After an unfortunate delay, it’s finally time for the final award in the 2021 Canadian Atheist awards: the Person of the Year, the person who had the greatest positive impact in Canadian secularism, humanism, atheism and freethought in 2020.
If you’d like to review the list of nominees before finding out the results, check out the nominations announcement.
All of the nominees this year, as every year, are more than deserving of this award. Every one of them was a shining light of hope and encouragement in a very dark year. They were exactly the heroes we needed, exactly when we needed them the most.
The criteria for this category is broad enough that the nominees—and the winner—don’t necessarily need to be Canadian, or even atheist. It is enough that they did something—whether a single, big act, or a pattern of action throughout the year—to progress the causes and interests of humanism, secularism, freethought, or atheism in Canada, even if that wasn’t their explicit motivation. Though, of course, if it was their specific motivation, and if they actually are Canadian and atheist, that will help their chance considerably.
All of this year’s nominees have earned the right to use the following images or any other method they prefer to declare themselves nominees for the 2021 Canadian Atheist Person of the year:
And so, with no further ado, let us get to the awarding of the 2021 Canadian Atheist Person of the year.
And the runners-up are:
Runner-up: Timothy Caulfield
The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining story of 2020. An unfortunate but predicatable side effect of the pandemic is the explosion of pseudoscientific nonsense claims about magical cures for the disease; everything from injecting oneself with bleach, to drinking cow urine. In an already tumultuous year, the flood of quackery entangled with acute political partisanship to create a perfect storm of dangerous bullshit, coming so fast and so furious that media struggled to keep up with it.
In the midst of this, Canada found its hero in Timothy Caulfield.
But Caulfield’s story hardly begins in 2020. No, Caulfield has been a champion of science for well over a decade now. He has written a number of award-winning books debunking “alternative medicine” nonsense, including:
- The Cure for Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness, and Happiness
- Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness
- The Vaccination Picture
He’s even hosted a documentary series: A User’s Guide to Cheating Death.
So it’s hardly surprising that he stepped up in 2020 to do something about the tidal surge of unscientific nonsense we were being swamped with. I, and many other writers, have taken to calling it an “infodemic”… well, it appears that Caulfield may actually have coined the term.
And Caulfield’s efforts haven’t been limited to one man screaming against a gale. No, Caulfield has been so incredibly effective at pushing back against the dangerous claptrap, that he was appointed to the Royal Society of Canada Task Force on COVID-19.
Timothy Caulfield has been a champion of science for over a decade now, and has taken on the dangerous pseudoscientific medical nonsense that pervades popular media—often peddled by unscrupulous and clueless celebrities—right on their own turf. In 2020, his efforts became essential to stop the spread of viruses arguably more dangerous than COVID-19 itself: “information viruses” of deadly, unscientific nonsense. And he stepped up, and showed us all how it’s done, easily earning his nomination for person of the year.
Runner-up: Paolo De Buono
Every year, every nominee for person of the year moves me. Some make my heart swell with hope and pride. Some move me to tears. But it’s very rare that a nominee teaches me a lesson. Leave it to the educator to manage that.
When I first heard of Paolo De Buono, it was back , when he was the target of a crusade by the Campaign Life Coalition to have him fired from his job as a teacher in the Toronto Catholic district. Why? For the crime of showing tolerance for LGBTQ2S+ in the classroom; specifically for reading such books to the kids as The Boy Who Cried Fabulous.
At the time, I’m ashamed to admit, I had little sympathy for De Buono. It seemed to me he was deliberately teasing the tiger with his choice of reading material—the Toronto Catholic District School Board is one of the most notoriously intolerant and regressive school boards in Ontario—and since he sounded like a decent person, I figured he would probably be better off parting ways with the bigots and teaching in a more progressive (probably non-Catholic) district. I promoted the petition to keep his job regardless, and then shrugged and forgot about it.
If that had been the last I heard of Paolo De Buono, I may have continued with my ignorant and self-absorbed thinking.
But just a couple months later, De Buono popped up my radar again. This time, he was trying to get the Toronto Catholic District School Board to recognize Pride Month.
