The final award in the 2019 Canadian Atheist Awards is “Person of the year”. This award goes to the person who had the greatest positive impact in Canadian secularism, humanism, atheism and freethought in 2018.
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 2019 Canadian Atheist Person of the year:
And so, with no further ado, let us get to the awarding of the 2019 Canadian Atheist Person of the year.
And the runners-up are:
Paul Ens is a Calgarian probably best known as the host of the Paulogia YouTube channel, which is excellent and I highly recommend. Ens is a former creationist who began questioning the dogma due to reading Ken Ham while researching for Neozoic, a graphic novel he (Ens, obvs) was writing. That sorta makes Ham the Joker to Ens as Batman… and having written that, labelling Ham as “the Joker” is surprisingly apt. Ens has a regular feature on Paulogia called “Ham and AiG News” (which, great name, I loled), where he reviews the Answers in Genesis “news” show.
But Ens is not nominated for Paulogia, excellent though that show may be.
At the end of 2017, the Alberta Home Education Association (AHEA), who have a history of dodgy associations, invited Ken Ham to their annual convention. It was Ens who was at the forefront of the criticism of the invitation, speaking out on major news platforms like the CBC.
But even that, on its own, still might not have earned Ens a nomination. What earned Ens a nod was how effective his scrutiny of the AHEA/Ham connection was.
First, AiG published an article written by Calvin Smith, the soon-to-be president of AiG–Canada that dismissed Ens as a
disgruntled father, and pretend he was the only person who had a problem with Ham speaking at an education conference. So, he kinda ruffled their feathers.
But then came the AHEA convention drama. Ens – after having received criticism that while he may understand creationism, he was ignorant about homeschooling – decided to register to attend the convention to learn what he was supposedly ignorant of, and see for himself what was really going on in the homeschooling domain. He even got a special invitation to a dinner with Ken Ham. Amused by the idea of Ham buying him dinner, he accepted… and that caught the attention of AiG.
Two days before the event, Ens got a phone call from Calvin Smith – AiG–Canada’s president himself – uninviting him from the dinner. Bummer, but fair enough; if AiG was footing the bill, it’s perfectly kosher of them to refuse to pay for someone who’s not going to support the organization.
But then, five hours before the convention, while Ens was actually on his way, he got an email from the president of AHEA. The AHEA board had apparently got together and made a decision to uninvite him from the entire convention. Apparently the AHEA really just an arm of AiG
Ens kept digging after the mysterious disinvitations, and eventually revealed that AHEA – which does not publicly claim to be a Christian organization, and which, in fact, claims to be welcoming and tolerant of different beliefs – not only has secular members who are irritated by the organization’s religious bent, but Ham himself slipped up and called it a Christian association. On top of that, the organization appears to have gone out of its way to block reporters and anyone else who might be critical from seeing what went on at the convention.
For his efforts at combating the spread of creationism in Canada, and in exposing the shady link between Alberta’s homeschooling association and Answers in Genesis, Ens definitely deserves a nomination for person of the year.
Many nominees for person of the year earn the nod for a single, highly-visible act while others are nominated for a pattern of action, often spread throughout the year. But the best of the nominees are usually examples of both. Folks, meet Bernie Farber.
Farber first shows up on Canadian Atheist in 2018 in mid-January, following up on the “hijab hoax” incident with comments calling out the absurdity of saying that one child’s dumb decision reflects on the entire million-strong community of Muslims in Canada. But Farber was prolific. Just about any time there was an fulmination of hate or bigotry in Canada, there Farber was, like a dedicated firefighter ready with his hose.
Indeed, the biggest challenge for me in this write-up is to narrow down his extensive list of writings and interviews to a representative sample. Farber’s main interest is anti-Semitism, but over the course of the year he also spoke out against islamophobic bigots like Kevin Johnston, the racism and misogyny of the alt-right, and in his battle against hate he even went after large media outlets and the government, both provincial and federal. I think one of the best indications that you’re doing things right as an advocate for justice and tolerance is when you get specifically singled out by the worst of the bigots, and Farber definitely has that honour.
