2020 Canadian Atheist Awards – Story of the year

The next award in the 2020 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 2019.

[2020 Canadian Atheist awards poster]

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.

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 2020 Canadian Atheist Story of the year.

Runners-up

And the runners-up are:

Runner-up: Alberta Catholic schools employment agreements

Stories tend not to exist in a vacuum – there’s almost always a larger context. That’s true of virtually all the stories nominated for story of the year, including this one.

The context here is a generally growing distaste for separate, publicly-funded religious school systems across Canada – particularly in the three provinces that still maintain entirely separate school systems: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. Majorities in all three provinces want the separate school systems abolished, but politicians in all three provinces lack the spine to do so, knowing that it would inflame the fairly large Catholic voting blocs that each province still hosts.

Over the past couple of years, the problem became particularly acute in the prairie provinces. , a Saskatchewan judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for the province to fund non-Catholic students attending public Catholic schools (but still okay to fund Catholic students attending public Catholic schools). This set off an explosion of activity in both Saskatchewan and Alberta – the latter because the law that provides for separate schools in Alberta is identical to the one in Saskatchewan, so whatever applies to Saskatchewan will eventually apply in Alberta, too. The Saskatchewan government, in what has now become a trend, invoked the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” to allow them to defy the ruling, at least temporarily (though it hasn’t actually become necessary yet). Turns out there really just aren’t enough Catholic students to support an entirely separate, parallel Catholic system financially, so the Catholic system has leech students out of the secular public system to survive.

While all this was going on in Saskatchewan, in Alberta, following comments by United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney that parents should be informed when their kids join a gay-straight alliance, the then-ruling NDP government passed legislation that banned teachers from doing so. (It also made it mandatory that, when a student wanted to create a GSA, the school had to allow it.) This turned into a massive controversy, with conservatives filing court challenges, and claiming that GSAs are merely “ideological sex clubs”. After the UCP was elected this past year, they quickly eliminated all those protections.

But while the whole GSA thing was not explicitly about separate schools – only nudge-nudge, wink-wink, yeah, it totally was – what happened at the end of 2018 and start of 2019 absolutely was.

News broke all at once that multiple – at least three explicitly named, Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary, with the implication of several others – public Catholic school boards were forcing their teachers to sign oppressive and ridiculous “employment agreements” in order to keep their jobs.

It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to learn that those “employment agreements” forbid any sort of gay relationships… even though that has absolutely nothing to do with their job performance. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The “employment agreements” were so oppressive that even straight teachers were living in fear. One, for example, reported that he had to give a fake address to the district for almost a year, to hide the fact that he was living with his fiancée before marriage.

[Photo of David Eggen]
David Eggen

If this were most other provinces, at most other times, then this would all be a non-story. There would be the usual outrage at the injustice of separate school systems, but that would be it. Nothing would happen. Nothing would change. Politicians would wring their hands, but ultimately do nothing. Luckily, though, this was during the Alberta NDP government. And the education minister was David Eggen.

As the education minister for Alberta, David Eggen spent most of his tenure dealing with bullshit from religious schools. And he has always done a remarkable job. For example, when a Christian homeschooling organization was defrauding the government, Eggen didn’t piss-ass around… he stepped in, ordered an audit, and shut down the organization until they sorted their shit out.

And so, when these “employment agreements” came to his attention, Eggen immediately stepped up, and said: that’s definitely not on.

And it worked. The districts fell over themselves trying to scrub the old, offensive “employment agreements” from their websites and so on, and release statements “clarifying” that they’re not as terrible and intolerant as their behaviour makes them seem. Naturally they refuse to admit any wrongdoing, and insist they need “Catholicity clauses” in their employment contracts. But Eggen made it clear that those “Catholicity clauses” were going to be worth fuck all. It was a huge win against intolerance. Catholic teachers across the province heaved a sigh of relief.

So why isn’t this the story of the year? Well, because, since then, the NDP government was defeated in an election, and now Alberta is under the thumb of a very right-wing United Conservative government. They’ve already rolled back protections for LGBTQ students… no one seriously believes they’re going to honour the previous government’s promise to protect LGBTQ teachers. So basically, all progress is frozen – and in some cases, actively undone – for at least the next five years.