At this point, I realized that… I kinda dug Paolo De Buono. He was a good teacher, and one who appeared to legitimately care about his students—especially those who needed someone who cared about them the most. And because of that, I started to rethink things.
I realized how foolish I’d been to accept as legitimate the idea that what De Buono had originally done—share some LGBTQ2S+-tolerant material with his students—should be controversial at all. This was not a case of teasing the tiger… it was a case of doing something humane and tolerant, and then weathering the petulant fury of hateful bigots who have been shamed by having their intolerance highlighted. And framing it as a “controversy” at all is wrong from the start; there is nothing controversial about teaching kids that LGBTQ2S+ people exist, and are equally deserving of love and respect as anyone else. Hell, that’s actually even what the Pope says!
I’d been a fool. I’d been a sucker. I’d fallen for the bigot’s spin on the story—that there is some “controversy” about the personhood of LGBTQ2S+ people, and that by teaching of their existence and worthiness as fellow human beings, De Buono was somehow being “activist” on the job. That’s not what was really happening at all. Paolo De Buono was doing his damn job; Paolo De Buono is a teacher, and he was teaching his students about reality—about the fact that LGBTQ2S+ exist, and they are people too. I learned the lesson, and silently thanked De Buono for straightening out my thinking.
But that was hardly the last time De Buono impressed me in 2020.
Indeed, after his (ultimately fruitless) campaign to get the Toronto District Catholic School Board to recognize Pride Month, De Buono didn’t slack off. He continued to keep tabs on the Board—particularly throughout the scandalous review of the conduct of trustee Micheal Del Grande (who compared accepting people’s gender identity to accepting paedophilia, cannibalism, and bestiality)—and on other Catholic districts across Ontario.
For demonstrating what it means to be a good teacher in a bad system—or at least, a good teacher forced to work under a bad Board—for making space for LGBTQ2S+ in a school system whose leaders hate them, and for keeping tabs on Ontario’s Catholic school boards and their progress toward LGBTQ2S+ tolerance, Paolo De Buono definitely deserves his nomination for person of the year.
Runner-up: Sarah Edmondson
You’ve probably heard about NXIVM (pronounced “nex-ee-um”). It’s exactly the kind of sordid story that news media can’t get enough of: a cult involving sexual slavery, disguised as self-help pyramid scheme, patronized by the rich, the famous, including some well-known actresses, packed with lurid details, like paedophilia, Nazi reincarnations, possibly murders, and the infamous branding of women with the initials of the leader. But don’t be dazzled by the sensational parts. This is a story of real people, and the very real trauma they endured while being groomed and manipulated by a very sick man with an obsessive need for control. 2020 saw what is—hopefully—the final end to NXIVM’s story, with founder Keith Raniere sentenced to 120 years in prison for a number of charges, including sex trafficking. But it all began with Sarah Edmonson.
In 2005, Sarah Edmonson was a struggling actress living in Vancouver. She’d had a few roles already—notably in Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Stargate SG-1—but at the time she was living in a basement and having a hard time getting auditions. That was when she met Mark Vincente. Vincente is the guy behind viral quantum nonsense “documentary” What the Bleep Do We Know!?, and Edmonson was a fan. She gushed to him about the film, and Vincente told her about this incredible personal development program he’d taken a few months earlier: NXIVM.
Now, it’s important to understand that, at least at first blush, NXIVM hardly looks like a cult. In fact, most people thought it was a “self-help” pyramid scheme trading in pop-psychology pseudo-empowerment tropes. Edmonson signed up for a five-day training seminar, and at first was less than impressed. But Vincente urged her to stick with it, and by the third day, Edmonson was hooked. Edmonson ended up staying with NXIVM for 12 years, and became one of their most successful recruiters. She also helped found the first Canadian outlet.
There were signs, even from the beginning. NXIVM was built with a rigid hierarchy, and those at lower levels were called “slaves”, and were expected to address those at higher levels as “master”. This was brushed off with bafflegab as not being about literal slavery, but rather something-something symbolizing commitment something-something… yet “slaves” were expected to be at their “master’s” beck and call, 24/7. There were also demands for “collateral”—blackmail material—which started small—small sums of money—and increased slowly—demanding banking information, nude pictures, and video testimonials. Signs, lots of signs, but because they started so small and built up so slowly, Edmonson was able to rationalize away most of them.