But while all of this is impressive, it’s pretty much just standard Farber. He’s been doing this for years, and has even be showered with awards for his work… real awards, not bullshit awards like this one… like the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. So what did he do in 2018 that caught the particular attention of Canadian Atheist?
In 2018, Bernie Farber helped create the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, and became its first chair.
If you haven’t heard of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network yet, they are a nonprofit advisory and research organization that monitors, studies, and counters hate groups in Canada and provides education and resources to anyone looking into these groups or trying to deal with them. Amazingly, while Canada has had some volunteer resources, like the excellent Anti-Racist Canada, we had nothing particularly formal or organized to combat hate before the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. But with the rise of the far-right in North America and Europe, and their incursion into and undue influence on the halls of power, we need them.
And wow, they have had impact. As if to celebrate their formation in May, they shared their data that revealed the identity of the infamous neo-Nazi Gabriel Sohier Chaput/“Charles Zeiger”. And that was just the beginning. They’ve only been around for a few months, and I’ve already lost track of the number major stories about hate groups and hate mongers that they and their affiliates can claim credit for. A mere week after their official opening – and their expose of Chaput – they followed that up by getting Canada’s biggest neo-Nazi podcast shut down. A month later they were exposing one of the podcast’s hosts, Clayton Sanford/“Axe In The Deep”. After that it was Thomas White/ “League of the North”. Then Brandon Cameron/“Alba Nuadh”. I could go on and on.
Farber himself, while all this was going on, was also not only continuing his own journalistic writing, he was also talking to media in his capacity as Canadian Anti-Hate Network chair, and there, too, he shone. As just one example, there’s this interview where he discuses the the question of whether hate is happening more frequently these days, or whether we’re just hearing about it more. Farber’s take on the question is intelligent and nuanced, pointing out that there is no reason the “or” in the previous sentence must be an exclusive “or”.
For founding and serving as the chair of Canada’s first major anti-hate organization, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, and for his general work combating hate in Canada, Bernie Farber definitely deserves his nomination for person of the year.
I’m a bit of a constitutional and administrative law wonk, so it shouldn’t surprise that Malcolm Rowe is on my radar. He’s the first and only Supreme Court Justice from Newfoundland and Labrador, and the first appointed via the new process created by Justin Trudeau. (Trudeau changed the system so that basically any bilingual lawyer or judge can apply, and the applicants are reviewed by a board chaired by former PM Kim Campbell. Before this, justices were appointed by the Governor General based on recommendations from the PM. This was always problematic, but especially after the fiasco when Harper tried to appoint Marc Nadon.)
Rowe’s reputation as a thoughtful and compassionate judge goes back to long before he was a Supreme Court candidate. And even before he was a judge, he had a hell of a reputation. Way back in the early 1990s, while working for Brian Tobin during the time Tobin was Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Rowe was a fierce advocate for indigenous fishing rights. When Tobin became Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Rowe became one of his advisors. During that time, Rowe helped extend legal protections for gays and lesbians, and to provide full funding for the Morgentaler abortion clinic at a time when other provinces were still trying to ban abortions. (In fact, in 2014, New Brunswick’s lack of funding forced their Morgentaler clinic to shut down, leaving the St. John’s clinic as the only abortion clinic in all of Atlantic Canada.)
And if all that isn’t impressive enough for Canadian Atheist readers, dig this: In 1998, following a referendum to give the people’s blessing, Newfoundland and Labrador abolished its separate (religious) school systems, and established a single, secular system. Wanna guess the name of the guy who actually crafted the constitutional amendment that made that happen? Yup. Malcolm Rowe. And he’s damn proud of it, too!
Okay, but all that’s history… what did Rowe do specifically in 2018 to earn his nomination?
One of the biggest stories of 2018 was the Trinity Western law school case. Very brief recap: Trinity Western University wanted to open a law school. Several provincial law societies refused to automatically accredit TWU law school graduates because the university had a mandatory, discriminatory, anti-LGBTQ “Community Covenant” students were required to sign. TWU sued, and multiple cases ended up at the Supreme Court. TWU lost, and eventually made their Covenant optional.
