Interview with Michel Virard – Co-Founder & President, Association Humaniste Du Québec

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are the events and services provided for members of the Association Humaniste Du Québec within the community? How does Francophone Canada experience the history of humanism in this country?

Michel Virard: The AHQ has been providing film screenings and lectures to our members since 2006. The screenings are regular monthly events while the lectures total about six lectures per year.

With a few exceptions, all those events are related in one way or another to our mission, which is the development of critical thinking and the promotion of secular humanist values. We also hold potluck dinners twice a year. Last one was “La Fête des Lumières Humanistes” on December 22nd.

Since the Quiet Revolution in Québec, there have been Francophone associations dedicated to the protection of the non-religious in the province. However, none had the word «humanism» in their name.

Most prominent was the 1981 Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ) itself a reincarnation of an older movement, the Mouvement laïque français (MLF) created around 1960. In parallel with those movements dedicated mainly to the secularisation of the state education, there has been a thriving skeptical movement, the Sceptiques du Québec (SQ), created in 1988.

I joined the SQ in 1992 as administrator and animator and I had a lot of fun at the expense of paranormal proponents: at the time, we had a 1 million dollar prize to anyone able to prove a paranormal power. We punched holes in homeopathy (I committed a “homeopathic suicide” in the presence of a CBC reporter), numerology, astrology and the like.

Around 2003-2004, it became apparent that neither the MLQ nor the SQ could pretend to represent non-believers. Internal squabbles in both organisations convinced me and Bernard Cloutier that we needed a separate organisation for non-believers in the supernatural. Hence the creation in December 2004 of the Fondation humaniste du Québec and in June 2005, of the Association humaniste du Québec.

Over time, the FHQ (the Fondation) bought a complete floor in a former nun’s building in Montreal. Since 2010, the Centre humaniste du Québec has been used by many secular organisations such as the MLQ, the SQ and the AHQ (of course). In 2012, the IHEU (International Humanist & Ethical Union, based in London, UK) made its yearly General Assembly in our Centre humaniste.

To our knowledge, as of today, the Humanists in Québec are the only ones to own their premises in Canada. Also, the Fondation has enough regular revenues to guarantee the operation of the Center for many decades.

Jacobsen: How can individuals become involved in the Association Humaniste Du Québec? 

Virard: Simply by asking to be received as a member and paying the yearly fee (25$). To be received as a member you sign the inscription form which states that you have read our 8 humanist principles and that you agree with all of them.

Principles 2 to 8 are the exact translation of those found in the 2002 Amsterdam declaration. Principle 1 was added by Bernard Cloutier to make sure there was no ambiguity on our position relative to divinities, soul, reincarnation and the like. 

Jacobsen: Humanism emphasizes reason, compassion, and science. Why? How does this work within a secular community including the Association Humaniste Du Québec?

Virard: In the end, compassion is the result of two scientific ascertainments. One, we are all highly social beings. Two, we all want to survive and be happy.

Philosophical ethics help us to figure out a certain number of principles derived from these ascertainments. Principles are short cuts when we don’t have time to analyse in deep details the entire cluster of the expected consequences of our intended actions or when it is hopelessly too complicated.

But the expected route for a humanist is first to see if the analyse is possible and only second to fall back on “canned” principles. More about Humanism Ethics in a paper from our late Pat Duffy Hutcheon (Modern Humanism, a definition) which is attached.  

Jacobsen: How is a specific set of provisions respectful to and important for Francophones – whether monolingual, bilingual, or a prolific polyglot – within the Canadian humanist community?

Why is this relevant within the historical context of the at-times tensions between Anglophone and Francophone communities within Canadian society, for those who may not know reading this on the day of publication or years onward from it?

Virard: Apart from myself serving as a bridge between anglophone and francophone Humanists, we must accept that there are very few connexions between the two humanist constellations. The reality of this country is that true bilingualism is a capacity we can expect only from a small minority of Canadians.

All the events organized by the AHQ are in French. Making them bilingual would instantly destroy the AHQ appeal. We learnt that the hard way a long time ago. Currently, no articles from Humanist Perspective or from Québec Humaniste are translated and published into the other magazine.

