The BC Humanist Association is expressing concerns about comments by the Minister of Justice made following a petition by another Humanist group.
In September 2017, Doug Thomas of Secular Connexion Séculière launched a parliamentary e-petition calling on the government to hold a parliamentary committee to investigate “systemic discrimination against non-believers in Canadian laws and regulations.” The petition received 531 signatures by January 12, 2018 and was presented to the House of Commons on March 1.
In her response tabled on April 16, Minister of Justice Hon Jody Wilson-Raybould writes:
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.
Despite the Minister’s claim, the fact that a freedom is enumerated in the Charter in no way guarantees that freedom is being upheld by our laws and institutions. Parliament and the Minister herself clearly recognize this as a Parliamentary committee recently concluded a study of systemic racism and religious discrimination despite race and religion being protected grounds. As the BC Humanist Association contributed in our brief to that committee, religion is privileged over non-religion in Canadian society in many ways.
Later in her reply, the Minister continues:
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.
In fact, the Supreme Court of Canada wrote in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (2015), “If the state adheres to a form of religious expression under the guise of cultural or historical reality or heritage, it breaches its duty of neutrality.” Former Chief Justice McLachlin, writing for the majority, elaborates in paragraph 87:
…it must be recognized that the Canadian cultural landscape includes many traditional and heritage practices that are religious in nature. Although it is clear that not all of these cultural expressions are in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality, there is also no doubt that the state may not consciously make a profession of faith or act so as to adopt or favour one religious view at the expense of all others.
Such a nuanced view seems lost in the Minister’s response, which suggests the Court has given the Government wide latitude to celebrate or preserve “its religious heritage.” Rather, taken in the context of the ruling, the Court has arguably put clear restrictions on such expressions. Namely, the Government cannot explicitly profess a religious view nor favour one to the exclusion of others.
Ultimately, we share the concerns of Secular Connexion Séculière with the Minister’s response. Rather than take proactive steps to uphold the state’s duty of religious neutrality and to protect the non-religious from discrimination, individual atheists, agnostics and Humanists will continue to have to bring complaints through Human Rights Tribunals and the courts, often at great personal expense.