The majority decision was a win for equality… but only barely so, because the Justices only considered the legal question of the specific case very narrowly. Basically, they avoided all of the important questions about the clash of rights between the religious freedom for TWU to be a Christian school, and its gay students to be, well, gay. Instead, they found a way to resolve the case without considering that. Luckily that worked out for us, which is cool, but… we wanted more. And we weren’t alone. There were two concurring opinions. Then-Chief Justice McLachlin made the case that Charter considerations should be given absolute precedence. In her view, limiting TWU’s religious rights to protect LGBTQ rights generally is a fair and reasonable trade-off. That was the kind of decision we wanted from this case! And that’s the kind of reasoning that earned McLachlin a nomination for person of the year last year.
And then along came Rowe.
At the time, Rowe was still the most junior member of the Court. His concurring opinion starts out the same as McLachlin’s: when Charter rights are at issue, they can’t be ignored. But where McLachlin then jumped to deciding whose rights should be overruled, Rowe took a very different tack. He explained that overruling rights should be the last thing you do: when you’re dealing with what looks like a case of competing rights, you need to stop and examine very carefully exactly which rights were at issue, and exactly how those rights work. That is exactly what humanists want, because we believe that when you do that properly, you always arrive at the right answer – the humanist answer. And Rowe proved exactly that. He looked at TWU’s right to be (their kind of) Christian… versus the right of students to be, well, themselves… and realized the fallacy: whether or not it makes sense for an organization to be Christian doesn’t even matter, because even if TWU has the right to be Christian, they don’t have the right to force others to be. In Rowe’s own words:
[T]he coercion of nonbelievers is not protected by the Charter.
It’s hard to impress just how important Rowe’s reasoning is to secularists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers. If his opinion hadn’t been a minority opinion, it would have completely changed the legal landscape we are fighting most of our battles on. If the Court had been made up of five or more Rowes (or, if you don’t find that image as erotic as I do, just pick your favourite five Justices and imagine they all shared Rowe’s opinion), then – as just one example – today we’d be seriously talking about the end of religious health institutions that ban services like abortion and medical assistance in dying on their premises.
Alas, as a minority opinion, Rowe’s humanistic take on administrative law remains a fantasy. But… thing is… he’s on the Court until 2028… and he’s just dropped this huge hint of how he’ll lean if a case like this ever rolls his way again. If or when that happens… well that might be a very good day for secularism and freethought in Canada.
For his long career of thoughtful and compassionate work in law – both on the legislative and on the judicial teams – and for his concurring opinion in the Trinity Western law school cases, which offer a tantalizing promise of a substantial change to administrative law in Canada that will be of enormous value to secularists and freethinkers, Malcolm Rowe has certainly earned his nomination for person of the year.
Most nominees require some explaining about exactly what they did over the course of the year to earn their nomination. But if you followed Canadian news in 2018, you can probably guess what earned Simons her slot. However, you may be surprised; there may be more to it than you knew!
For many years, Simons was a journalist working for the Edmonton Journal. If I were to try to list all of the awards she racked up as a journalist, I’d be here all day, so I’ll give you some of the highlights. In 2014 she was part of a team of Journal reporters that had done a four-year long investigation into Alberta’s foster care system. That investigation, “Fatal Care”, earned her a Hillman Prize for Journalism, and a National Newspaper Award for investigative journalism. She’s also received special awards from Edmonton’s LGBTQ community, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, and more.
More recently, she’s probably been better known for her column… for which she also won a National Newspaper Award this year. Simons has always been a gifted storyteller, with a talent for really bringing out the heart of a story. Her columns, which could be on anything from parking to murder to Star Wars and aging, run the gamut from serious to hilarious.
Of particular interest to CA readers, Simons openly identifies as a feminist and a non-believing secular humanist. And unlike some pretty-haired politicians I could name, she doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk. I can’t even begin to choose an article of hers to illustrate the point; seriously, just pick anything she’s ever written – her beliefs (or rather, humanistic non-belief) shine through in most everything she does. I’d be hard-pressed to name any other Canadian journalist that wears their humanism on their sleeve as proudly as Simons.