It wasn’t until mid-2017, when she was invited to the now-infamous branding ritual, that things came to a head. Try to put yourself in her shoes. She had dedicated over a decade of her life to this one organization—to this one man—and has been responsible for bringing, by her own estimate, thousands of people in. They had “collateral” they could use to harm her; and she had seen how other critics of the group had been harassed, threatened, hounded into bankruptcy and—some allege—possibly even murdered. And, let’s be real: the humiliation of going public with what she had willingly gotten herself into and endured—up to and including willingly letting herself be branded with the initials of a man (and she was married to another man)… no-one could blame her for wanting to just run away and disappear. It’s what any normal person would do.
But Sarah Edmonson is not a normal person. Four months after the branding ritual, Edmonson was talking to investigative journalist Frank Parlato, and three months after that, The New York Times published an exposé of NXIVM based on Edmonson’s testimony. This would be the beginning of the end for NXIVM.
For that alone, Edmonson would be a hero. But she went so far above and beyond that.
Since the original exposé, and while the wheels of justice were turning toward the eventual convictions of Raniere and his top collaborators, Sarah Edmonson has been heart-breakingly frank about her experiences and—more importantly—how she was sucked in. One of the earliest long-form series about NXIVM became the first season of the excellent CBC podcast Uncover (whose sixth season, about the Satanic Panic, was also recently featured on Canadian Atheist), and 2020 saw the release of several entries, most notably HBO’s The Vow.
There were so many points where Edmonson could have said, “okay, that’s enough, I’ve done enough to help now”… yet she continues to put herself out there. Her testimony, and her openness about how she was recruited and groomed, are not important just for their impact towards putting an end to NXIVM. Edmonson’s story will help us better understand how cults work, will popularize the techniques they use to entrap victims, and may ultimately help countless people in the future avoid the traps she fell into, and the trauma she endured.
Sarah Edmonson did not just break one dangerous cult. For just that she would deserve a nomination. But Sarah Edmonson went so much further beyond the call of duty, and has bared her soul at great personal cost, and shared her same with the world, so that she could help break all future cults as well. That is the difference between a decent person, and a hero. Sarah Edmonson is a damn hero, and for that, I am proud to have had the honour of nominating her for person of the year.
Runner-up: Junia Joplin
It’s a story whose form is is, tragically, both all-too-familiar to Canadian Atheist readers, and depressingly predictable in its outcome.
If you don’t know who Junia Joplin is, you can hardly be blamed. She only introduced herself to the world .
Before that, since 2014, she had been the lead pastor of Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga. But really, in a way, she’s been a pastor for most of her life. She preached in church for the first time at age 11, and always knew she wanted to become a minister.
By all accounts I’ve seen, Joplin was quite well-liked as pastor of Lorne Park. It sounds like a pretty progressive church; not particularly surprising given its location in Mississauga. In fact, part of the reason she was hired in the first place was because she was so progressive. There is a struggle in Christiandom, broadly, between the more conservative, regressive elements that want to cling to old ways of thinking and old prejudices, and use appeals to dogma to justify that, and the more progressive, usually younger congregants, who cannot accept that God will withhold love from people merely because of who they love. Or who they really are. Lorne Park sure sounds like the kind of church where the latter hold sway; a welcoming and tolerant place where God is understood to be a loving father, and not an intolerant judge.
And so, probably because of that, Pastor Joplin found the courage to share the truth of who she is with her congregation. In a heart-breakingly honest sermon , she revealed that she is a transgender woman.
Her announcement caught both her congregation, and the church leadership by surprise. However, to their credit, the response she immediately received was overwhelmingly positive. Some members realized how important and impactful Joplin’s coming out could be for LGBTQ2S+ members of their church and beyond. And members who were LGBTQ2S+ themselves felt connected, and represented, in a way they never had before.
If this were a happy story, it would end there. I wish this could have been a happy story.
Unfortunately, too many people who told Joplin’s story misunderstood its nature, and instead spun it as a “controversy”. As if there were two equal sides in a dispute. But there’s nothing to be disputed. Junia Joplin is who she is. The “side” that denies that, or that says that there is something “wrong” with it, does not have an “equal” or even worthwhile point.
