Last week, Weekly Update took an unscheduled break largely due to the fact that there wasn’t really anything all that interesting to report. I also expected this week would be a busy week with the start of the Ontario election campaigning. So I decided to take the opportunity to take a break before the rush.
What I didn’t expect was the leak of the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the abortion decision. That ended up completely overshadowing the Ontario election startup. Suddenly, conservative politicians across the country were forced on the back foot, scurrying to double-speak some kind of defence for their spotty record on women’s rights… or, in some cases, outright anti-abortion advocacy.
This whole update could be made up of items from the fallout of the leak, with one or two other stories sprinkled in. But given that the leak is really US news at its core, that seemed not in keeping with the spirit of Weekly Update, so I opted to keep it to a single item. I fully expect that there will be plenty more fallout in the coming weeks, so I don’t want to burn out readers on the topic.
This week’s items
I know, I know, fuck this guy, you’re tired of hearing about him, I understand. I’m tired of writing about him, too.
But there’s actually something new and interesting happening here.
The legal challenge to COVID-19 public health measures being spearheaded by Philip Hutchings and His Tabernacle Family Church was pretty much doomed to fail, just as every other challenge across Canada has. And it probably still is.
Hutchings’s lawyer has come up with a somewhat novel strategy. He pointed out that unlike all the previous (failed) challenges, this challenge is based on events that happened after COVID-19 vaccines were widely available.
The argument is that while bans on religious services may have made sense in the heat of a pandemic when there was no vaccine available… the existence of a vaccine changes the equation.
Is it a good argument. I don’t think so. I don’t think Hutchings has a ghost of a chance of winning.
But, likely, neither does his lawyer. This appears to be a stalling tactic. Indeed, the lawyer dumped a document several hundred pages long on the court just days before the scheduled hearing. The prosecutor said it would take at least a week to go through it.
So I guess if the goal was simply to stall, it worked. But that’s only a temporary solution. The hearing is now scheduled for next month, and it seems unlikely that the judge will tolerate any more shenanigans to move it back further.
As you might expect, following the news that the US Supreme Court is about to overturn the Roe v Wade decision that decriminalized abortion across the US, much of the talk in Canada has focused on the question: could it happen here?
Most of the opinions I’ve seen have been… I can’t find a nicer way to say this… really, really dumb. They usually boil down to “we’re not like the US, because they’re far down the right-wing rabbit hole while we’re not, therefore it can’t happen here”. That’s almost painfully naïve. Even in the US some ~60–80% of Americans support abortion being legal in all or most cases, and ~70% do not want Roe v Wade overturned. The issue here is not the cultural makeup of the US population in general, it is the fact that right-wingers managed to secure enough positions of power that they are able to force their agenda on the country.
Could that happen here? Yes! Of course! We have a number of very far-right people in very powerful leadership positions across the country. Several current premiers have at least dabbled with the extreme right-wing, and quite a few are indisputably entwined with it. And we’re only a half-dozen years or so out from the Stephen Harper government (and, yes, Stephen Harper was and is anti-abortion), with the perennially-looming potential of another Conservative government hanging over us like a dark cloud. All of the current candidates for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party are either explicitly anti-abortion, or are making hand-wavey promises not to criminalize abortion… but they’ll let their MPs “vote their conscience”. And anti-abortion groups are very actively stacking the political deck with activists.
So, yes. It could definitely happen here.
This article, by the Canadian Bar Association’s magazine, makes the case for why it probably won’t happen here, because of the Canadian legal landscape. And, I think they’re right: because of the way Canadian judges interpret our Constitution, it would be very hard to completely overturn R v Morgentaler. As Lake explains, Canadian jurisprudence sees the Constitution as a starting point, which has to be continually re-interpreted in light of new knowledge and new social mores. It is a progressive jurisprudence, that evolves as Canadian society evolves. By contrast, US lawmakers—particular conservative ones—treat their constitution as a sort of religious text written by sanctified pseudo-deities. It must be interpreted by trying to suss out what the original framers meant or intended… which, of course, means interpreting modern law based on the thinking of 18th century white, male slave owners. You can see how controlling women’s bodies and sexuality follows naturally from that.
So criminalizing abortion in Canada would be much harder. You’d need to spend decades trying to warp Canadian legal thinking into something more akin to the American model—which would be weird as fuck, because the 18th century framers of the US Constitution have a sort of gravitas that comes with being antique, which the authors of our Charter very much do not. Plus, many of our “framers” are still very much alive; if anyone tries to argue that the authors of our Charter didn’t approve of legal abortion, Jean Chrétien can and will (and has) step up to tell them to fuck right off.
It could still happen, of course. They might not even bother to justify it in a Canadian legal framework; if they get the power, they might just do it, and fuck everything and everyone who objects. That’s one way of looking at what they’re doing in the US after all. Shoddy legal justification aside, they are going against overwhelming public opinion. And they don’t care.