Runner-up: The Cayton Report

This could have been a fairly niche story, and one of little interest to most Canadian Atheist readers. It started with a string of complaints about the College of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia. The College was, apparently, a complete mess – “dysfunctional” and failing in its duty to protect patients in favour of protecting dentists’ interests instead. The NDP government decided to bring in an outside expert, Harry Cayton, and have him do a thorough review not just of the College of Dental Surgeons, but of all of the professional health care colleges in BC.

And this is where it starts to become of interest to Canadian Atheist.

You see, some of those professional health care colleges in British Columbia regulate such dubious “health care” professions as chiropractic, naturopathy, traditional Chinese “medicine”, and so on. As bad as the College of Dental Surgeons may have been, these colleges were objectively many times worse. And during the course of Cayton’s investigation, they done went and proved it. Spectacularly.

Let’s start with the chiropractors. They got caught up in a huge exposé over the ridiculous claims their members were making about what chiropractic could cure – everything from autism to asthma to bed wetting to, of course, cancer. (Spoiler alert: Chiropractic is complete bullshit. It can’t cure anything.) Trying to cover their asses – and, likely, knowing they were under Cayton’s microscope during all this – they quickly drafted policies about what members could claim to be able to treat. This would be amusing enough, but then it got even wilder. Dozens and dozens of chiropractors refused to comply. But the most amazing case may be that of Avtar Jassal, who claimed that smoothies were more effective than vaccines. Why is he such an interesting case? He was vice-chair of the board of directors for the chiropractic college. Damn. The bullshit really was coming right from the inside in this case.

Ah, but as ridiculous as all that is, the naturopaths may well have them beat.

They had basically the same problems as the chiropractors: basically tons of bullshit claims about what they cure, and lots of anti-vaxx nonsense. But they went and one-upped the chiropractors with the case of a naturopath who treated a young boy with… I shit you not… rabies virus. Yes, rabies, that incurable, almost 100% fatal disease; this naturopath dosed a child with that. Luckily it was homeopathic rabies virus, meaning it was so diluted that it’s unlikely even a single instance of the virus actually remained in the solution. Still. Oh, by the way, did I forget to mention what the naturopath was treating with this homeopathic rabies virus? Well, it turns out she thought the child was showing “dog-like” symptoms following a bite. Yes… she thought the kid was a werewolf.

All of this absurdity, wonderfully reported by biologist and journalist Bethany Lindsay, surely had an impact on Cayton. Because his final report, and his comments about what he recommends, basically imply – although, quite clearly – that those bullshit pseudoscience colleges should simply be ditched.

Will that actually happen? Well, that’s a good question. The BC government held a public consultation on what to do next. We haven’t yet heard the results of that consultation, or the government’s plans. But… it really does look like BC might drop recognition of all pseudoscientific “health care” practices from the province’s health care system. I mean, it almost feels like that’s far too much to hope for… but at the same time… it really does look possible right now.

And that is both why this story deserves to be a candidate for story of the year, yet at the same time, doesn’t quite deserve to win. Perhaps if what we’re hoping for does actually come to pass, this story might actually be not just a candidate, but a strong contender for the winner next year.

Runner-up: Patrik Mathews, Nazi soldier

Nazis. In Canada. In 2019. Who could have predicted that even just five years ago? And yet, Canadian Nazis were the source of multiple news stories over the course of the year.

Now, let’s be clear what we’re talking about here, because this is something pedantic assholes lose their shit over. We’re not talking about members of the German Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei of 1920–1945… but we are talking about people who espouse the same set of core beliefs that that party represented: Nazism. Or, to be more precise, Neo-Nazism. Neo-nazis – I’m just going to call them Nazis – are a distinct class of far-right assholes, They share the hate, and mostly agree on the targets of that hate (Jews, Muslims, racialized minorities, LGBTQ people, and so on) with most other far-right assholes. But they are specifically focused on “race”, and particularly on the idea that the “white race” (or, often, “Europeans”) is somehow superior.

