic group (TWU is not a Catholic school). Then-Chief Justice MacLachlan ended up filing an unprecedented variance to extend the hearing to a second day, and allow all intervenors.

While this is a big story that justice wonks in particular were watching on the edge of their seats, it didn’t really have much impact in 2017. The fact that we’re still waiting for the ruling is another strike against it being the top story of 2017.

Runner-up: Québec legislates bigotry

Oh, Québec, la belle province, sometimes you make me so proud of my Québécois heritage. And then… other times….

2017 was the year that finally put to rest the long-running debate over whether Québec is the most intolerant province in Canada. For over a decade now, going back at least to 2007 and the Bouchard-Taylor “reasonable accommodation” commission, Québec has been ground zero for the intolerance and persecution of religious and cultural minorities in Canada. But until 2017, it was at least possible to pretend that it wasn’t about persecuting minorities, but rather about “secularism”… for some misguided, incoherent, and plainly hypocritical definition of “secularism”. I mean, it was a form of “secularism” that stripped head-coverings off of Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews while simultaneously enshrining a giant crucifix in the Assemblée nationale … but somehow it was, as proponents doggedly insisted, “secularism”.

But 2017 was the year of bigotry and intolerance being exposed for what it really is, and it was no different in Québec. It started with the Liberals, but to really grok what happened, we have to go back to just before they took power, and remember 2014 and the Parti Québécois’s very bigoted “Charter of Values”. The PQ took a gamble on Québec’s intolerance, calling an early election and making the “Charter of Values” a centrepiece of their campaign. Unfortunately, during the campaign, too many of their candidates got a little too candid and revealed the latent bigotry behind it all, and Québécois – to their credit – rejected the racists and voted the Liberals into power in a landslide.

[Photo of Philippe Couillard]

Philippe Couillard

So the Liberals won a majority government at least partly because of the rejection of the bigotry associated with the “Charter of Values”. Now what would be the stupidest thing for the Liberals to do in that situation? Why yes, it would be to try to court the bigots in open defiance of the reasonable people who voted them into power in rejection of their bigotry. To that end, Philippe Couillard and the Liberals passed a wholly unnecessary bill to ban face-covering accessories while giving or receiving public services. As usual, this was framed as necessary for “secularism”.

What happened next, while completely predictable, was nevertheless depressing to watch.

Naturally the face-covering ban was as incoherent as all similar suggestions – going back to the “Charter of Values” and before. Even before the ink was dry, Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée issued contradictory “clarifications”. No one was ever quite sure what exactly was banned or when – at one point even sunglasses were banned for the entirety of a bus ride (that was actually confirmed by Vallée, but she later relented). Everyone hated the bill: for progressives, it was intolerant, incoherent, and completely unnecessary; for bigots it wasn’t intolerant, incoherent, or completely unnecessary enough. And of course there were the protests. And several pending legal challenges, one of which resulted in the law being suspended until the case is heard.

It’s pretty much a given that Bill 62 will be struck down, but in the meantime, chaos reigns and Québec’s reputation is in the shitter. It has to be the single stupidest political move by any Canadian politician in my adult life – even dumber than John Tory’s proposal to create separate school systems for every religion that wants one in Ontario. And the craziest thing is that it was entirely an own-goal for the Québec Liberals: if they’d just shown an iota of integrity and ignored the calls of the bigots – who weren’t their supporters in any case! – then in the worst case scenario it would have fallen to a future government led by another party to open this can of worms… to their detriment. Instead, the Québec Liberals triggered the trap themselves… for no gain at all.

This was a huge story… but at the same time it was a bit of a tempest in a teapot. There was a lot of outrage, and a lot of spilled ink… but ultimately nothing really happened. Aside from the embarrassment faced by the Québec Liberals, this story didn’t really change anything in Québec – especially since it was promptly suspended. Maybe it will – perhaps when the court challenges start unfolding – but there’s been no sign of that yet. Right now, and this says a lot about the sorry state of affairs in Québec, it’s just one more drop in the tsunami of bigotry and intolerance against minority religions and cultures in Québec.

Runner-up: The (upcoming) repeal of the blasphemy law

Had the repeal actually been accomplished, it probably could have been the story of the year. Unfortunately, there were complications… and disappointments.

[Photo of Jody Wilson-Raybould.]