In Canada, it’s more likely they will try chip away at abortion rights over time, by introducing laws that ban abortion in some circumstances… with ever-increasing definitions of “some”. They’ve actually gotten pretty good at slipping shit past Canadians. Even a lot of atheists fell for the “sex-selective abortion ban” grift. And current Conservative leadership candidate is currently saying something stupid about criminalizing
But the bigger problem is one that I haven’t seen addressed by most people arguing that abortion rights are safe in Canada, Lake’s article being a notable exception. You see, while a ban on abortions—in whole or in part—may not be likely, simply making abortions impossible to access is a tactic being used to great effect today. That was Stephen Harper’s preferred method, and it’s been a staple of provincial politics for ever. It’s actually not hard to low-key “ban” abortion without an actual ban. At least New Brunswick and PEI simply… don’t include abortions in their public health plans. And all across Canada, abortion clinics are few and far between, primarily located only in urban areas.
While the leaked SCOTUS decision is bad for the US, it may actually be good for Canada. It is forcing a conversation about important issues like abortion access, and it’s forcing conservatives across the spectrum to answer for their shoddy record on women’s rights. They’re trying damn hard to bury their pasts and deflect pointed questions—and, in the US, they’ve actually been forced to recommend outright lying about their positions. This is the time to squeeze them on this, especially with upcoming elections in Ontario and Québec.
This was the “big” story last week (when I took a break).
The short summary is that a panel that was convened to study what to do about the rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, and other discrimination in the Canadian Armed Forces made an intriguing recommendation. They suggested that the military stop hiring chaplains who represent religions that discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual identity, including those that ban women from serving as religious leaders.
And the religious went apoplectic.
Because, I mean, that ban would cover many (most?) of the biggest religions in Canada. I’m honestly strained to name a religious group of any size whose faith doesn’t include some form of discrimination, whether against women or sexual minorities or whatever. So, yeah, if this kind of ban were actually implemented, it would shut out some major religions.
It may surprise readers, but I actually disagree with the proposed ban… and I support having chaplains in the military.
I know a lot of people will say that having chaplains in the military is a violation of secular principles, but I think “no religion, whatsoever” is an overly simplistic view of secularism. Secularism has, basically, two fundamental principles:
- religion and religious belief should not influence the government; and
- the government should not influence (positively or negatively) religious belief or practice.
The latter point includes providing support for religions (and also restricting them). That would seem to be the sticking point that makes the military chaplaincy a violation of secularism.
But I think that’s a misreading of the situation. Military chaplains don’t exist to provide support for religions, they exist to provide support for soldiers.
Persons serving in the military are subject to environments and situations that are far outside the experience of regular citizens. They face trauma beyond anything most people will experience in their entire lives, and they experience such trauma regularly, even routinely. They face ethical conundrums, and life and death itself, every day, simply as part of their job. And all this they will often have to deal with while far away from their homes, families, and communities.
We have an obligation to provide everything, within reason, to the soldiers fighting for us that they need to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. And while nonreligious people like myself may find the idea silly, it is an undeniable fact that some people will absolutely need religious counselling in such situations. Mere psychological counselling will simply not be enough, because what soldiers face goes beyond trauma; they have to struggle with extremely difficult moral questions. And the reality is that many people rely on their religious faith to help them work through ethical dilemmas, and questions of life and death.
So it is ridiculous to deny that soldiers might need religious ministration. And—unlike, say firefighters, who may face similar trauma and similar ethical dilemmas—soldiers who we have placed in hostile, foreign countries cannot simply form a relationship with a local cleric. If we want these people to be able to fight for us, and to be in the best physical and mental health as they do, then we need to provide them with religious support. (Within reason, of course. That should go without saying, but… I know someone is going to spin out ridiculous hypotheticals, or take the idea to absurd extremes, like that every individual soldier deserves a religious partner tuned to their specific faith.)
Okay, so we need to provide chaplains to soldiers. But should we provide chaplains from religions that discriminate?
That’s tougher to answer, but I’d say that if we can accept soldiers from a religion that discriminates, then we must accept chaplains for that religion as well.
Again, the key thing to remember is that when the government says “we need a Catholic chaplain”, they are not doing so in order to show any support for Catholicism. They are simply looking at the number of Catholic soldiers asking for religious counselling, and supporting for them. Once there are no more Catholic soldiers, then, naturally, the Catholic chaplains should get the boot.
So that’s why I don’t oppose the existence of military chaplains. I’m not thrilled about them, but, I recognize that we have an obligation to support the soldiers who are dying for us. That’s also why I don’t support an attempt to restrict which religions can be represented in the chaplaincy; if we have soldiers from a religion (enough of them, who want a chaplain), we should have chaplains from that religion.
(As an aside, I’m also not thrilled about having a standing army at all… but that’s an entirely separate conversation.)
The religious freak-out was completely predictable, and completely pointless. Even when I first heard the panel recommendation, I knew it would never be implemented. I’m pretty sure most of the religious people freaking out knew that as well, but they couldn’t possibly miss an opportunity to put on a little performative outrage, and milk the suckers who follow them for some extra donation cheddar.
And, completely predictably, the Defence Minister has already spoken up to assuage the religious concerns. It was all a big nothingburger in the end. Completely predictably.
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