And then, what Joplin feared most came to pass. The Church fired her as pastor. They had taken a vote, and 52% were in favour of her removal.
There is just so much to say here, and that, really, is the real legacy of Joplin’s decision. So much needs to be said, so many conversations need to be had, and we’re not having them. Not yet, anyway. But every time someone like June Joplin steps forward, we get closer to breaking that silence.
It’s easy for Canadian atheists to shrug off Junia Joplin’s courage, or, worse, to mock her for being so foolish as to even expect tolerance and understanding from within Christianity. But that attitude is both ignorant and small-minded. The truth is, there is plenty of transphobic hate in both atheist and Christian communities to go around. And just as true is that there is plenty of love in both as well. And there are LGBTQ2S+ people in both our communities who are suffering, alone, self-hating, and in need of a role model they can look up to—someone who can show them that it’s okay to be who they are, and that they can and should be loved for it.
That’s what Junia Joplin did by coming out to her congregation. She may not have broken down the door blocking future transgender pastors… but she certainly weakened it. And in doing so, she set an example, and sent a message, for others like her: don’t be afraid to live your truth, no matter the consequences. It’s sad that Lorne Park Baptist Church was not ready for her yet, but that in no way minimizes the impact of her decision, or the courage she showed in making it. For that reason—for showing us all, Christians and atheists—the importance of living one’s truth, no matter the cost, I am humbled by Pastor Junia Joplin, and proud to recognize her with a nomination for person of the year.
Runner-up: Justin Morissette
The other nominees this year are all have some kind of “special” background in some sense relevant to their nomination. For example, they were victims of a dangerous cult, or they were pastors secretly struggling with gender dysphoria all their lives, or they are an educator trying to teach tolerance in the Catholic system. Justin Morissette stands out by comparison by being the only “everyday Joe”. He’s “just some dude”. (I don’t mean to denigrate Morissette with that characterization, because he’s obviously got his own unique specialities—he’s a talented broadcaster, for example. When I say he’s got no “special qualities”, I just mean from the very narrow point of view that nothing in his background hints at the fact that he would eventually earn this nomination.)
However, that’s actually what makes him such an awesome nominee. Because, you see, anybody could have found themselves in the same situation he did. What makes him special is not who he is or the circumstances of his life. What makes Justin Morissette special is, upon finding himself in a situation that so many of us have found ourselves in at one time or another, what he chose to do about it.
I think most people are aware of the phenomenon of “street preaching”. At their best street preachers are mildly obnoxious background noise in public spaces. But they are very rarely that benign, preferring instead to poison the entire area by broadcasting via megaphone, sometimes preaching nasty and offensive messages, and even on occasion directly harassing or threatening passersby. Authorities don’t take them seriously (surprise, surprise), and often use the excuse that they’re afraid of violating the preachers’ right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression… but the worst ones are demonstrably a threat to public safety—as this story will shortly demonstrate—so that excuse rings hollow.
Have you ever encountered a street preacher spewing intolerance or hate, or harassing passersby? What did you do in that case? There have been some awesome organized responses to hateful street preachers, but there have also been some spectacular responses by frustrated individual victims, like drowning the preachers out with bagpipes. But those kinds of responses require planning ahead; what can you do if you come across a nasty street preacher unexpectedly? Nothing? That’s what most people do. Thousands of people walk by these preachers, and do nothing. But that just leaves them free to harass and intimidate the most vulnerable… which they often do. The authorities won’t help. Obviously physically assaulting them is unacceptable (though, it does quite understandably happen). So what can you do?
Let’s meet Justin Morissette. Morissette is a sports talk radio host who lives in Vancouver’s West End, and , he was on his way to meet a date in Davie Village (Vancouver’s gay village). Unfortunately, that was the same time that notorious hate preacher Dorre Love had set up with a loudspeaker to preach hate.
It’s important to understand the context here. Love was in the heart of Vancouver’s gay district. That was no accident; he was there specifically to provoke a fight. He already knew he wasn’t welcome: residents had confronted him and sent him packing just a few months earlier. He kept coming back and four times police were called to ask him to pack up and leave (they did nothing else, of course). And his PA system was so loud, that when the confrontation between Love and Morissette was unfolding, Morissette’s roommate was able to hear what was going on from their apartment and come running to help. This had been going on for weeks by the time of the incident.