Jody Wilson-Raybould

One of the promises made by the Liberals was that they would overhaul Canada’s Criminal Code, cleaning up archaic or unclear wording, and removing statutes that had either been ruled unconstitutional or likely would be. There were a couple bills passed toward that goal… but for secularists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, the big one was C-51.

2017 was actually a big year for blasphemy laws. There were a few headline-grabbing stories. The funniest had to be comedian Stephen Fry being investigated for blasphemy in Ireland, an investigation that ended when police discovered that no one – not even the person who reported it – actually gave a fuck. Slightly less amusing was the case of Ruslan Sokolovsky, who was convicted for playing Pokemon Go in a church and sentenced to 3 1⁄2 years in prison… luckily as a suspended sentence, so all he faced was some probation. Not at all amusing is the case of Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, who was convicted on completely bullshit charges in a transparently politicized process, and is currently serving two years in prison.

Only one country (that I am aware of) abolished its blasphemy laws in 2017: Denmark. But Canada came close. In June, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould tabled Bill C-51, which repeals around two dozen sections of the Criminal Code and modifies a few others. C-51 updates Canada’s old sexual assault laws to account for modern understanding of consent (for example, it is no longer possible to “consent” to sex while unconscious… yes, seriously), but it also removes a bunch of old laws that were either ruled unconstitutional or almost certainly would be. One of those laws is the blasphemy law.

In a perfect world, this would have sailed through the Liberal-majority Parliament, and then even through the mostly-Conservative Senate without much fuss. But instead it got hung up in Parliament.

The culprit? Well, there are actually two laws that specifically protect religious expression (and not non-religious expression equally). One is §296, the blasphemy law; the other is §176, which criminalizes disturbing the order or solemnity of an assemblage of persons met for religious worship, and of obstructing a clergyman or minister from performing religious functions. Conservative MPs zeroed in on §176 as the weak point, and made a stink about the Liberals removing the “only law in Canada that protects religious practice”. That’s bullshit of course: every law in Canada protects religious practice… so long as that religious practice doesn’t infringe on the rights or freedoms of others. There is no reasonable violation of anyone’s right or freedom to practice religion that is protected by §176, but not protected by other, better laws.

But the Liberals are the Liberals, so of course they caved. The only thing they did was change the wording to make it religiously broad and less gender-specific than “clergyman or minister”. That’s progress, I suppose?

Anyway, aside from that disappointment, Bill C-51 is still working its way through the government. It finally passed through Parliament and had its first reading in the Senate in December just before the break (they resume sitting today). It’s probably going to pass in its current form, which does repeal §296 (and does not repeal, but does modify, §176). If it had made it through in its original form, and been passed, it would have been a serious contender for story of the year. But in its watered-down, delayed form, it’s just another runner-up.

Runner-up: Massacre of Muslims in Québec City

On 29 January, a man wearing a mask entered the Centre culturel Islamique de Québec during evening prayers, and proceeded to shoot people in the back as they were bent over praying until he ran out of bullets while shouting “Allāhu ackbar”. When he ran out of bullets he left to reload, then came back to shoot some more until he ran out of bullets again. He left to reload again, and returned for a third round of shooting. Six people were killed: Ibrahima and Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Aboubaker Thabti, and Azzedine Soufiane. Soufiane was killed while charging the shooter in an attempt to save others. Another man, Aymen Derbali, was shot seven times while trying to distract the shooter, ended up in a coma for two months, and is now paralyzed. There were several children present, as young as three, but luckily none of them were injured.

[A collage of photos of the victims of the 2017-01-29 Québec mosque shooting: Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzedine Soufiane, and Aboubaker Thabti.]

The Québec mosque shooting may be the most under-reported story of 2017. I’d bet most Canadians know Heather Heyer’s name… I strongly doubt many could name even one of the people in this image.

It was the worst shooting in Québec since the École Polytechnique massacre in 1989. And, as it turns out, there are some commonalities between the two shootings. And some stark differences.

The shooter turned out to be a white, francophone political science student known for his far-right leanings. Like Marc Lépine, he was an anti-feminist. He was also xenophobic and anti-immigrant, inspired by the likes of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump; he was known by pro-refugee activists as a troll. He was a former Royal Canadian Army Cadet and proud of his military heritage. While his religion has not been publicly confirmed, there are strong indications from his social media presence that he was strongly Christian, and anti-atheist (there were insinuations in the media that he was an atheist because he “liked” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science on his Facebook profile… but he also “liked” Peter Hitchens (Christopher Hitchens’s Christian apologist brother), William Lane Craig, Pope John Paul II, anti-multiculturalist and Christian bigot Mathieu Bock-Côté (whom he was also following), and the book The Amorality of Atheism which claims – among other things – that atheism can lead to sharia). He was, in effect, the embodiment of the islamophobic animus sweeping Québec.

