Isabelle D. the main contact for Secular AA for the Montreal and/or Chomedey-Laval, Quebec, Canada groups). Here we talk about her background and work.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Family background, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof:
Isabella D.: I was born and raised in Montreal, QC, except for a short period when we lived in Vancouver, BC. My mother’s family was French-Canadian and so I am what you would call “Québécoise pure-laine” as some like to say, although I never really identified with that label. I dont know much about my father’s side, as he stayed away in BC after the divorce.
My grand-parents were non-practicing Catholics but, as the first of their 5 grand-children, they had me promptly and properly baptized in church as a baby, dolled up for my first communion in grade one, and then embarrassingly overdressed for my confirmation in fifth grade.
My 1st grade teacher was a nun and would have us recite the « Notre Père » (french version of the “Our Father » prayer) first thing every morning. But I wasn’t much of a believer even back then…
My mother was somewhat of a non-conformist hippie and had already taken us along to a few different religious groups she was exploring, such as Buddhists and mormons. So from a very young age, the notion that different people had different religions kinda just stuck and, to me, that was just the reality of things. I never felt one religion was better than the rest nor did I feel a compelling pull to adhere to the Catholic faith in particular.
Jacobsen: Personal background and some pivotal moments in education and in the social life around school:
Isabella D.: Mom was on welfare so we didn’t have much of anything growing up and moved a lot. I must have gone to at least 5 different elementary schools in 6 years, sometimes jumping between 2 schools in the same year. So I was often the new kid in class, feeling “different” or like an outcast until I made a few friends.
In high school, I usually kept mostly to myself and got good grades, despite the chaos and instability of home. During those years, I was temporarily “placed” in foster care three times (at my own request) with friends and/or neighbours and was out in my own place at 17, while finishing high school and working part-time. I didn’t mix well with the kids at school, having limited inadequate social skills, and was a bit of a loner. And so, having had a falling out with the in-crowd in my senior year, I skipped prom and couldn’t wait to move on to college.
Jacobsen: After primary and secondary school, what was life like for you?
Isabella D.: Having been in a long-term interracial relationship since the age of 14 (and shunned by my family for it), I had my first daughter at 19 while in college and my second at 22, during university while studying Social Work (feeling I could do so much better than my social worker did). My studies were interrupted for a few years after I became a single parent but I ended up going back to school and obtaining my bachelor degree in 2000, with my two beautiful girls posing beside me in my graduation pictures.
The responsibilities of single-parenthood kept me focussed and out of bigger troubles during my younger years. None the less, alcoholism caught up with me in my mid-forties and the time inevitably came to put an end to my drinking days. So off to AA I went and it was love at first sight; until religiosity reared its ugly head through the sponsoring I was receiving. It very nearly drove me away and out of the program. But then I found Secular AA and AA Agnostica on the net and felt I might be able to stay sober with the AA program after all. The problem was there was only one Secular AA group in the province of QC at the time and it was an hour away from me. Still, I went to check it out a couple of times and a few months later, in January 2019, the Secular AA Laval meetings started with the collaboration of two atheist AA members.
Jacobsen: In Chomedey-Laval, Quebec, Canada, what is the secular and agnostic meeting there?
Isabella D.: Essentially, it’s pretty much like a regular meeting except without prayer and no reference to religion or a belief in “bible-God” as a prerequisite to achieve or maintain sobriety. So we don’t read out the steps or “How it works”.
One thing that is different is that we allow members that are too far to attend the meeting in person to connect either via Zoom or phone. Our meeting is also bilingual and open to all who wish to stop drinking and share their experience, hope and strength in a non-religious spiritual manner.
Jacobsen: How does this become an important part of AA community life for the freethought community of Quebec?
Isabella D.: This is huge for Quebec as there is currently only one other secular AA meeting (that I know of) left operating in the province, in French and not in the greater Montreal area. “Les Libres-Penseurs” (Free-Thinkers) was the first and was created in April of 2018 in Saint-Hyacynthe. Then the group “Esprit-Ouvert” formed in December of the same year, followed in January by Secular AA Laval, the latter being the closest one to Montreal so far. Unfortunately, “Esprit-Ouvert” shut down recently and is no longer holding meetings.
Jacobsen: What people come to Secular AA in Montreal or Chomedey-Laval, Quebec? What has been their feedback?
Isabella D.: It’s been a mixed crowd of believers, atheists and agnostics so far, usually easy-going people looking for a meeting in Laval on a Friday night or a secular one specifically. The feedback has been very positive. They’re not sure what to expect at first but quickly feel at ease as soon as the usual sharing starts and the vibe is always good. Our room is in a community center that is easy to get to and well situated near a highway with lots of free parking, plenty of tea and coffee and lots of good literature laid out on display. People are usually very impressed with the location and the care that is put into the set-up.
Jacobsen: How do you manage the community, maintain solidarity and a place for public healing, and the openness and inclusion for a wide range of new members from a variety of different backgrounds?
Isabella D.: We don’t have a huge crowd of attendees just yet so it’s not been too challenging so far. One thing I do try to emphasize is that it is a secular meeting to which all are welcome: believers and atheists alike. So respecting everyone’s opinion while not imposing our own is very important. All should feel comfortable (and unapologetic) about their personal views on religion and God. This can get tricky with members who have been in contact with rigid Big Book thumpers at certain traditional meetings or as sponsors because they may need to vent. So there is a delicate balance to try to maintain in that respect.
Jacobsen: Any recommended literature or speakers?
Isabella D.: Yes! My favorite book so far is One Big Tent – Atheist and agnostic AA members share their experience, strength and hope. It stands out for me because it’s the first AA approved literature that I find truly geared towards and helpful for secular members looking for a way to make the AA program work for themselves. I am also a huge fan of “Staying Sober without God” by Jeffrey Munn.
Jacobsen: Any exciting new developments for 2019/2020?
Isabella D.: We have a new location at a different community centre in Laval and a new meeting name to go along with it: “Friday Night Sober”. Our next step will be to have the meeting listed on the AA.org website and then register as a group, once we have enough regular attending members. So come on down and check us out!
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Isabella D.: Yes. I’d like to invite anyone reluctant to giving AA a shot because of the “god thing”, like I was, to give Secular AA a try. I truly believe AA has a great program that works.
I’d also like to invite any current traditional AA members who feel they are “anti-Secular AA” to keep an open mind and think of Secular AA meetings as an additional tool to help the still suffering alcoholic increase their chances of finding their way to a happy, joyous and free life in sobriety. “I want the hand of AA always to be there and for that, I am responsible.”
Thanks for the opportunity to share. I hope this will reach anyone who needs it in the Montreal area of QC.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Isabelle.
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.
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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.