Here’s your Canadian Atheist Weekly Update for to .
This week’s items
This is a new angle on the history of the relationship between religion and Canada’s indigenous peoples.
I can’t imagine anybody would argue that part of the goal of colonial powers—including the churches—was to break indigenous peoples apart, to drive wedges between them. That was the point of banning them from speaking their own languages or practising their cultural traditions; it isolated them from their parents and communities.
But apparently the religions themselves could also be wedges that divided indigenous communities. The case described here is shockingly blatant; if I’d seen it in fiction, I would have called it a ham-fisted metaphor. But I have heard similar stories from others—not quite as tangible as a village literally being divided in half, but essentially the same idea.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force on April 17, 1982, and was and still is one of the most important legal rights documents in the world. The Charter inspired numerous other, similar documents in other countries, and has been one of the most important reasons why Canada became and remains a world leader in human rights. It ain’t perfect… but considering the compromises that had to be made to make it even possible, it didn’t come out half bad.
There were a lot of decent articles about the Charter over the past week or so. Most of them tended to point out how poorly rights are understood today, usually with an eye on the “freedumb fighters” who make mangled claims about their “right” to be selfish assholes. This one stood out, though.
I could suggest some alternatives to the cases listed here; I note that Saguenay is never mentioned, which is a glaring oversight, because its impact is still echoing today. But okay, I mean, Saguenay is still comparatively recent and niche compared to the entries given. I mean, Carter was the same year as Saguenay… but obviously it’s had much more dramatic consequences. (Although, even though Carter is the primary ruling related to medical assistance in dying, Saguenay still has impact there, because a lot of the opposition to MAiD is religious.)
Despite the lack of Saguenay, I was surprised at how many of the ten decisions involve secularism and religion directly, and how many more intersect indirectly.
- R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd. (1985)
This is one of the most important Charter cases of all time, and the case about Canadian secularism before Saguenay came along. Indeed, much of Saguenay was just nailing down things left unsaid in Big M, thirty years after the fact.
- R. v. Morgentaler (1988)
This is the classic abortion case. Religion isn’t technically on trial, but, of course, its shadow hangs heavily over all anti-abortion activity.
- R. v. Keegstra (1990)
This one is a bit of a stretch because it involved antisemitism… that is, hatred of the Jewish people, not necessarily hatred of Judaism. However, this is one of the key cases that established the limits of protected speech… something that would be an explicitly religious issue shortly thereafter, with the Whatcott decision.
- Vriend v. Alberta (1998)
While not directly about religion—it’s primarily about discrimination, and about the responsibility of government to be proactive about protecting against discrimination—the discrimination in question was homophobia by a Christian school.
- Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite Bourgeoys (2006)
This one is clearly about religion, religious freedom, and the limits that can be put on religious freedom.
- Carter v. Canada (2015)
As with abortion, religion isn’t explicitly at issue here, but religious belief hangs heavily over all end-of-life law.
R. v. Oakes (1986) probably also deserves mention. The case itself had literally nothing to do with religion… but… the Oakes test has been of massive importance to cases involving religion. The Oakes test is arguably “operationalized secularism”, decades before Saguenay. That isn’t its only purpose, of course… but it has been used that way many, many times since.
So 6 out of the 10 (plus Oakes would make 7) have at least some peripheral relationship to secularism and religious freedom in Canada… and I would say all of them went the way secularists would like (with the possible exception of Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite Bourgeoys, which, while I agree with it, I can understand there is room for debate). That is the legacy of the Charter in Canada.
I have to say that I disagree with Hemant Mehta here, which is rare. But I think he’s got the facts weirdly wrong.
Okay, so the background involves the landmark ruling that found that the Archdiocese of St. John’s was
vicariously responsible for all the child rapin’ that went on at the Mount Cashel orphanage. As a quick recap: The Mount Cashel orphanage is pretty much what you’d imagine a Catholic orphanage in the 1950s to be, so kids were raped en masse, and the Catholics running the place protected the rapists, not the kids. The ushe. What made this case interesting, though, is that the actual Catholic Church tried to deny any responsibility, because the orphanage was being run by the Christian Brothers… who were totes Catholic, but technically not part of the Church itself. They were a satellite group of child rapists, basically. Thus, the Church argued, only the Brothers were liable for all the raping that happened at Mount Cashel.
In 2018, the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador found that the Church was not vicariously liable… but in 2020, the Court of Appeal overturned that decision, saying, basically, “look, you may not have been technically the owners or operators of the orphanage… but the place was clearly run exactly according to your specifications, and with your material and moral (and I use the word loosely here) support, and you knew everything about the raping that was going on, and even provided help to cover it all up.” So, yeah, totally liable.
As a result, the Church—specifically the Archdiocese of St. John’s—now owes a whole whack of money in settlements and so on; millions of dollars worth. How to get that money? Well, they could sell off churches that no one is attending anyway. So, they’re selling off the Holy Rosary Church in Portugal Cove–St. Philip’s.
So far, no problems. But the issue that’s bothering Mehta is that there is a movement trying to get two things done:
- get the church declared a historic site; and
- buy it cheaply and turn it into a community centre.
Mehta’s problem with both of these things is that they will reduce the sale value of the church. The reason he thinks that’s a problem is that he thinks that means there will be less money for the rape survivors the church is being sold to pay off.
I can’t really say this any more gently: Mehta’s just wrong.
You see, the amount of money the survivors are going to get has been set by the courts. I guarantee you that the Archdiocese of St. John’s isn’t going to pay survivors a single penny more than they are legally required to if their fundraising efforts happen to go hella well. In fact, in light of recent revelations, it would be a small miracle if the Archdiocese even pays what they’re legally required to. Mehta seems to think that the Archdiocese is raising money out of the goodness of its heart, in hopes of raising as much as possible for survivors. No, just no… the Archdiocese has been given a bill by the courts. They’re going to pay exactly that.
If that property sells for $10 million, the survivors are getting their legally-specified $2 million. If that property sells for $20 bucks and a case of beer… the survivors are getting their legally-specified $2 million. The Archdiocese will just have to make up the shortfall by selling off something else.
And if the property really does get sold for big bank… the Archdiocese just gets to pocket more, because you can be damn sure, knowing how the Catholic Church operates, that they’re going to be skimming a percentage off in any case.
So I’m actually in favour of buying the property cheaply, and turning it into a community centre. Mehta is wrong; this won’t reduce what survivors receive, not even by a penny.
It will, however, reduce what the Church receives.