Why is this Nazi stuff relevant to Canadian Atheist? This is another question pedantic assholes (repeatedly) ask. The answer is the large and still growing body of research showing that atheism is a gateway to Nazism. No, I did not say that atheism is in any way related to Nazism – it isn’t; in fact, Nazism is traditionally an enemy of atheism. What’s happening is that Nazi recruiters have been trawling the communities surrounding several big-name atheist personalities, taking advantage of the anger and hate those communities have been fostering, and drawing people – especially young, white men – out of those communities into more extreme ideologies. This is all very well documented. Even by members of the far-right themselves. Thus, we have a responsibility to study modern Nazism, so we can spot the signs of its presence in our communities, and make sure our spaces are not safe spaces for Nazi ideologies, or recruiters.

And it’s no longer tenable to hold on to the belief that Nazis aren’t really a thing anymore in Canada. The past couple of years, we’ve seen an ungodly amount of Nazis popping up in Canada. We found Nazis working as public employees (and, apparently, that fact being hidden from public view). We found Nazis working in political parties at both the national and provincial levels. We found a ton of Nazis in the armed forces, some of them even actively encouraging other Nazis to enlist to get military training for the pending race war.

The funniest Nazi story of the year was the tale of the Canadian Nationalist Party, a Nazi party that actually got registered as an official political party with Elections Canada, entitling them to public funds. That’s not the funny part of course, that’s horrible. But bear with me for a sec. You see, to become an officially registered party, you have to submit a list of 250 people who will publicly vouch for your party. The head of the CNP duly collected that list, but didn’t really read the rules properly. He assumed that since Elections Canada protects the anonymity of voters, they would protect the anonymity of his list of declarators. And that’s what he told the people who vouched for him. Problem was, the people on that list aren’t voters – they’re not voting for anything, they are making a public statement that the party is legitimate. Public. Yes, the entire list is public information. In other words, the CNP had collected a list of 250 Canadian Nazis, and put it on the public record, despite telling those people they would remain anonymous. And yes. It was published.

But by far the most impactful Nazi story of the year was the story of Patrik Mathews. A (now former) Naval reservist from Manitoba, Mathews first came to attention in mid-August when the Forces started doing serious investigations about Nazis in their ranks (after having several publicly revealed by journalists, much to the Forces’ embarrassment). What made him of particular interest is that he was attached to a particularly violent neo-Nazi group, and appeared to be particularly active. Also, he was a combat engineer, and thus had training in explosives.

The RCMP raided his home, and apparently retrieved “several” guns… but not Mathews. Mathews disappeared. His truck was found near the US border, and everyone assumed he’d crossed over. Turns out, that’s what happened… but also so much more.

Mathews was picked up by two other members of the violent neo-Nazi group The Base, and sheltered in Maryland for several months. During that time, he allegedly trained other members of The Base in weapons and explosives, and even made some guns and bombs.

He was arrested in a sting that swept up around a half-dozen members of The Base just a couple of weeks ago, because he and his accomplices were planning to go shoot up a pro-gun rally in Virginia, in the hopes of triggering a race war. However, that may have actually been to Mathews benefit, because apparently, other members of The Base were planning to murder him. They were planning the murder of a couple of antifascists in Georgia, and were afraid that Mathews – whom they considered an idiot – would rat them out.

Wow, huh?

This was a wild story, and one of international interest. So why isn’t it story of the year? Well, as important as it is for us in the Canadian atheist community to be aware of the Nazis trawling our community spaces for recruits, ultimately the Nazi stories are not our stories. They’re of interest, sure… but only peripherally.

Runner-up: Rahaf Mohammed’s escape

No other story this year was quite so dramatic as the story of Rahaf Mohammed. For several days, the entire world was on the edge of their seats, wondering if we were witnessing an ultimately nail-biting escape… or an unfolding tragedy.

But let’s back up, and start from the beginning. Or before the beginning, actually.

Rahaf Mohammed is the daughter of the mayor (essentially) of the town of al-Sulaimi, in northern Saudi Arabia. According to her account, he was an abusive brute, denying her an education, locking her up for months, and even abusing her. He also wanted to force her into marriage. But things apparently got particularly bad when she outed herself as an atheist. He threatened to kill her; apostasy is a capital offence in Saudi Arabia.