And, of course – alert readers knew this was coming – this last year she was appointed to the Senate by Justin Trudeau.
I could stop there, because I think being a proudly outspoken humanist Senator is probably justification enough for a nomination. But this is Paula frickin’ Simons we’re talking about here. You don’t seriously think she’s the type to see a Senate appointment as a ticket to coasting on easy-street, do you? Hells, no. In her short time in the Senate, Simons is already shaking the foundations of the institution. The Senate has a reputation of being elitist, aloof, and disconnected from Canadian society – well-earned, too, if one recalls the expense scandal. Simons is tearing down those walls, and bringing us right into the Red Room, making Canadians part of the process in a way no one has before. If her example takes root, it could be really exciting to see what the future of the Senate will look like.
For being an outspoken feminist and secular humanist throughout an impressive journalistic career, all the way to the Canadian Senate, and for tearing down the barriers between the average Canadian and the halls of power, I don’t think there’s any denying Paula Simons earned a nomination as person of the year.
Gretta Vosper may be one of the most famous Canadian atheists. She’s also a minister in the United Church of Canada. Anyone whose bio reads like that has to be a hell of a person.
I probably don’t need to tell Vosper’s story, but just in case: Vosper became a minister in the United Church of Canada in the early 90s, and became minister of West Hill United Church in Toronto in 1997. Right from the beginning, Vosper never really believed in God as a bearded man in the sky, or perhaps even as a personal being generally. But the UCC is the most progressive church in Canada – at least, it calls itself that, and the claim isn’t unreasonable – and her position wasn’t exactly uncommon among UCC ministers.
In 2001, Vosper admitted to her congregation that she no longer believed that God actually exists. She labelled herself “non-theist”. But that didn’t mean she no longer believed in the Church. She viewed God metaphorically, as a concept, and the Church was all she’d ever known – it was the framework for all of her moral beliefs and the foundation for her understanding of meaning… and that had never involved a literal being somewhere in the cosmos glaring down in judgment and authority. So she continued as minister of West Hill United, and her congregation accepted her.
During this period, the UCC not only tolerated her, they enthusiastically supported her. She was held up as an example of a minister willing to challenge archaic notions of Christian divinity, and bring them into the 21st century. But things started to change in 2013. What was the start of the change? Well, to show solidarity with atheist bloggers in Pakistan and Bangladesh who were being murdered, she decided to no longer refer to herself merely as “non-theist”. She started using the “a-word”. She started calling herself “atheist”.
And that wasn’t all. When the UCC released the usual, religiously-tinged “hopes and prayers” pablum in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, she wrote a scathing criticism at the impropriety of doing so in the face of murders carried out explicitly in the name of religion against critics of religion. That was the last straw.
In what some believe is the first case ever of the UCC punishing someone for having liberal theological views, the UCC started making moves to expel Vosper. It was so unprecedented, the Church literally didn’t have a procedure for doing it; they had to invent it for the express purpose of going after Vosper.
The case dragged on for over two years. The UCC made a point of saying it wasn’t a heresy trial; they weren’t condemning Vosper’s beliefs. They were merely saying she was “unsuitable” to be a minister. But… yeah, it was a heresy trial.
Well, finally, in November, the Church backed down. It was publicly called a “settlement”, but in reality, Vosper had won.
But Vosper isn’t nominated merely for winning the trial and keeping her job. No, no, there is so much more to Gretta Vosper, and what she has done for Canadian atheists. And the UCC and Christianity in Canada, for that matter.
Like many (most?) atheists, when I first heard Vosper’s story – atheist minister being fired by the Church – my response was… “meh, makes sense”. The UCC is essentially a private club, so they can kick out whoever they please. And I didn’t really have a lot of sympathy for Vosper. How could she expect the Church to pay her salary to stand there and “lie” to the congregation? She’d be better off in the atheist community anyway, right?
I changed my mind from that early, rather ignorant take. And what changed my mind was… actually listening to Gretta Vosper.