The only issues that could interest both constituencies are related to the Criminal code (ex: blasphemy law, Dying with dignity concerns, Canada Charter of Rights and Freedoms, etc.). Most numerous issues in Canada of interest to Humanists are actually related to provincial questions thus the need to translate is not very high.

I must add that occasional attempts by Humanist Canada to «represent francophone humanist, too» are not likely to succeed. And trying to create a truly bilingual humanist organisation would be an incredible waste of time and money knowing the diverging nature of our respective interests.

The pragmatic way to handle that is to have enough contacts between AHQ and HC so we have good cooperation on the (limited) number of common issues.

Jacobsen: What are some of the positive expectations for 2019 for the Association Humaniste Du Québec? What some existential risks for the equality and freedom of humanists in 2019, potentially?

Virard:  Central to our action in Québec, will be our continued struggle to get rid of the “Religious Culture” course imposed upon all children and teenagers in the state schools since 2008. For us, it is clearly a course in “credulity promotion” since it presents six religions (excluding secular humanism, of course) seen only through the rosy lens of their myths and rituals.

Not a single word about their historical deeds, nor their responsibility in many human conflicts nor their inherent contradictions with ethics and science. In other words, it is a propaganda machine so brainwashed children end up believing that having a religion is a must in order to be “normal”.

Furthermore, the course always represents religious people through their most fundamentalist versions. So a Muslim girl is ALWAYS represented with a head covering, a young Jew is always represented with a kippah, and a young First Nation girl always with some feathers…

We believe this course was created as an expedient way to keep a large number of former religion teachers on the payroll: they moved from a Catholic or Protestant curriculum to a slightly expended curriculum since Christian teachings are still given the lion share of the new curriculum (for “historical reasons”, of course). We think the ÉCR course in its present form, is, indeed, an existential risk for the future of secular humanism in Quebec.

Jacobsen: In the management of community and the work to provide for the needs of the members of it, what are the pluses and minuses, positives and negatives, of the work there?

Virard:  Since we are not expecting too much from our members, we won’t be too disappointed. Most work is performed by Board members. This is especially important when we have to meet government officials. So we have a porte-parole, an editor in chief, a webmaster, an event manager (that’s me for now), a treasurer, all of them are Board members.

We ask for help from volunteers to maintain and improve the Centre humaniste. Since the beginning, I have insisted on having name stickers to anyone coming to our events (movies, lectures, potlucks).

This has been helpful to form bonds between members and into developing a sense of community. I half-jokingly tell everyone that the reason I co-create the AHQ was in order to give an “identity” to the non-believers, and I think we succeeded.

Jacobsen: What are the general demographics of the Association Humaniste Du Québec? How does this differ from the general surrounding culture of the area? How does this add, not detract, from the inclusivity and available flavors of views and experiences of the national humanist community?

Virard:  As with most Humanist organisations, the demographics are skewed toward the elders with somewhat more men than women (60/40 is kind of a rule of thumb). There is no much surprise there: these are the same bias we find essentially in all general humanist organisations.

Retirees are important to us: they have time to think and time to help (and money to boot). We do have younger members but they tend to come and go. University groups have a short half-life and women are more attracted to strictly feminist groups (we have lost women board members to women’s rights groups).  

Regarding diversity, I think we are not doing badly, we have members from all parts of the Francophonie such as Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Belgium, France, as well as from Egypt, Italy, but also from the English speaking community in Montreal (of course, they do speak French, too).

Our most popular video on our Youtube channel – QcHumaniste – (with 120 clips) is a lecture on the Koran by a member from Morocco (about 94,000 views). 

Jacobsen: How can people become involved with donations, becoming a member, or showcasing the Association Humaniste Du Québec community?

Virard: You can make a donation or become a member through our website: http://assohum.org/nous-contacter/devenez-membre/  

We can make presentations of the AHQ to audiences around Quebec (Ontario, New-Brunswick) to French-speaking potential humanists. In addition to Montreal we have three active regional groups or “chapters”*: Trois-Rivières, Quebec-City, Gatineau. Just write to info@assohum.org.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Michel.

* The term “chapitre” (chapter in French) as an assembly of persons is frowned upon by francophone because it is almost always reserved for monastery usage, meaning the «assembly of canons» or for Hell’s Angel bikers…

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

 

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