So, , while on vacation with her family in Kuwait, then-18-year-old Mohammed slipped away, and boarded a flight to Thailand. I still haven’t heard the full story with all its details yet, but I gather that Mohammed had secretly been in communication with a network in Saudi that helps women like her escape their oppressive families. Somehow they had helped her acquire a tourist visa to Australia. Mohammed’s plan was to fly to Bangkok, and then on to Australia, where she would request asylum.

But things didn’t quite work out.

I don’t think the full story of what happened in Thailand has ever come out, but there was certainly some dodgy collaboration between Thai authorities, and Saudi authorities – the only question is the extent of that collaboration. Mohammed’s family reported her missing, and somehow Saudi authorities were able to figure out what plane she’d boarded almost immediately. They were waiting for her when her plane landed in Bangkok. A Saudi embassy official, pretending to be a Thai immigration official, took her passport, telling her she needed a Thai visa. (She didn’t; she had a valid Australian tourist visa, and she was just connecting flights.) He took her passport, and disappeared.

That’s when Thai authorities arrested her. Remember, at this point they were – by their own admission – collaborating with Saudi authorities. Did they know the Saudis had stolen Mohammed’s passport? They had no legitimate reason to detain her; she had a legit passport and visa for Australia, and she must have told them so. But apparently, at some point (I’m not sure exactly when), Australia had cancelled her tourist visa.

They detained her in a hotel room, planning to deport her to Saudi Arabia as soon as possible. At that point, Mohammed thought it was all over. She barricaded herself in the hotel room, and wrote a suicide note – she decided she’d rather die than go back.

Ah, but she did one other thing. She created a Twitter account. And around she tweeted the following:

I don’t think anyone expected what happened next. Certainly not the hapless Thai and Saudi officials, one of whom later commented that rather than stealing her passport, they should have stolen their phone instead.

In just a few hours, there were over half a million tweets with the “#SaveRahaf” tag. Human rights groups and embassies around the world started advocating for her. Lawyers in Thailand filed injunctions on her behalf. Journalists and human rights experts travelled to Bangkok to ally with her. The United fucking Nations stepped in.

For a while, the Thai authorities dug in and stuck to their lie that Mohammed had tried to apply for a Thai visa and been denied (which would then make her deportation entirely legitimate and even routine). But Mohammed never wanted to enter Thailand, and she had a legitimate visa for the place she wanted to travel to. It was only after international attention started to pile up that the Thai authorities relented. Indeed, there wasn’t much else they could do with the goddamn United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees standing right there, insisting that international law be followed.

But wait… how did Canada get involved in all this?

Well, the UNHCR wanted to get shit moving quickly – to get Rahaf Mohammed the fuck out of Thailand and somewhere safe, and settled. But Australia was dicking around. As I mentioned, they apparently cancelled her tourist visa with no explanation, and were dragging their feet on her refugee application. The UNHCR turned to the international community pleading for help…

… and guessed who stepped up: 🇨🇦.

It took mere hours for Canada to process Rahaf Mohammed’s application, and , she arrived in Toronto as our newest Canadian atheist.

(It also has to be mentioned what a glorious “fuck you” to Saudi Arabia Canada’s fast-track acceptance of Mohammed’s refugee application really was. This was mere months after the massive diplomatic spat between the two countries that started with Canada criticizing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record… and particularly its treatment of women. The international community really betrayed Canada during the spat, leaving us alone through it all. But between then and the Rahaf Mohammed case something huge had changed everything: the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This time, when Canada defied the Kingdom, the international community stood by us. It was sweet revenge.)

This story was massive, with international fascination, and drama, and it had a happy ending. So why isn’t it the story of the year? Well, for all the drama, Rahaf Mohammed’s story didn’t really change much. I mean, I’m thrilled it all worked out well for her, and I’m stoked to have her as a fellow Canadian atheist – she’s turned out to be rather cool, at least as far as her activism since suggests. But her escape won’t actually make it easier for the next abused woman. It didn’t change any policies. It was a great story… but it didn’t really have much impact.