See, if we put aside our often reflexive antipathy toward religion and churches – which, sure, is not entirely unjustified – what really is the problem with them? Why are they… “bad”? What characteristics or activities make them bad? It turns out that if you imagine religion without all the “bad” stuff, but keeping all the “good” stuff – the community it offers, the spirit of charity and love, and so on… you basically end up with West Hill United Church. If all religion was like Vosper and her congregation, we wouldn’t need this site.
But even that’s not all there is to it. Because while Vosper is certainly helping atheists by making them less of a pariah to religion, Christianity in particular, she’s also helping Christianity itself. Vosper represents, and advocates for, a more progressive way to do religion – one that ditches the simple-minded literalism of ages past, and instead uses the teachings and concepts to explore new, progressive dimensions of moral understanding and meaning-making.
I could go on and on about what Vosper means both for atheism and for Christianity (for example). She is forcing her religion to evolve into something better, and evolution is always preferable to revolution. If Vosper represents the vanguard of a new kind of religion and religiosity, then we have a very interesting, bright future to look forward to.
For “irritating the Church into the 21st century”, and for offering both atheists and Christians a glimpse of a post-conflict world, where we can not only peacefully coexist, but even learn from each other and complement each other, Gretta Vosper has unquestionably earned her nomination.
… AND THE WINNER… IN THE CATEGORY OF PERSON OF THE YEAR… IS…
< < < drum roll > > >
WINNER: Jen Gunter
You’ve heard of Jen Gunter, even if you don’t recognize the name. Dr. Jennifer Gunter is an OB/GYN from Winnipeg who has been an advocate for women’s health issues for almost a decade. But not just an advocate; Gunter’s particular focus has been on debunking the widespread pseudoscience that sometimes seems to go hand-in-hand with women’s health. (In fact, she’s got a book coming out on that very topic. Consider pre-ordering!)
Gunter was already internationally well-known and respected, all the way back to her first book The Preemie Primer, but she was elevated to celebrity status in mid-2017. What happened? Gwyneth Paltrow challenged her to bring her A-game. Gunter did, and it was a rout.
CA readers know all about goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s woo-ey lifestyle brand that peddles useless, expensive bullshit. Hell, goop was also the inspiration for the Hõt Dõg Water that was nominated for art, entertainment, or culture story of the year. A lot of what goop hawks is relatively harmless – well, not harmless to your bottom line. But quite a few of the products are for “health and wellness”… and that’s where the problems start. Not content with the usual celebrity-shilled bullshit like “cleanses” and “detoxes” and weird diets, Paltrow was pushing things like vaginal steaming, and long-discredited rumours like “bras cause cancer”. Of course, pretty much every doctor, scientist, and sensible blogger in the world criticized Paltrow. But only one has become known as her “nemesis”.
As I mentioned, facing criticism from… well, just about everyone in medicine and science… Paltrow defiantly challenged everyone to bring their A-game. So in mid-2017, Gunter responded with a post. It was devastating, directly calling out several of Paltrow’s wackier claims, and even pointing out the hypocrisy of her understanding of “toxins”. It was also hilariously cheeky, signing off with:
It does not take my A game to counter the snake oil, biologically implausible theories, incorrect information, and magic that you and GOOP pass off as health advice. Really, I’m not sure it even takes my C game. It might take a game, like Clue, but that’s about it.
That triggered defensive responses from Paltrow and goop, but Gunter took them all apart, always methodically, always backed up by solid science and references, and always with cheeky humour. It didn’t take long before Gunter became Paltrow and goop’s number one enemy.
But things really got hilarious in 2018.
So right out of the gate 2018, Gunter was debunking goop’s “coffee enema” thing… business as usual. But then Gunter did something awesome and hilarious… she actually went to a goop conference. She registered under her own name, and she actually got in.
The resulting report should be required reading for anyone curious about what celebrity-peddled alternative “medicine” and pseudoscience looks like. There were actually some names I recognize there, like Eben “I totes died; just ignore the doctors” Alexander, but also a whole flock of nutters that were new to me, like Anita “I cured my cancer by being brave; just ignore the chemo” Moorjani. Seriously, it is incredible the breadth and depth of bullshit that was being peddled at this one small event: ghosts, psychics, vaccine denial, AIDS denial… all they were missing to fill out the Bullshit Bingo card was claiming the Moon landing was a hoax.
