The 2022 Story of the Year award goes the the story that generated the most interest or had the most impact in 2021.
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. 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, and, of course, stories that readers of Canadian Atheist cared most about.
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.
A note about nominees
For a number of reasons, the 2022 Canadian Atheist awards have been scaled back from the usual. In particular, rather than announcing a list of nominees first, then announcing the winner weeks later, this year, only a winner is being announced; there are no nominees.
And so, there is no reason to delay any further. It’s time to announce the 2022 Canadian Atheist story of the year.
… AND THE WINNER… IN THE CATEGORY OF STORY OF THE YEAR… IS…
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Winner: Churches defying public health measures
This should be the least surprising Story of the Year winner, ever. In fact, a similar, related story was a close runner-up for the Story of the Year last year.
In order to avoid giving notoriety to any particular church or pastor, I have lumped together all stories about churches defying public health measures all across Canada. You may object that by doing this, I have artificially inflated the prominence of the story. That’s a fair concern… but here’s the thing: even if I listed every church/pastor separately, it turns out that the top three stories of the year would still all be stories about churches defying public health measures. That’s how big this phenomenon was.
I can’t imagine I need to explain the background to contemporary readers, but for the sake of posterity….
The world is currently early in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as I write this, public health officials across Canada are announcing that we are now in a sixth wave. The cause of this sixth wave is currently agreed to be the rescinding of public health measures, like mandatory masking and restrictions on gatherings.
It is the restrictions on gatherings that is really the core of the issue here. It started in March 2020, when provincial governments (belatedly) started taking COVID-19 seriously, declared it an emergency, and issued the first round of public health orders… including bans or restrictions on large, public gatherings. (The precise timing and nature of the bans/restrictions varied from province to province.) Naturally, this included religious gatherings. For obvious reasons.
The vast majority of religious Canadians complied with public health measures, largely without complaint. Some religious leaders and congregations griped, and many voiced concerns about government overreach or the curtailing of religious freedom, but most religious Canadians more or less accepted that the restrictions made sense in the context of a deadly pandemic.
There was a widespread phenomenon of defiance. In many cases this defiance was based on the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 didn’t really exist at all, or if it did, it was nowhere near as deadly as the “experts” claimed. In others, it was just flat-out refusal to acknowledge or accept the legitimacy of the government… usually specifically the Trudeau government, which makes little sense on its face, because it was provincial governments actually implementing the public health restrictions. It does make sense, though, if you realize that the basis for the defiance is in far right, US-style politics. These are Christian churches, yes, but their intransigence is not really based in Christianity, but rather in the kind of nutty, eschatological, anti-government nonsense associated with the US Republican Party, and its quasi-religious support.
In other words, yes, these are Christian churches, but they are specifically and explicitly politically motivated. Religion just serves as a cover for them.
That being said, even though their religious “justifications” were just a pretense, that was what they weaponized in their fight against public health officials.
In practice, this meant continuing to hold large, in-person gatherings in defiance of public health orders. But to really hammer the point home that this wasn’t really about exercising their religious freedom, many of the clerics went many steps further than merely gathering. They didn’t just gather in large groups, they gathered in large groups pointedly without any other safety measures, like adequate physical distancing, or wearing masks.
Some of them even came up with cod, pseudo-religious arguments for why they could not hold virtual services, wear masks, or physically distance. It was all transparently bullshit, and all obviously done for the purpose of provoking a fight with the government over the extent of religious freedom.
And a fight they got.
Oh, not at first. Conservative premiers in particular bent over backward in absolutely ridiculous contortions to avoid a confrontation with their religious base. It got to the point where the majority of their population was completely fed up with their pandering, and starting to demand the province take action.
But, after a lot of dithering, authorities eventually cracked down on the misbehaving churches. (Sort of. Even after they started taking action, authorities still desperately tried to give the churches every single possible opportunity to back down and comply.) That eventually led to multiple court cases, with various churches trying every tactic imaginable to argue that their religious freedom trumped public health concerns.
The fallout from their defiance and their legal battles will probably be felt for a long time to come, for several reasons.