Runner-up: Servatius v. Alberni School District No. 70

Secularism is complicated, far more complicated than most of its fans make it out to be. The core idea is simple enough, but the application in a messy, complicated world is, well, complicated. For example, obviously public schools in a secular state shouldn’t promote religion… but should they teach religion? Most secularists would say yes. But if so, how?

Back in 2016, a school in the city of Port Alberni in BC wanted to teach the kids more about indigenous culture. That made sense; the city has a large indigenous population – 5–6% – and sits on the traditional territory of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation (not sure if it’s ceded territory or not). There’s also some unpleasant history that really has to be acknowledged and worked past: the city was the site of the Alberni Indian Residential School… one of the more infamous of the residential schools, rife with physical and sexual abuse of the children.

So it makes perfect sense that the school would want to teach the kids more about the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, including their cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, things went wrong right from the start.

It started with a terrible letter, with the Principal telling parents that kids would be taking part in a Nuu-chah-nulth religious ceremony. And not just that, the kids would be expected to have a spiritual experience from it. The letter said: This will be our opportunity to […] cleans our own spirits […]. All participants will hold on to cedar branches (each student will feel the bristles of each branch to remind them that they are alive and well to embrace life and all it offers) and/or “Smudged” (smoke from Sage will be fanned over the body and spirit).

One parent (at least) found this unacceptable. Her name is Servatius, and her objection was primarily based on her own religious beliefs: she is a Christian, and she objected to her daughter taking part in other religious ceremonies. This isn’t an unreasonable objection. It may not be the way an atheist would frame it, but it’s essentially the same objection we would have: a secular school should not be forcing kids to take part in a religious ceremony. We’d just say any religious ceremony… not just “other” religions’ ceremonies.

What apparently happened next is the school went ahead and did the ceremony anyway (but, not as described in the letter, as I’ll explain in a bit), while Servatius was still in the process of objecting. And so, Servatius took them to court.

Secularists watched this case with great interest. Is it acceptable to perform a religious ceremony in a classroom? Even just as a demonstration as part of a valid lesson about the religion? Is inviting the students to participate okay? The case was also of interest to people concerned about indigenous issues. Teaching indigenous culture in schools seems like a good thing, but can it be done without violating secularism?

A lot of the discussion leading up to the ruling in the case was confused because… well, there’s no gentle way to put it, but Servatius appears to have been less than honest about what actually happened. For starters, it appears the school did take the initial criticism to heart, and realized that making the kids actually take part in the ceremony would be wildly inappropriate. So the kids simply watched the ceremony performed – they didn’t actually get smudged or handle cedar branches or anything like that. But even that was unacceptable to Servatius. Even being in the same room as a religious ceremony violates her Christian beliefs apparently. Not only that, she claimed her child was forced to observe, despite asking permission to leave.

Ultimately, the Court’s ruling was exactly what secularists hoped for. Yes, having students participate in a religious ritual would be absolutely unacceptable. But having them observe a ritual (assuming a legitimate educational context)… yeah, that’s cool. This is a neat precedent that will probably come in handy in future cases – either where kids are being inappropriately made to participate in religious nonsense, or where bigots object to kids being taught about other religions because they’re the “wrong” religions.

So why isn’t this the story of the year? I don’t doubt this story will have some impact in the future – it’s one of a nice body of jurisprudence relating to secularism that we should be ready to use, and build on. But that’s the thing… the impact will be in the future. That’s good for a potential story of the year, but not as good as a story that has already had enormous impact, in addition to it’s great potential for future impact.

Which brings us to…

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

< < < drum roll > > >

WINNER: Québec Bill 21

[Banner saying that Québec’s Bill 21 is the 2020 Canadian Atheist story of the year]

No one should be surprised that this is our story of the year. This story had international interest – even the United Nations commented on it – and it had enormous impact on many Canadians, forcing some to either sacrifice their faith, their careers, or their homes. It’s become a thorn in the side of federal politicians. It divided Canada, and atheists. And for all that, it’s not even halfway done yet.

