Analysis of E-petition 1264 Including Gov’t Response

We have come to the end of the E-petition 1264 cycle.

By way of reminder, here is the petition:

PETITION:    to the House of Commons regarding systemic discrimination against non-believers in Canada.

WHEREAS:  approximately 25% of Canada’s people are non-believers

and

WHEREAS:  The International Humanist and Ethical Union, in its December 2016 Freedom of Thought Report, has identified Canada as a nation that systemically discriminates against non-believers,

WE, THE UNDERSIGNED:  all citizens of Canada,

CALL UPON The House of Commons

TO  ask the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Canadian Heritage to investigate, through their standing committees, with specific invitations to the national leaders of the secular humanist community, the systemic discrimination against non-believers in Canadian laws and regulations, specifically, but not limited to:

1. The National Anthems Act, 1980,

2. The Criminal Code of Canada, section 319 3(b),

3. Regulations for registered charities under the Income Tax Act.

 

The response from the Honourable Jody Wilson-Rebault Minister of Justice and Attorney General for Canada is follows:

PETITION NO .: 421-02118

BY : MR . TABBARA (KITCHENER SOUTH -HESPELER )

DATE : MARCH 1, 2018

PRINT NAME OF SIGNATORY : HONOURABLE JODY WILSON-RAYBOULD

Response by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

SIGNATURE

Minister or Parliamentary Secretary

SUBJECT

Discrimination

ORIGINAL T EXT

REPLY

The Government is firmly committed to respecting and upholding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter) and its protections, including the freedom to have no religious beliefs. In light of the foregoing, study of this question by Parliamentary Committee is not warranted.

The Charter guarantees rights and freedoms that are essential to maintaining a free and democratic society. These rights and freedoms include freedom of conscience and religion, which includes the freedom to have no religious beliefs. The Charter also protects all individuals from discrimination based on several grounds, including religion.

Discrimination is a distinction based on a prohibited ground, such as religion, that perpetuates or promotes the view that an individual is less capable or worthy of recognition or value as a human being or member of Canadian society. Canadian courts have established that the analysis to determine whether there is discrimination involves a consideration of the broader context and any negative impact of the law.

In its application, the Charter ensures that the state and its institutions maintain a religiously neutral public space that is free from coercion, pressure, and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of religion. Government cannot use its powers to impose a religious belief or to compel the observance of a religious practice. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court of Canada has noted that the Canadian cultural landscape includes many traditional and heritage practices that are religious in nature, and that the state’s duty of neutrality does not require it to abstain from celebrating and preserving its religious heritage.

Analysis of the response from Minister Wilson-Raybould by Doug Thomas, President, Secular Connexion Séculière (SCS)

The response from Minister Wilson-Raybould is not unexpected. Certainly, she is right in pointing out the the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the freedom to have no religion. However, I do not agree with her assertion that this renders a study of this question by Parliamentary Committee is unwarranted. The very subject we asked Parliamentary Committees to study is the concern that some Canadian laws and regulations violate that right to freedom from religion that the Minister agrees is protected under the Charter.

In the second paragraph, the Minister points out that the right to freedom from religion is an individual right (as are all human rights) and, again, I agree. However, it would seem that Minister Wilson-Raybould is implying that the remedy for the systemic discrimination in Canadian laws is through the courts with their consideration of “broader context and negative impact of the law.” These challenges would put considerable onus on atheists to prove that the laws in question negatively impact them. I am not sure what “broader context” means in this instance. Does it mean that more people than atheists must be affected, or does it mean that the courts must consider religious sentiments that Parliamentary Committees would prefer not to enconter? In other words is the Minister of Justice suggesting that religions might be offended by the removal of favouritism toward them from Canadian law?

The third paragraph expresses exactly our concern regarding laws that discriminate, albeit through favouritism toward religions. How is the government following the Charter’s insistence that “the state and it institutions maintain a religiously neutral public space” when it refuses to study instances of violation of the religious neutrality by its own laws. In the final paragraph the Minister is, in effect, saying that while the government should not impose religion on anyone, it does not have to make any effort to ensure religious neutrality by investigating violation of that neutrality by existing laws. The final sentence is an age old appeal to the preservation of religious heritage. This argument is flawed since it maintains the current bad practice is supportable by past bad practice. In other words, favouring religions in the law was good in the past so it is good  now and in the future. In addition, there is no evidence to indicate that removing favouritism toward religions in Canadian law, would negatively impact religious heritage, especially in the light that it is protected by the Charter.

Minister Wilson-Raybould makes no reference, in her response, to the Freedom of Thought Report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union(IHEU), a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission,  which clearly identifies Canada as a nation that systemically discriminates against atheists. If those claims are unwarranted, surely that would be apparent as a result of investigations by the Parliamentary Committees we suggested in our petition. To ignore the IHEU’s report, is to suggest that international opinion is unimportant in this matter and that atheists should not enjoy the neutrality of the state in Canada.

Again, the response is not unexpected, but it is disappointing. In my mind, a major purpose of Parliamentary Committees is to investigate concerns raised by Canada’s citizens, either directly or through their Members of Parliament, regarding the very kind of issue that our petition raised. To dismiss these concerns by citing the Charter that we think is violated by the very laws we want investigated is an unfortunate response. I still think such an investigation should be carried out to determine whether the claims of secular humanist organizations such as SCS and the IHEU are true.

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