As horrifying as the shooting was, that was neither the beginning nor the end of the tribulations this one particular mosque faced (to say nothing of Québec Muslims in general). A few months before the shooting, someone left a gift-wrapped pig’s head with a note saying “bon appétit” outside the mosque. After the shooting, five of the six victims’ bodies had to be shipped out of Canada to be buried due to the lack of Muslim burial space in Canada, so Québec Muslims tried to get burial space… and the bigots wouldn’t even let them have that! And don’t be fooled by claims that those were just ordinary citizens concerned about ordinary zoning issues – we know that there were far-right activists involved. Québec Muslims finally got their cemetery when the mayor of Québec City stepped in, but that wasn’t even close the only story about this mosque that made news after the shooting. Someone sent the mosque a slashed-up Quran and a note suggesting they bury Muslims in a pig farm, and on top of that the mosque president’s car was torched.

But let’s get back to the shooting itself.

Although a year has passed since the shooting, almost nothing has been done about it. Due to a publication ban, we’re not even being kept apprised of the court case against the shooter, so of course we don’t have much info about the police investigation either. On the political, social, and cultural fronts, literally nothing changed. Québec’s Bill 62 (mentioned above) was in discussion at the time of the shooting; it was put on the shelf for a few months, but was eventually put back on the table and eventually passed. Anti-Muslim sentiment in Québec hasn’t gone away, and anti-Muslim groups spent most of 2017 growing in strength.

This should have been the story of the year, and perhaps the fact that it isn’t should be the story of the year. One of the bloodiest tragedies in Canadian history has been all but forgotten. Nothing has been done about it. When 14 white women were murdered, we at least got some better gun control laws out of it… but after Harper dumped those laws, apparently 6 brown Muslims weren’t enough to even start a conversation of getting them back.

This should have been the story of the year, but it wasn’t. And that just makes what was already a horrible tragedy that much worse.

… AND THE WINNER… IN THE CATEGORY OF STORY OF THE YEAR… IS…

< < < drum roll > > >

WINNER: M-103

[Canadian Atheist 2018 award - Story of the year]

It all started with a petition asking Parliament to [recognize] that extremist individuals do not represent the religion of Islam, and [condemn] all forms of Islamophobia. The petition garnered 69,742 signatures by the time of its closing on – slightly more than the required 500 signatures – so Parliament was obligated to respond.

A couple weeks later, then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, in advance of the official government response, tabled a non-binding motion calling on Parliament to join the petitioners in condemning all forms of Islamophobia. His motion passed unanimously.

Doesn’t seem to be much of a story here, does there? You probably want to be sitting down for what’s coming.

A few weeks after Mulcair’s motion – and still a few weeks before the official response would be filed – Liberal MP for Mississauga—Erin Mills Iqra Khalid decided to file a slightly meatier motion: Motion 103. M-103 for short.

Like Mulcair’s motion, M-103 called on Parliament to condemn islamophobia, though it went a little further in adding and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination. That hardly seems controversial, though. M-103 also called for the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage to do a study on how the government could [reduce] or [eliminate] systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, and do effective data-collection about hate crimes.

That’s it. That’s all M-103 asked for. And, to reiterate, this was a non-binding motion. If passed, it would only represent a statement of intent, not binding policy. It was a non-binding statement of intent to do a study to determine what could possibly be done to put a stop to all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination… and also islamophobia. The only concrete thing M-103 called for other than the study itself: data-collection. Seriously. That’s peak governmental bureaucracy there. The only scary thing about M-103 is that thinking about it while driving might put you to sleep.

Almost right from the start, M-103 got pushback from Conservative MPs. Their beef, it should be noted, was not with any of the new stuff in M-103 that wasn’t in Mulcair’s motion – their objection was specifically just to the inclusion of the word “islamophobia” in the motion, and that word was the centrepiece of Mulcair’s motion, whereas it’s almost an aside in Khalid’s. Hm, a mystery! Why did Conservatives have no problem supporting Mulcair’s motion in October… but suddenly serious objections to Khalid’s near-identical motion in December? I wouldn’t blame you for assuming it had something to do with the fact that Khalid is a woman, or a person of colour, or a Muslim. But no, I think there’s a much more banal form of evil at play here. What happened between October and December? Ah yes. The Conservative leadership race started in November.

