A Brief History of the BC Humanist Association by Glenn Hardie

For more on the history of non-belief in BC, check out University of Victoria historian Lynne Mark's book Infidels and the Damn Churches.

In the late-1950s,a small group of assorted freethinkers commenced informal social meetings in Victoria on Vancouver Island. These have continued to the present day, meeting every Sunday for breakfast, despite major fluctuations in interest and attendance over the years. Low-level attempts to consolidate the memberships of groups on the Island and the Mainland have been made from time to time.  However, as this essay primarily concerns the development of humanism in the Lower Mainland, no more activity on the Island will be reported.

In the late-1970s, in metro Vancouver, a similar group began to hold informal monthly meetings in each other’s homes, primarily instigated by Gordon & Goldie Rodgers, recently arrived from California. Among many other items of interest, it was at one of these meetings that locals learned that the original secular U.N. Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by a Canadian humanist, John Humphrey, who was a federal civil servant in Ottawa. They also learned that the first director of the World Health Organization, Brock Chisholm, was a Canadian humanist and a medical doctor from Victoria, B.C. On one occasion, Dr. Chisholm refused to meet the Pope in his official capacity because of the Pope’s conservative views on so many social topics of importance to humanists.

These early private meetings led to the decision to hold more public meetings with a view to establishing some sort of official free-thought or humanist society. The inaugural public meeting was held in 1982 in a union hall on Kingsway in Vancouver with about 40 people in attendance. The Rodgers were very much involved, as was Wilson & Kate Dillon, Glenn & Lorraine Hardie, and Rufus & Polly Ashley, among several others. Gordon gave a rousing lecture on the Philosophy of Humanism. The hat was passed to raise some money (about $45!) and it was agreed to create a small task force to proceed with the legalities.

In 1982, the Humanist Association of Greater Vancouver was formed, with pro bono help from a lawyer to develop a Constitution and work with government bureaucrats. The original task force members became the first Board of Directors and Gordon Rodgers was acclaimed as the inaugural President. A Secretary, a Treasurer, and some other officers were appointed. The HAGV proceeded to hold formal monthly meetings in a variety of Community Center venues, such as Britannia and later Killarney, then for various periods at the Spec Environmental Building on West 8th Avenue and at the Planetarium in Kitsilano.

Attendance at early meetings was never very strong, and on one memorable occasion, only 5 people showed up for the Annual General Meeting. The only item of business was to decide whether to continue or not. Two voted Yes; two voted No, and the president cast the deciding vote - to continue. As is now evident, things did improve after that. Membership and Finances slowly increased. Some advertizing was initiated as funds permitted. The Association got a telephone and an answering machine. (That produced some amusing calls from people who thought we were part of the Humane Society and asked us to rescue their cats! We also got some hate calls, but these stopped when it became clear that the identities and comments of the callers were being recorded on the tape machine.)

In 1984, the Association was formally registered as a non-profitable Society in B.C.; in 1990, its name was changed to the British Columbia Humanist Association to give it a broader mandate. It also achieved tax-relief status from the federal government as an educational organization and embarked on a publicity program. For the next 15 years, meetings were still being held monthly throughout the fall, winter, and spring periods.

In 2000, there was discussion about changing the format for meetings. About that time, Dennis & Nancy Duncan arrived from Texas and became members; they were instrumental in establishing a weekly breakfast meeting, starting around 2002, primarily with the object of improving social fellowship among the participants. For about 4 years, the meetings were held every Sunday at the Railspur Alley bistro on Granville Island. However, two problems arose. First, some members wanted to have discussions of selected topics and this was not readily do-able in a public dining room. Secondly, the bistro changed hands and the new owners thought we were making too many complaints about poor service and asked us to leave!

In 2006, the group moved to the Marmalade Cafe in English Bay, partly because it was a pleasant and accessible  venue, and partly to accommodate one of our long term and elderly members, Dr. Pat Duffy Hutcheon, a noted sociologist who lived in a condo next door to the cafe. However, the desire to have discussion of topics of interest to Humanists again intervened, and so the group, with major help from Niels Andersen, moved in 2008 to conduct its business every Sunday morning in the Senior’s Center at Oakridge Mall on West 41st Avenue, which it does in this locale and in this format to this day. In 2012, the BCHA engaged Ian Bushfield as its first part-time paid employee to act as an Executive Director to attend to and coordinate the increasing number of out-reach activities being undertaken by the group. In that same year, the Association elected its first female President, Dr. Annette Horton, a retired psychiatrist. 

In recent years, various members have initiated and participated in a number of activities, generally related to the mandate of the Association. Several clubs have been created, such as the Book Club, the Public Speakers club, and a Current Affairs club. For the most part, these take place once a month in members’ homes. There was an Outdoor Walking and a Theater club, but they are temporarily suspended. Some members show the BC Humanist banner at various public parades, such as Gay Pride and Dying with Dignity, to name two. And for 16 years, members have met with some of our counterparts from North Puget Sound in Washington State once a year for a picnic, held in late summer on the grounds of Peace Arch Park.

To conclude, although all members elected as officers of the Association have acquitted themselves well, a comment about some aspects of the lives of some of the people who have acted as President might be of interest. Dr. Ernest Poser and his wife Jutta started and ran the first Sunday school for the children of atheist parents in Montreal; Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the first President of the Humanist Association of Canada, was also involved in that enterprise. Dr. Guy Richards was on the Normandy Beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944; he was wounded on June 7 and returned to England to recuperate. He later became involved with Tommy Douglas of the old CCF party in Saskatchewan in developing what became known as Medicare in Canada. Dr. Theo Meijer was instrumental in toning down most of the “Bible-Bashing” noise of a few members, primarily leading by example and using appropriate quotations from humanist publications. Finally, many women have served in various official roles (such as President and Treasurer) and in less formal capacities (such as Social Convenors and Elections Nominators) in the Association since the earliest of times. Their contributions are valued.

For those who might be interested in more detail, the records of all who have served as elected officers over the years are found in the BCHA Archives, in Form 11 of the Societies Act of B.C. (Certificate S-19412) which are required to be filed annually with the BC Government.

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