I don’t even know if it’s necessary to give the background of this story, it’s that huge. Québec is perhaps the most xenophobic, most racist, and most islamophobic province in the country, its politicians’ heated denials notwithstanding. Every Québec government since 2012 has tried to pass some sort of legislation to control the wearing of religious accessories… notably only of minority religions, but we’ll get back to that. They all failed, until this year. What changed? Well, nothing. The current government simply said, “fuck democracy, fuck the Charter, fuck everything”. They rammed their bill through after a marathon session, and insulated it from legal challenge using the notwithstanding clause. I can’t think of any way to have made the process more authoritarian.

[Photo of François Legault]
François Legault

And now we have the result: Bill 21.

Bill 21’s official name is “An act respecting the laicity of the state”. Its core purpose is to “enshrine state laicity”, but it also makes a point of caring about the importance of “the equality of women and men”. All it does, essentially, is:

  1. Ban certain people from wearing religious symbols while exercising their functions. The Bill includes a list of which kinds of people are affected.

  2. Ban people from covering their faces while giving or receiving certain government services. Actually, it’s a little unclear whether the ban really includes people receiving government services. The Bill says they only need to uncover their faces where doing so is necessary to allow their identity to be verified or for security reasons. But that’s always been the case, even before Bill 21 – you don’t need a law for that. So… what’s different? 🤷🏼

The main controversy comes from the list of people who are banned from wearing religious symbols, and even that comes almost entirely from one group:

principals, vice principals and teachers of educational institutions under the jurisdiction of a school board […].

While most of the people affected by the ban are government officials or at least people acting in a role where they are wielding the state’s power, like criminal prosecutors, there doesn’t seem to be any coherent reason for including teachers on the list. (Well, I mean, there is a blatantly obvious reason: they want to eliminate positive role models representing minority religions as much as possible. But that doesn’t fit with their claimed motivations for the ban.)

And it’s been primarily teachers who have protested and challenged Bill. Like, from day one. That’s hardly surprising, because teachers have no idea how they’re supposed to comply with the ban. Because the CAQ used the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to protect the Bill from fundamental rights and freedoms challenges, opponents have had to be clever in how they attack it. All of these challenges are still currently in flight.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the Bill has inspired and emboldened bigots across the province.

Condemnation of the Bill has been more or less universal, with virtually every human rights and secular organization speaking out against it. The rest of Canada isn’t impressed, either.

But for all that, the reason this story is so gosh-darn important to Canadian Atheist readers is because of the way it has corrupted the discussion about secularism. You see, Bill 21 is not about secularism. It doesn’t even pretend to be – the word “secular” or its cognates don’t appear even once in the Bill’s text. The Bill is explicitly about laïcité (or, “laicity” in English)… which is an idea related to secularism, but is not actually secularism. Secularism is the idea that the government should be completely neutral with respect to religion – it should neither be influenced by nor influence any religion, and it should neither favour nor hinder religious belief or practice. Laïcité is instead a combination of nationalism and anti-clericalism – its origins lie in the French Revolution and the need for France to define its post-Catholic identity by actively suppressing Catholicism’s former influence. And you’ll hear the same general idea from today’s Bill 21 supporters in Québec – the only difference being they’ll use post-Quiet Revolution framing, rather than post-French Revolution. (Also, despite the strangely popular conception that Québec is somehow really good about being secular, Québec is still very much enamoured with Catholicism, from top to bottom. When they talk about rejecting religious influence in Québec today, they are almost always talking about rejecting the influence of “foreign” religions. And cultures.)

The problem really comes from the fact that Bill 21’s supporters doggedly insist that Bill 21 is about secularism, when what they really mean is laïcité. This is a confusion that the Bill’s supporters are happy to encourage. Secularism is undeniably good, and has a strong, honourable tradition of thought and practice. Laïcité… not so much… given that the few places it is practised as official policy are some of the places with the most religious strife in the West. By conflating secularism with laïcité, Bill 21’s supporters have managed to confuse and devalue the term “secularism” so much, that even in the most important landmark ruling for secularism in recent history, the Supreme Court opted not to use it, preferring the term “neutrality” instead.