Morissette is not himself gay, but living in Davie Village, he is acutely aware of how hate preaching—like Love’s—affects his neighbours. So he stepped up to Love, and told him so. He told Love that hate was no welcome in the area. And he asked Love to turn the volume down.
Love refused, so Morissette tried to turn it down himself. Love (or his henchman) blocked him, so Morissette tried to take one of the microphones… and he was attacked with a
judo-style takedown that broke his tibia and fibula and dislocated his knee. The attack was so savage, and the damage so extensive, Morissette will have metal plates in his leg for the rest of his life.
It’s not exactly a happy ending for Morissette, but at least he’s found overwhelming support to help him get through his recovery. Love and his accomplice were eventually charged, and a warrant issued, and they turned themselves in, but of course, it remains to see if they will be convicted, and if so, what kind of penalties they might face.
But there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Morissette’s action has provoked at least the start of a dialogue about how society should deal with street preachers. It’s far too early to say whether that will lead to any concrete changes, like new bylaws or whatever. But at least we’re finally starting to seriously consider whether we want our public spaces to be violated by people spewing hate and intolerance.
And, there’s this: Sign near recent Davie Village assaults tells Vancouverites “don’t stand for hate”. I love that the sign claims to have been erected by the “Vancouver Department of Being a Decent Human Being”.
You don’t need to be “special” in any sense—you don’t need to have some privileged background, or to have experienced some particularly spectacular trauma—to be someone who can stand up to hate, and ultimately make a difference. Justin Morissette was just a dude on his way to a date, but he saw someone spewing hate, and he stepped forward. He wasn’t even the target of the hate; he didn’t need to be. He understood that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. And because he chose not to walk past hate and intolerance, Justin Morissette has earned his nomination for person of the year.
… AND THE WINNER… IN THE CATEGORY OF PERSON OF THE YEAR… IS…
< < < drum roll > > >
WINNER: Teale Phelps Bondaroff
In trying to introduce Teale Phelps Bondaroff to you, I have a problem, but it’s a good problem. The problem is that Bondaroff is so prolific, and involved in so many worthwhile progressive causes, that I were to try to summarize everything he’s done, I would require multiple articles.
Where to even begin? Bondaroff is a political science scholar whose academic focus is on the interaction between non-government organizations and international conservation law. He sometimes acts as a consultant to NGOs with an environmental focus, helping them shape their research and communications strategies. He’s done work on marine pollution, illegal fishing, marine conservation and climate change.
But we’re just getting started. Bondaroff has also been active in politics, at every level. He was a federal NDP candidate for Calgary in 2006 and 2008. At the local level, he’s been involved in a multitude of really cool community projects, like developing a tool to map the locations of “Little Free Libraries” in Victoria, and the Victoria Tool Library.
All that and we haven’t even yet got to the stuff that actually put him on the nomination list. For that, we have to talk about his work with the British Columbia Humanist Association.
The BCHA has been, by far, the most effective humanist organization in Canada, punching way above their weight, and even putting most national humanist, secular, and atheist organizations to shame. Last year, their executive director, Ian Bushfield, was Person of the Year, making this the second year in a row one of their staff has earned the honour… and that was despite the fact that I consciously included a handicap to make that more difficult… which says something as to how awesome Bondaroff had to be to win it nonetheless.
Teale Phelps Bondaroff is the Research Coordinator for the BCHA, and that’s a big deal, because one of the reasons the BCHA has been so spectacularly impactful over the last few years has been due to the power of their research projects. One of the biggest stories of 2019 was the massive study on prayer in the BC legislature. Bondaroff enlisted the help of over 50 volunteers to transcribe almost 900 prayers over a 6 week period… which were then coded for content… and produced the report shining a light on which faiths were over- and under-represented, and the sometimes bizarre ways prayers were used for partisan purposes. But perhaps the most amazing thing about the whole endeavour is that it actually had a real impact. The BC legislature changed its standing orders in response.
But we’re still just getting started with Bondaroff’s achievements. Let’s get into 2020.