First, this was the biggest conflict between religion (or, rather, “religion”, because the faith was just a front for the political motivations) and the interests of the general public in decades. Most Canadians were very firmly not the side of the intransigent churches. And as the incidents of defiance piled up, and the pandemic wore on, Canadians grew ever less sympathetic to the churches. It got to the point that those churches that were complying with public health measures felt compelled to speak up, and clearly distance themselves from the problem churches.
The open question, at time of writing, is how long Canadians will remember that when their health was threatened, churches were their enemy. Will their frustration have ripple effects in future confrontations with religion?
Second, every single case that the recalcitrant churches fought and lost created legal precedent… precedent that will have long-term impacts on Canadian law. Since the Charter era began, there haven’t been many instances where the religious freedom of a few has been pitted against the rights of the general public as a whole. Canadian courts have generally ruled on the side of secularism, and for the restriction of religious freedoms whenever the rights of others are infringed, but this new wave of rulings has really cemented that stance.
It seems almost certain that in future conflicts between religion and the rest of society, that these precedents will greatly lessen the weight given to religious freedom in Canadian law.
Third, the most likely short- to medium-term fallout from the conflict is the strengthening of the far right, and, in particular, its religious (Christian) face. For a long time now, primarily coming out of the US right, there has been a movement of Christian churches isolating themselves from the rest of secular society with “culture war” rhetoric. Any perceived conflict between Christianity and the rest of society—no matter how trivial, and even if that “conflict” is transparently manufactured, and not even particularly sensible—gets spun as evidence of the degeneracy of modern society, used as an argument for ceasing any interaction or compromise, and raised as a banner to fight under. This conflict—entirely created by the churches, and for completely idiotic reasons—is perfect for that end.
Some of the ways they’ve shown their hand have been positively ridiculous, like the bizarre trend of holding “underground” religious services—in barns and other remote locations—that they nevertheless informed the press about… as if their services could possibly be kept secret from the government while being publicized on the CBC.
The courts—and, to a lesser extent, public officials—have been quite savvy about what’s going on. Arguably, a lot of the piss-assing around that went on was due to efforts to avoid fanning the flames of the fire that the churches wanted to start. Nevertheless, there was never any hope of a solution that didn’t involve feeding into the “conflict” optics that the churches wanted.
It’s quite likely that the energy drummed up in the religious right by these silly and pointless conflicts with public health officials will haunt us for some time.
There was simply no plausible challenger this year. The widespread defiance of public health restrictions by Christian churches is the Canadian Atheist Story of the Year for 2022.
There were no nominations this year, but there were plenty of stories that would have deserved a nomination, and plenty more that are at least worthy of mention. Here are just a few of the highlights.
There was a surge in lethal violence against Muslims in 2021 (and the last few weeks of 2020). The most infamous incident was the murder of an entire family that was just taking a walk. Another deadly incident saw a man who was checking temperatures and vaccination status at a mosque stabbed without provocation.
There were also many, many non-lethal attacks. There was an absolute spree of incidents in Edmonton, spanning several weeks, involving beatings and knife attacks. But there were also dozens upon dozens of lower-level attacks, like “Zoom-bombing” discussions of the 2017 mosque shooting, or sending threats to mosques.
But there have been signs of change. In years past, most Canadians—and yes, that includes most Canadian atheists—simply denied the existence of islamophobia. Some still do, including those in power, like Québec Premier François Legault. But more and more, people are accepting the reality. Even the federal government showed at least some signs of acknowledgement, belatedly declaring a day of remembrance for the 2017 mosque massacre.
The Catholic Church and residential schools
The Catholic Church came under significant fire in 2021, over its involvement in Canada’s residential schools system. The major criticisms came from two directions.
First, there were the revelations of the numerous shady and unethical ways the Church weaseled out of its financial commitments in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Basically, the Church used the then-current political landscape to blackmail survivors out of their fair compensation… and then failed to pay even that. They claimed they couldn’t raise the funds—even though they raised a larger amount for a single building—they siphoned off large portions for their own lawyers, and then they promised “in-kind services” which were really just the proselytizing they’d planned to do anyway.
And then… the bodies started being discovered.
Specifically, the bodies of children—hundreds and hundreds of them—indigenous kids the Church killed in residential schools, then just… lost the bodies. Ground penetrating radar on former church bodies turned up over a thousand unmarked graves at multiple sites over the year.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the Church’s own leadership was doing its level best to put the organization’s complete lack of humanity on sad display. Ultimately, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a half-assed, belated “apology”. Did it satisfy anyone? Not really.