So that’s the story of Québec’s Bill 21. It’s not just a terrible story of a government violating the rights and freedoms of minorities – that would be bad enough. It’s also a story about the undermining of secularism by those pretending to advocate for it (which, really, is a common theme in the last few years – we’ve also had to deal with people pretending to be free speech advocates undermining free speech, for example). And it’s a story that’s going to have enormous consequences for many, many years to come, both for those who are its direct victims, and for those who are advocating for secularism. Bill 21’s story is really just beginning, and it’s already had such wide-ranging impact.

For that reason, I think, there’s just no contest. Québec’s Bill 21 is the undisputed Canadian Atheist story of the year for 2019.

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.

BC legislature replaces prayers with “prayers and reflections”

This may seem like a pretty small thing, but there’s a much larger context here. The British Columbia Humanist Association, with the help of dozens of volunteers, spent a chunk of 2019 studying the hundreds of prayers recited by the provincial legislature, and made some fascinating findings. This probably won’t surprise anyone, but it turns out that the prayers were virtually all Christian. What may surprise people, though, is that it turns out the prayers were also surprisingly political. And… in some cases… pretty weird.

As interesting as that was, what happened next was awesome. The BCHA took the results of their study to the BC legislature. Now, if this were most legislatures across Canada, the story would end there. Can you just imagine Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, or Brian Pallister giving a fuck about secularism? But no, this is in BC, with an NDP government.

So they actually listened to the BCHA’s points… and made a change based on them. I know, right? Unthinkable!

Granted, what they did was a baby step: They simply replaced the order for “prayers” before a sitting of the legislature… to an order for “prayers and reflections”. That may not seem like much, but making a provincial parliament change its procedures is no small feat. Indeed, getting any level of government to acknowledge secular concerns is a huge success. The BCHA deserves all the cheers it gets for accomplishing that.

Unplanned

This is one of the funniest stories of the year. In case you hadn’t heard of it, Unplanned is a terrible agitprop film that claims to be the true story of how Abby Johnson went from a worker at Planned Parenthood to an anti-abortion crusader… but has been widely denounced for its obvious deviations from reality. The film opened in around a thousand theatres in the US, and the film’s distributors were claiming it would open in “100 to 200” theatres across Canada.

The problem? They hadn’t bothered to check with the theatres before making that estimate.

And it turned out… Canadian theatres just weren’t interested.

When it came out that only, like, 2 or 3 theatres all across Canada were actually going to be screening the film, the film’s producers responded exactly the way you’d expect Christian filmmakers to: they freaked out and claimed there was a conspiracy to censor them.

Their histrionics actually worked, though. Suddenly the film was news, and dozens of theatres wanted to show it.

Literally dozens. Exactly two dozen. 24. Across Canada.

Okay, there were also a handful of independent theatres that played it, too. For a week.

The filmmakers declared this a triumph, but… yeah? Turns out that a lot of the smaller theatres were only giving the film a shot because the filmmakers got in touch with churches and asked them to buy out theatres. Because, why not, right? Let the fanatics throw their money away buying out an empty theatre. Ticket revenue is still ticket revenue, even if it’s only Christians’ imaginary friends in the seats. Jesus pays full price!

Summary

2019 was a rough year, but that seems to be the norm of late. Most of the biggest stories of the year weren’t exactly in Canadian Atheist’s wheelhouse – the federal election, for example, and all of Trump’s shenanigans.

Those that were, though, were, by and large, positive. Does that surprise you? Okay, sure, there were a few high-profile exceptions – our story of the year, for example – but generally, when I look at the list of major stories this year, they were almost all stories that shook out in favour of secularists, humanists, or atheists. In fact, if you look at the nominees for story of the year, aside from the winning story – about Québec’s Bill 21 – every single one of the nominees had a happy ending for our side. (Though, okay, I suppose you could argue that the happy end to the Nazi story was a nail-biter, and the fact that the story happened at all is not good news.)

Granted, 2019 wasn’t a great year on the electoral front, with conservative parties winning out or making gains pretty much everywhere. But on the other hand… who expected any different? Who expected anything but a UCP win in Alberta, for example? No, things unfolded pretty much as we expected them to. At least we’re mostly done with elections for a while now.

So while it felt like a rough year, it wasn’t actually all that bad for us. We’re still winning. It’s a slog, for sure… but we’re still winning!

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