Late last year (December 2019) we at AFT sent out a letter to a list of some 35 or 40 organizations in Canada outside Quebec (often referred to as RoC = Rest of Canada) asking each organization for its official position, if any, on Quebec’s Bill 21. Most were contacted by email (if an address could be found), although a few were reached via a contact form on the organization’s website. More precisely, our letter asked “Will your organization raise its voice to defend Quebec’s secular legislation, Bill 21, from the unscrupulous attacks directed against it?”
We received very few responses, so we sent out a reminder in March of 2020 and received a few more replies. A summary of all the responses is now available on our website. The results are not pretty. Basically, no-one supports Bill 21. Several organizations claim to be neutral, but in most cases their neutrality seems to lean heavily towards the “against” side.
The results are disappointing, but certainly not surprising for me. In an interview I did with Conatus News in 2018, I declared:
There is no secular movement in Canada outside Quebec. That probably sounds like an extreme statement, but it is a simple observation. There are some isolated secularists in Canada, and many more who would probably rally to secularism if the subject could be debated openly and fairly, but they are cowed into silence by the very vocal pseudo-secularists who join the chorus of demonisation. Secularism in Canada outside Quebec has been neutralised.
The responses to our letter confirm what I said then: if there are any secularists in RoC, either they have been cowed into silence, or they are promoting something which is not really secularism.
There are many solid arguments for religious symbol bans, of which Bill 21 is an example, and we have put forward many of them here on this website. Three of the best, arguably the most important, are the following:
- Banning religious advertising from civil services and public schools protects the freedom of conscience (which includes both freedom of and from religion) of service users and school students. Religious symbols worn by on-duty State employees are just as unacceptable as those displayed on walls.
- Such bans send exactly the right message to the citizenry: The laws adopted by human beings democratically, here in the real world, take precedence over any “divine” laws decreed by a hypothetical supernatural power. Believers have full rights to practice their religion on their own time, but if they work for the government, their duties take precedence.
- Given the current geopolitical situation where political Islam is advancing rapidly and one of its main propaganda tools is to promote the veil anywhere and everywhere, thus normalizing its brand, Bill 21 draws a line and says, “Thus far but no further.” And it does so without discrimination, applying the ban to all religions. The fanatics who refuse to comply with the law are self-excluding. Bill 21 is no more discriminatory than speed limits which “discriminate” against owners of high performance vehicles.
Any one of the above three points is enough to justify Bill 21. Taken together, they constitute an iron-clad foundation.
As for any arguments against Bill 21 (other than slander, i.e. specious accusations of “intolerance” and worse), there is only one, and it is extremely weak: the argument that the religious freedom of State employees takes precedence over the rights and freedoms of users and students. This is equivalent to granting absolute religious freedom—i.e. religious privilege—to a small minority while totally neglecting and violating the rights of the overwhelming majority, including vulnerable pupils. Furthermore, this approach is incompatible with secularism, because it fails to separate the State from religion.
Lipstick On a Pig
The BCHA’s categorical opposition to Bill 21 is unsurprising. That organization is notorious for its antisecularism as explained in a previous blog.
The CSA’s opposition appears at first glance to be less categorical, writing “religious symbols bans are excessive and unnecessary in most areas of public employment…” but on further examination is just as bad. What does “most” mean? The CSA fails to indicate just where, if anywhere, it would consider such bans necessary. Does the CSA not give a damn about the right of school students to an education free of partisan proselytizing? If symbols cannot even be banned for schoolteachers, then where? What about police officers? Or judges? The CSA ploy is typical of antisecularists: strong opposition to Bill 21 but vagueness about what they would do instead. Unless CSA makes a public statement indicating where it would propose to ban religious symbols, we can safely assume that it is no different from the absolutists who ban all bans, period. And what about the other provisions of Bill 21? If the CSA were secularist, it would not hesitate to support Bill 21, critically if necessary, proposing modifications to correct what it sees as excesses.
As for Humanist Canada, it claims neutrality. There are situations in life where neutrality is a reasonable and defendable position. This is not one of them. The current opposition to Bill 21 is ferocious, fanatical, irrational and fueled by the Islamist far-right, abetted by its dupes (led by the regressive left). So far, a score of Canadian municipalities and several provinces have condemned Bill 21 in the most outrageous terms, as if Quebec were a hotbed of religious persecution, totally ignoring the fact that Bill 21 extends and protects rights. Several organizations with considerable resources are challenging Bill 21 before the courts. Secularism is currently under serious threat not only in Quebec, but everywhere, including France. Quebec is targetted because it has chosen the French model of secularism for its legislation. Atheists, humanists, sceptics and especially those who consider themselves secularists have a duty to support Quebec’s initiative and to oppose its powerful enemies.