Several Conservative leadership hopefuls seized on M-103 as a dog-whistle to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and straight-up-racist factions of the base. Disinformation was rife (as evidence, here is a CBC article trying to debunk some of the more common lies) The Rebel Media made M-103 a buzzword among Canadian bigots.

By the time the motion was first debated in Parliament on , opposition to M-103 had exploded into ralliesattended by multiple Conservative leadership candidates. Ultimately, of 15 candidates, 14 refused to support M-103 (the lone holdout was Micheal Chong).

Their objections were all ridiculous. They objected to the fact that “islamophobia” was not defined in the motion… never mind that Iqra Khalid gave a perfectly serviceable definition when asked, and the meaning is pretty damn clear from the context. They objected to the fact that the motion “singled out Muslims/Islam”… never mind that it actually didn’t – it did mention islamophobia specifically, but only as part as all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination, which the Mulcair motion they supported did not include – and that many motions over the years singled out various groups/ideologies (like motions against antisemitism). And then there were the really crazy objections, like that this almost comically mundane, non-binding motion was the first step toward “sharia law” in Canada.

Even by mid-February, anti-M-103 activity was pretty horrifying. Iqra Khalid and other supporters were flooded with tens of thousands of hate messages, some outlining murder and rape fantasies. But things were about to get a lot more crazy.

[Photo of M-103 protesters]

M-103 protesters

On an organized wave of protests swept across Canada. Following the rise of Trump and the alt-right in the US, Canadian far-right extremists had been looking for the hook that would let them establish themselves here. US-style overt racism and neo-Nazism just wasn’t catching on, but with M-103, the Canadian right found their cause célèbre. The rallies were the debutante ball for most of Canada’s far-right groups; for many of them – like PEGIDA, Soldiers of Odin, La Meute, and the III%ers – the rallies would be the first major news exposure they’d get. Naturally their membership numbers would explode because of it.

By all trustworthy accounts, the anti-M-103 protests were absolutely dwarfed by the anti-racist counter-protests, and M-103 itself passed easily on . Everyone except the Bloc Québécois and the Conservative Party – with the exception of only Micheal Chong and Bruce Stanton – voted in support. And surprise, surprise, the sky didn’t fall. And at the end of May, the Conservative Party finally had its leadership election, and except for Brad Trost – whose appeal was arguably more about Christian fundamentalism and hard social conservativism than opposition to M-103 – the candidates who had been most loudly blowing the M-103 dog-whistle all fell behind the sold candidate who supported it. So that was the end of it, right?

Not even close.

Months after M-103 passed, far-right groups were still organizing protests against M-103. Because, I dunno, either they’re aware of some obscure Parliamentary procedure that will allow them to retroactively unpass a passed motion, or they’ve invented a time machine and are too stupid to think of a more effective way to use it. But of course, it’s not really about M-103 anymore, and it arguably never really was. M-103 had just become the boogeyman that far-right bigots spooked their children with.

[Screen capture of a Facebook post from Steven Myatt, saying: "An Asian man tried to cut off a 11 year old girls hijab, twice, for 10 minutes. No witnesses in broad day light. M103 false flag."]

Facebook post by a well-known islamophobe about the girl who claimed a man tried to cut off her hijab. Note that this was posted before police revealed it had been a hoax.

For example, when a Calgary bigot blamed the Edmonton terror attack on LGBTQ people – don’t think too hard about it – she explicitly mentioned the support of M-103 by LGBTQ people as the justification. Just the other day, in the case of the 11 year-old girl who claimed she was attacked by a scissors-wielding man who tried to cut off her hijab, prominent bigots were claiming – before the attack was revealed to be a hoax – that the attack was a M103 False flag.

In fact – and I won’t blame you if this blows your mind – there was an anti-M-103 rally in Edmonton . 10 months after M-103 passed. It was organized by the Proud Boys, and if you’re wondering why they chose to protest on a Monday… it’s because it was the anniversary of the Québec City mosque shooting. Yeah. Really. They’re protesting M-103, the toothless, nonbinding anti-islamophobia motion that just asked for a study about collecting data on the anniversary of the massacre of Muslims by an islamophobe. Head explodes.

