Sunday, April 08, 2007

Theocracy north of the border

While most people are blogging against Theocracy in the good old US of A, I figured I'd raise a little international awareness and talk about what's going on north of the border in the better old CN of D (add in "eh?"s as appropriate). The first question that should be addressed is whether or not we actually have separation of church and state up here. The answer's a bit complicated.

There are two ways we can measure whether a country is theocratic or secular: de jure (in law) and de facto (in fact). Since it's simpler, let's look at what the law says first. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, roughly similar to the United States' Bill of Rights, starts off with the preamble:

Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:

Tch! First sentence and they're already invoking their god. Not looking good. Of course, it doesn't say specifically which god, but we can presume they mean the Christian god. Things get a bit better in the "Fundamental Freedoms" section:

Fundamental Freedoms

Fundamental freedoms 2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.

Okay, so we're at least guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion. Of course, that must also imply freedom from religion (I won't dignify arguments to the contrary with a response here). Unfortunately, this adds up to all we see in the Canadian Constitution with regards to religion. There's no Establishment Clause, so they're free to establish a state church if they so wish, and Canada still pays nominal respect to the British Monarchy who "rules" by supposed divine right.

So, things are kind of a mixed package. Everyone has freedom of religion, but the government is free to establish a state religion and promote over others. There's also nothing stopping the government from giving favor to religions, such as giving churches tax-exempt status, funding faith-based programs, etc. And it's at this point that we come to the absolute worst clause in the Charter:

Exception where express declaration 33. (1) Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.

You might want to go back and read it again; it does indeed say what you thought it said. We're only guaranteed all these rights as long as the government doesn't explicitly declare that they're disregarding this document. Although it's not explicitly stated here, the law also makes clear that any such act will have to be renewed every 5 years (a subtle reprieve). As former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said, this clause makes the Charter "...not worth the paper it is written on." This means we only really have freedom of religion until some local legislature decides we don't.

Now, if you aren't a Canadian citizen, you might be wondering whether or not this clause is ever actually used. Let me assure you, it is. Quebec used it to make French the only allowable language on commercial signs from 1977-1993. Alberta used it to enforce sterilization on people they considered "unfit," including "new immigrants, alcoholics, epileptics, unwed mothers, the poor and native people," from 1928 (before Germany started doing this) to 1998. Obviously, some legislaters aren't afraid of committing gross violations of human rights with this clause. Just do a search for "Notwithstanding Clause" to see more about it, if you wish.

Okay, so as de jure separation of church and state goes, we're pretty much screwed. Fortunately, things aren't quite so bad de facto. It turns out there's one other clause that has often saved people from separation of church and state infringement:

Multicultural heritage 27. This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.

Note that this is section 27, so even the Notwithstanding Clause can't trump it. Although it's occasionally been abused (such as to suppress free speech in a couple case), this clause has also stopped the government from enacting blue laws on many occasions, as legalizing the values of one particular religion would go against the multiculturalism of Canada.

The problem is, atheism isn't a religion. It also isn't a culture, so there's nothing stopping the government from favoring all religions over none. In fact, they have been doing this in many ways, including giving churches tax-exempt status and publically funding religious schools outside the secular public school system (in fact, for a period, Newfoundland didn't even have a secular school system at all. Fortunately, this has since been reversed and now only secular schools receive public funding there. Quebec, however, still has only religious public schools).

However, the saving grace of Canada has been simply having more rational people in power than places like the US. Even without a law mandating separation of church in state, if the people are willing, the system can end up working out better. Take a couple hot topics of the recent years: Abortion and Gay Rights.

First of all, abortion. I won't get deep into the subject now, except to state that outside of religious motivations, there is zero reason to ban abortions at least before the brain has started to develop (if you care to debate, the comment thread is open). So, banning abortion can be seen as a measure of overblown religiousity.

In Canada, it turns out there are very few active protests against the right to abortion, and in every province (except Prince Edward Island, Canada's answer to Rhode Island), women are free to obtain abortions which are even covered by the universal healthcare system. You don't see Christian groups posing as abortion centers, who then delay pregnant women until it's too late. You don't see legislaters offering $500 a head for adoptions. Overall, things are pretty decent up here when it comes to this subject.

Now, let's look at Gay Rights, another issue that religiosos get all up in arms about. In total 7 provinces (there are 10 in total) have legislation guaranteeing equal rights for gays (compared to zero states), while another two are planning to introduce legislation soon. The only province left out is Alberta (you know, the eugenicists). Compared to the States, Canada is a bona fide haven for gays.

However, there are still a few issues here. Some groups, such as Atheists (and variants), but also including Wiccans and Neopagans are often the targets of vicious intolerence, the likes of which is comparable to the intolerence atheists receive in America. Not everyone feels this way, but it's enough that most people of one of these religions (or lack thereof) don't go public with their beliefs. You can also see this playing out legally in custody battles between parents of differing religious beliefs; often, when the custody winner has one of these minority religious, they're forbidden from teaching it to their children. Overall, this gives the impression that mainstream religions such as large sects of Christianity are still much preferred.

And note that this intolerence is despite the fact that most Christians in Canada are pretty secular. Over 70% of the population is Christian, but only around 20% attend church regularly (compared to 40% in America). And yet many are still intolerant of people who actively declare they have no religion. Apparently it's fine to act as if you have no religion as long as you call yourself a "Christian," but if you call yourself an "atheist," you're in trouble.

So, there's your update on how things are looking in Canada. We have a lot of the same problems as the US, with a few little differences. We aren't as close to being a theocracy de facto, though we're a lot closer de jure. We're just lucky that we've gotten mostly rational people in government, but if things turn around we could be in deep trouble.


Grenwolde said...

Liked your post -- don't agree with every point -- but you present an articulate eamination of the charter and its implications.

For more material on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms I encourage you and your readers to visit -- an unbiased, plain language, and interactive look at the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also contains relevant case law and precedents. The website is available in English, French, Chinese (traditional), German, and Italian with 6 more languages planned.

King Aardvark said...

Cool post. I'm not up on my charter law, and I'm too lazy to read it, so I'll take your word on it. Deciphering legalese is hard.

My regional council (Durham, just east of Toronto) was recently contacted by Secular Ontario to try to get it to stop having prayer at the beginning of council sessions. They've refused. We'll see how that goes.

Infophile said...

My regional council (Durham, just east of Toronto) was recently contacted by Secular Ontario to try to get it to stop having prayer at the beginning of council sessions. They've refused. We'll see how that goes.

Judging by precedent in Canadian law, if the issue is pressed, they'll probably be able to get away with having prayer as long as they either make it generic enough to apply to any religion or switch it up every week so multiple religions are represented. Of course, neither of these solutions does anything for the nonreligious, but the system as yet isn't built for us.

Anonymous said...

Just to add a little to your excellent post - Ontario also publicly funds religious education in the form of the separate school board for Roman Catholics. I believe it is the only western democratic government to provide such funding to a designated religious group.

Anonymous said...

... which is an irritating historical loophole.

Over which my Catholic schoolteacher mom and I can have no agreement.

Anonymous said...

I thought the Civil Marriage Act was passed in July 2005, making gay marriage legal across all of Canada. Of course, every prov and terr other than Alberta, PEI, Nunavut, and NWT had it earlier than that.

Infophile said...

Civil rights for gays extends beyond simply the right to marriage. For instance, without a guarantee of full civil rights, employers could discriminate against gays in hiring practice. Legalizing marriage for them is unarguably a good step, but it's not everything.