Under these circumstances, HC’s position statement on Bill 21 is an act of abject cowardice. It displays a total ignorance of secularism. It completely neglects the rights of civil service users and school students. It makes obviously false statements such as “Quebec’s Bill 21 pits fundamental individual freedoms against core secular values.” (No, the Bill applies secular values to extend those freedoms.) Worst of all, HC’s statement puts lipstick on a pig by trying to pass its cowardice off as a virtue. The house is on fire, the flames are violent and deadly, but Humanist Canada does nothing, it remains neutral and “undogmatic.” HC is neither pro-fire nor anti-fire. If such a position is “humanist” then that word is meaningless.
CFI Canada did not deign to respond to our letter, but its rejection of secularism is well known and has been for years.
If there were a secular movement in Canada outside Quebec, we would have received many more responses and mainly positive ones, probably with some constructive criticism. Instead, the results are overwhelmingly negative. Of course we may yet receive other responses to our question; for example, the B.C.-based group Canadian Atheists (not to be confused with a certain antisecular website with a similar name) has promised to make a public statement. But based on the responses (and non-responses) so far, the conclusion is obvious: No organization in Canada outside Quebec supports secularism, i.e. complete secularism including religion-State separation.
To oppose Bill 21 is to oppose secularism. To call such decisiveness “dogmatic” is to throw common sense out the window.
I can’t vouch for other Humanist associations but in the case of Humanist Canada, as its Secretary, I can affirm that we do have a position paper and, yes, it is inconclusive: from informal surveys the membership seems split in the middle and the Board itself was split. So the position paper merely explains an important consequence: whether you are for or against bill 21, you can remain a Humanist member in good standing. In effect, our cohesion as a group supersedes internal disagreements on specific policies. You may call us «cowards» but that’s merely the consequence of an internal democracy which respects all humanist opinions.
I personally have always supported Quebec attempts at limiting state based religious proselytizing for the last 15 years and, of course, I support bill 21. Yet, I am aware of the change of mental state that is required for this type of laws to be considered as not only acceptable but desirable by a majority of Humanist, let alone Canadian citizens. Even in Quebec, it took decades to change the mental landscape and make «laïcité» a birthright.
I believe a secular state will become more and more an obvious necessity as both English Canada and the USA evolve. The reality of English Canada is the enormous influence of the American culture on its way to see the world. In a way English Canada will evolve toward secularism in step with the US religious ebbing and, probably, not faster. Still, I expect the Canadian Humanists to move toward bill 21 acceptance slowly but surely, as a vanguard of English Canada. I am not day-dreaming: I have seen such evolution over the last five years but insulting sister organisations will not make it happen faster 🙁
The word “cowards” is polite compared to other words I could have used. As I explain in the blog, the situation is urgent. The propaganda against secularism in the media and among most politicians is overwhelming and grossly dishonest. Neutrality on Bill 21 is unacceptable from an organization which claims to have a “secular worldview”.
Back in 2013-2014, at the time of the Charter of Secularism proposed by the PQ government, three organizations in Canada outside Quebec — including Humanist Canada! — expressed some support for the Charter. (See https://www.atheology.ca/blog-043/) In terms of religious symbol bans, Bill 21 is considerably weaker than that Charter. But now, more than six years later, faced with weaker legislation, Humanist Canada has retreated.
CFI Canada (CFIC), a “strategic partner” of Humanist Canada, took a position against the Charter proposed in 2013, and then in 2019, in response to Bill 21, CFIC spread the nonsense suggesting that the legislation is “racist (or at least xenophobic).” At least one affiliate of Humanist Canada is explicitly anti-secular.
How did this happen? Well, one obvious explanation (there may be others) is the anti-secular regressive “left” which has spread like a cancer, infecting and infesting so many previously progressive movements.
But you, Michel Virard, want us to be patient. Just be nice and hope that they will come around eventually? Shall we wait another six or seven years until Humanist Canada becomes explicitly and categorically anti-secular?
I prefer honesty. The Humanist Canada Position Statement on Bill 21 is at best a shameful failure to do the right thing. Any organization in Canada which claims to be secular but fails to support Quebec Bill 21 is no “sister” of mine.