I can see no other candidate for the top story of 2017. There is just no matching the impact M-103 has had in invigorating Canada’s far-right, racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Islam movements. M-103 not only kick-started the golden age of Canadian far-right groups – everyone from La Meute to the Proud Boys – it has become the Hitler card of right-wingers, played whenever a vague villain is needed. Careers and arguably entire media empires – I’m looking at you The Rebel Media – have been built on shrilly spreading FUD about it. Over a year has passed since its tabling, and just a few weeks short of a year since its passing, and there are still anti-M-103 protests happening… even though I seriously doubt a single protester could say what was actually in M-103. Every other story nominated for story of the year – except the TWU story and the blasphemy law repeal story – has been impacted by M-103.

And it all started with a pithy, non-binding motion calling for nothing more than a condemnation of bigotry, and a study about gathering data about it.

There’s no contest. M-103 is indubitably the 2018 Canadian Atheist story of the year.

Honourable mentions

Stories that didn’t meet the nomination requirements for one reason or another, or which were crowded out because there were simply too many high quality nominees, but which captured our attention nonetheless, are given honourable mentions.

The Theodore decision: In 2003, the Saskatchewan government closed down the single public school in the small village of Theodore (population: 300), forcing its 42 students to be bused 17 km to the nearest public school. The people of Theodore raised a stink, but the government held firm, so the villagers pulled a clever stunt: they asked for a Catholic school. Even though only 13 of the 42 students were actually Catholic. The trick worked: they got a local school. But the public board was livid: they had been counting on those extra students and the funding that comes with them to make their school better. So they filed a lawsuit, arguing that while there was a constitutional requirement for the government to fund Catholic schools… that requirement extended only to Catholic students; the government had no obligation to fund non-Catholic students in Catholic schools. After almost a decade-and-a-half, they won.

This ruling could have far-reaching consequences. First, it could decimate the Catholic school system. If they’re not going to get funding for non-Catholic students, Catholic schools would either have to subsidize those students out of their own pockets (yeah, right) or make the parents pay (also not likely). That would mean students flocking back to the public system, giving them more funding, resulting in more programs and better schools, further making Catholic schools seem like a non-choice for non-Catholics (as, really, it should be). And it goes even further than just Saskatchewan; Alberta uses an identical constitutional framework as Saskatchewan to justify its Catholic system, and the same basic argument could also apply in Ontario. Already Catholic school supporters are freaking out, and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall even used the nuclear option – the notwithstanding clause (although that might not actually work).

So why didn’t this make the nomination list? Well, as huge as this story could be, there are just too many unknowns. The ruling still might be struck down. And even if it’s not, if Wall’s notwithstanding gambit (although arguably just a ploy to distract from his government’s bungling of other issues) actually works, there may be no practical change made at all. It’s an interesting story, and one definitely worth watching, but it could ultimately be nothing.

Omar Khadr wins compensation for human rights abuses against him: Yet another story that should never have been, as Omar Khadr became a political football yet again. For a quick recap: Omar Khadr was the son of a crazy, evil asshole, who turned his child into a foot soldier for al-Qaida. Omar was wounded and captured at age 15 during a firefight where he allegedly killed a US soldier (though there are many questions about what really happened). Now any reasonable person would have to acknowledge that a child soldier needs rehabilitation, not tortured into giving a confession, then locked away for life, right? That’s what international law says, too. But nope, the Americans wanted to go the torture and detention route, and Canada approved it.

Years later, after multiple Supreme Court rulings, Khadr was finally freed, and since his human rights had been violated (repeatedly) by the Canadian government, he filed a $20 million lawsuit. The Trudeau government, being less – let’s not mince words – fucking stupid than the Harper government, realized that this was a case they were guaranteed to lose. So they offered a $10.5 million settlement – a number in line with similar settlements in recent years, and one that saves the Canadian public $9.5 million. So, win, right?

Nope. The bigots exploded. And the Conservatives, never missing an opportunity to dog-whistle to the worst of Canada, fanned the flames. Responsible journalists struggled to keep up with the lies and misconceptions being spread.

Unlike the other non-stories that were nominated this year, the Omar Khadr story fizzled out almost immediately. It burned hot, but it burned short, and while it must have been hell for Khadr, it affected no one else other than raising the blood pressure of some bigots.