Québec’s Bill 21
2021 saw a lot of action on Québec’s discriminatory Bill 21, though not a lot actually changed. It came in two waves.
The first wave followed the Québec Superior Court’s ruling on the Bill, which can be summed up as: it’s totally discriminatory, but protected by the notwithstanding clause. Actually, it was a little more complicated than that, because the ruling upheld most of Bill 21… but not all. Most notably, English-language schools were found to be exempt, ironically due to minority language rights.
The second wave was more interesting, and much more impactful. It followed the removal of a teacher from a classroom for wearing a hijab. What made this case so manifestly unfair is that the teacher had been grandfathered in—Bill 21 allowed anyone currently employed to keep their jobs; they just could never be promoted. The teacher was so good, the school wanted to reclassify her… not promote, just reassign… which they apparently thought would allow her to keep her grandfathered status. It didn’t, so the teacher suddenly found herself being told: remove your hijab, or stop teaching. Through no fault of her own, mind you.
This injustice triggered a wave of support from across Canada, most notably in the form of city councils offering funds for a Charter challenge. This wave is still very much ongoing.
Christian celebrity sex pests
Some of the biggest Canadian Christian celebrities came under fire for sexual misconduct.
The first was Ravi Zacharias, who was actually originally outed in mid-2020, shortly after his death. There was an investigation done, which found the accusations credible… to say the least. It took some time, but eventually, the story of just how nasty Zacharias was came to light. Not long after that, we discovered just how scummy the organization that bears his name is; we heard all about their efforts to bury the scandal and silence or discredit the accusers.
Next up was popular Christian apologist Sye Ten Bruggencate. Now, we still don’t know exactly what happened in that case. Early reports were alarmist, with insiders saying that there was “more serious than simply a broad moral failure”. The police were involved, according to some reports. There were even whispers that a minor were involved. But in the end… it sounds like there was just an affair. Bruggencate himself even took a victory lap, claiming to be “exonerated”.
Very similar to Bruggencate’s was the case of Bruxy Cavey, which broke late in 2021. As with Bruggencate, we still don’t have a clear account of exactly what happened, but at least in Cavey’s case, it seems like it was a little more serious than a simple affair. It seems that the woman Cavey had an affair with had originally approached Cavey in his role as a pastor, seeking counselling, and Cavey took advantage of that.
Compared to nightmare years 2019 and 2020 were, 2021 was a marked improvement. The COVID-19 pandemic dragged on, but we’d come to be almost jaded to it by last year. In many ways, 2021 was a bit of a recovery, moving towards returning to some semblance of normalcy, if only by finally normalizing the changes we’ve been forced to make.
Did we make progress? Hard to say. We started from so far behind, that even slight victories felt magnified, and it’s hard to say whether we even came close to approaching where we’d been before the pandemic. It feels like things got slowly and slightly better. I feel more optimistic now than I did at the end of 2020, to be sure.
There were a few major stories of 2021 that were decidedly negative. The wave of islamophobic attacks, some of them quite deadly, was worrying. But on the other hand, that trend was started as far back as 2016, with the election of Trump—with low points including the mosque massacre in 2017, and the passing of Bills 62 and 21 in Québec. Indeed, some progress was even made in 2021, including the belated recognition of a national day of remembrance for the mosque massacre.
But most of the stories of 2021, including the Story of the Year, were either neutral, or slightly positive. The unmasking of numerous high profile sexual predators among Canada’s religious celebrities—and the fact their misbehaviour was taken quite seriously—is a sign that the traditional mindless deference toward religious authorities may finally be a thing of the past. The outrage against the Catholic Church for its refusal to apologize for residential schools, and for its financial shenanigans resulting in robbing victims of their promised compensation, has reached a surprising level of intensity, with several Catholic churches even being targeted for arson attacks (which is not good, but does illustrate the level of frustration).
Past years have been uphill slogs all the way, so it’s refreshing to have a year where not everything was horrible. 2021 wasn’t great… but it was an improvement. It finally feels safe to be hopeful again.