That exposé alone might have earned her a nomination… but this was January. Gunter was just getting warmed up.
In October, Gunter published one of the funniest skeptical articles of the year. The article was written in the style of a school science experiment report, the objective being:
To identify evidence that Gwyneth Paltrow is correct in her statement that the website GOOP does not sell pseudoscience. She did so by going to the “wellness” section of goop’s website, and reviewing all 161 products they sell.
Well, more or less. Some products simply defy scientific review: how the hell would you even consider the scientific efficacy of tarot cards or
a bag of rocks? Gunter was as charitable as she could be, for example, giving a pass to vitamin D3 supplements because they’re sometimes useful… when you actually have a vitamin D3 deficiency. She also okayed things like condoms and pads even if they were marketed with bullshit claims, because they do at least work for their obvious purpose, and aren’t dangerous.
The conclusion of Gunter’s hilarious “experiment”?
The goop store is 90% quackatorium and there was no evidence supporting Gwyneth Paltrow’s claim that goop does not engage in pseudoscience as a commercial venture.
The exposé and the brilliantly cheeky “experiment” are definitely worth a nomination. But there’s still more!
Because Gunter is not just about debunking Gwyneth Paltrow. Gunter is a champion for women’s health generally. Over the course of 2018, she wrote about that terrible “abortion pill reversal” study, bullshit celebrity medical advice (from celebrities other than Paltrow, political interference in women’s health issues, and the role of the media in perpetuating pseudoscience.
And that’s still not all. Gunter doesn’t just focus on women’s health issues. She’s also written about naturopathy, vaccine denial, sex & marriage, and even guns (that matters particularly to doctors practising in the US, I suppose).
And, if you’re one of those “I don’t care about women’s health, what about the menz???” kind of assholes, she’s even got you covered!
Gunter herself has had a pretty good year, too, as her determined debunking of Paltrow and goop led to Paltrow herself disavowing her own products. I’ll let Gunter herself bring this section full circle with a callback to how her “dispute” with Paltrow all began in her response after goop lost the lawsuit about their jade vaginal egg health claims.
Choosing the winner of the person of the year award is always hard for me. Every single nominee deserves it. But I have to pick one, so this time I looked over the list of nominees and realized that while they were all incredible people who have done incredible good over the course of 2018… there was only one who can plausibly lay claim to saving lives.
That clinched it for me. We have our winner.
For her tireless work debunking the dangerous pseudoscience, stigmatization and politicization that particularly threatens women’s health, for her part in disempowering a dishonest and exploitative “wellness” empire built on celebrity and bullshit, and for doing it all with unflagging humour and wit, Dr. Jen Gunter, you are Canadian Atheist’s 2019 person of the year.
Dr. Gunter has earned the right to use the following images or any other method she prefers to declare herself winner of the 2019 Canadian Atheist Person of the year:
Congratulations to Dr. Jen Gunter, wielder of the lasso of truth!
Just as with last year, all the nominees have made contributions far beyond those just in 2018. And I anticipate that they will all continue to do so in the future. It’s always hard for me to choose only one to receive the award. But then I realize that these people are all so special, and spectacular, that, really, it’s only a matter of time. Don’t be surprised if any of them show up as a future person of the year.
Once again, I have to remind everyone that this award does not have anything even remotely resembling a formal process. The nominations and result are all entirely based on my own, personal opinions. However, I believe that I have managed to at least partially capture the feeling of Canadian atheists. But even if not, I stand by my nomination choices, and my choice to give the final award to Dr. Gunter. I have only one regret about the whole thing, and that is that I don’t actually have a physical statuette to award them. I can only hope my sincere admiration will be enough.
Here’s to all the nominees! Thank you all for your efforts in 2017. And here’s looking forward to an even better 2018.
Congratulations to Jen Gunter! I’m afraid I’ve never heard of her, but I knew that there were Canadian atheists.