Summary

I imagine it comes as no surprise to anyone that 4⁄6 story of the year nominees – and 1⁄2 honourable mentions – involve Islam or Muslims. That seems a little out of whack considering that Muslims only make up less than 4% of Canadians. But what’s even more telling is that none of those stories were instigated by anything that Muslims did. On top of that, other than the Québec hijab ban Québec City shooting, none of the stories connected to Islam or Muslims began with a major incident. With M-103, it was a toothless, non-binding motion; with the Peel District School Board, it was a silly little policy mistake that was corrected long before the whole thing blew up; with Omar Khadr it was a logical move by the government considering the legal position they were in (which had been created by a lot of the Conservative politicians squawking about it). For all the hysterics about what Muslims are doing to our country, it should raise one’s eyebrow that in the final accounting, it’s not actually Muslims who are creating the problems.

2017 was both the year that the far-right became powerful in Canada… and then lost that power as coverage of them, their beliefs, and their antics quickly soured most Canadians on them. And I think that’s a good example of the pattern of 2017 in general. The year started badly, and seemed to be getting worse following the really shitty 2016. But along the way, the momentum shifted. You can see that trend everywhere:

I don’t think 2017 was the year that reason won. But it may have been the year it turned the tide.

One can only hope.

No, check that. One can do more than only hope. One can work to make Canada better. I think if there is one lesson we can take away from 2017, it’s that when we do, we get results.

Here’s to everyone who worked to make Canada better in 2017. Thank you so much for your efforts; they weren’t for nothing. Let’s bring it on again, more, harder and better, in 2018.

3 thoughts on “2018 Canadian Atheist Awards – Story of the year

  1. The case of The Law Society of British Columbia is really messy. Even I’m not sure of what exactly happened (I’d welcome anyone offering clarity in the comments), but as I understand it, the LSBC initially decided they would accredit TWU… but then the actual membership of the Society (that is, BC lawyers) forced some kind of referendum, where they voted overwhelmingly against accrediting. TWU sued, saying the whole process was dodgy or one-sided, and won. That case was one of the two heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.

    Good, albeit depressing, rundown on 2017.

    On the Law Society of BC, you basically have the facts right (as far as I recall). The benchers (ie elected directors) of the society voted to approve the school based on previous support from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (who did face pushback). The members revolted and at a special meeting (it may have been the AGM) amassed a large number of speakers to talk against the decision. The benchers decided to put the question to the broader membership, since speakers at a meeting aren’t necessarily representative of the broader legal community. The vote was like 60-70% against TWU, so the bench took that “under advisement” and reversed their decision.

    The BC Supreme Court ruled (unsurprisingly based on that mess) that this represented the benchers “fettering” their decision by putting it to a vote.

    The facts are laid out in Justice Hinkson’s ruling for those who really want to delve into the weeds of administrative law: https://www.canlii.org/en/bc/bcsc/doc/2015/2015bcsc2326/2015bcsc2326.html

    • Ah! Finally I think I see some sense in it!

      I knew (or I think I knew) the general outline of what happened, but I didn’t understand why the court ruled against it. It sounded like the Law Society made a decision that should have gone to a referendum but for whatever reason they just assumed the answer (possibly based on their belief about the legality of the decision)… then the membership demanded a vote be done.

      But now that I’ve seen the key word – “fettered” – I finally understand the ruling. I think. So, basically, what the LSBC did wrong was that the administrative decision makers didn’t make a “bad” decision… they just didn’t even make the decision at all. They essentially “shirked their duty” (in the view of the Court) and said, “welp, we don’t even need to actually give serious consideration to the question; we have to do what the members vote”. But they didn’t have to do what the members voted, so they were wrong to claim they did… and that was why they lost the case.

      My confusion was that I thought the referendum vote was actually a legit part of the decision process. Now it sounds like it wasn’t… or at least, it was only supposed to be one of the factors considered, and the ADMs ignored the other factors and gave inappropriate weight to the vote.

      That’s actually good news! All this time I was concerned that there was some factor in the decision itself that was unreasonable – that, in other words, there was something wrong with the conclusion that the LSBC didn’t have to accredit TWU. But if the decision was fettered, then the decision itself was never even judged! Because – as far as the court was concerned – the decision never happened!

      That’s good, because it means that the only real decision on the issue itself that was ever tested was the Ontario decision. The Charter was never really an issue in the LSBC decision while it was in the LSUC decision… and that went smashingly in our favour. That makes me much more confident about the SCC decision.

      Thanks, Ian! You not only put me on the right track and helped clear up my confusion, you totally made my day!

  2. Pingback: Feb 2nd/2018 | Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

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