Bondaroff first followed up the legislative prayers report with a supplementary report that looked into Indigenous content in legislative prayers. Titled Decolonizing Legislative Prayers, the report found that only 6% of legislative prayers contained Indigenous content… mostly only a single word. But rather than suggesting that prayers should include more Indigenous content, the report recommended including a land acknowledgement instead.
But Bondaroff was not content with just looking at the BC legislature. The next report he authored, Legislative Prayer Across Canada, covered all legislatures—federal, provincial, and the territories—across Canada. Turns out every legislature except Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador opens with some kind of prayer.
And then he went the other way, and looked into municipal council prayers in BC. Now this was really interesting, because the 2015 MLQ v Saguenay ruling made it crystal clear the municipalities could not open council meetings with prayer. (The situation is fuzzier with legislatures, because they have “Parliamentary privilege”. Basically, because they make the law, they should not be constrained by the law, within certain reasonable limits.) What he discovered was that, while municipal councils were no longer praying during regular meetings, 23 of them were still opening their inaugural meetings with prayers, and the prayers were Christian 100% of the time.
And then, he actually followed up with those 23 municipalities, and asked them what they were planning to do for the next inaugural meeting. Most responded in time, and many said they weren’t going to be doing prayers next time. (Quite a few more said they would review things before the next election, which could go either way.)
Who most deserves recognition as the Canadian Atheist Person of the Year. I think it’s the person who didn’t do just one or two really awesome things over the course the year. I think the most deserving recipient is the person who has demonstrated a commitment to promoting and furthering the causes of secularism, humanism, and atheism. I think the Person of the Year should be the person who has shown a long-running pattern of dedication to progressive causes.
By that metric, even with the handicap, there was just no denying it: Teale Phelps Bondaroff hasn’t just been a spectacular force for the atheist community and beyond in the past year. He’s been doing it for several years now. He’s been doing it in multiple ways, from multiple angles, volunteering for causes large and small that all align with humanistic principles. This isn’t just a guy who “does” progressive stuff… this is a guy who lives a progressive life, both challenging us to follow his lead while at the same time doing the work that needs to be done to make changes actually happen.
For his continued and wide-ranging work making Canada—and the world—a better, more humanist place, for his research combating Christian hegemony and furthering secularism, and for his success in making real change happen even in the usually unyielding halls of power… Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, you are Canadian Atheist’s 2021 person of the year.
Dr. Bondaroff has earned the right to use the following images or any other method he prefers to declare himself winner of the 2021 Canadian Atheist Person of the Year.
My sincere congratulations to Teale Phelps Bondaroff. I look forward with great interest to see what fruit your research bears in the future.
Whew, what a year! The chaos of 2020 even spilled over into 2021, making this the first year in its history that the Canadian Atheist awards had to be delayed.
But we made it through! And we’re still moving forward, despite everything. Even the worst year in recent memory wasn’t enough to squelch our hope, or our or determination to progress.
When I first dreamed up the awards, one of the things I consciously wanted to avoid was a “bubble”, where a small group kept being nominated and winning over and over… not an easy thing to do in country as small, community-wise, as Canada! As I put the nominees together, I was, at first loathe to include Bondaroff on the list, because for him to win would mean a two-fer for the British Columbia Humanist Association… exactly the kind of thing I wanted to avoid. What chance would Bondaroff have with the odds so heavily stacked against him? But even in the first pass looking for nominations, Bondaroff’s achievements were so incredible I couldn’t help but grudgingly include him… still believing his chances were small.
The more I looked into things, though, the more obvious it became that… yeah, Dr. Bondaroff and his accomplishments were just amazing. Support for him started to flood in. I find that each year, the winner more or less chooses themselves. At least in all the award years thus far, there has been an inevitability to the choice. All the nominees are outstanding… but there’s always one that just rockets ahead of the rest, once I dig in and research. In a way, I’m not choosing the person of the year, so much as I’m recognizing them. That was certainly true this year.
To all the nominees, I offer congratulations, and my heartfelt thanks. We had a rough year, but we managed to not just survive it, but to even continue to progress despite the troubles. I believe that it’s due to people like you that we were able to do so.