Category Archives: Politics

Tell Christy Clark: Don’t rush through Societies Act reforms

Please write today to tell the BC government not to press through its reforms to the BC Societies Act. Email fcsp@gov.bc.ca before the end of 15 October 2014.

Clark’s Liberal government is looking to overhaul the law that regulates over 27,000 non-profit societies, including almost every active freethought organisation in the province. Many of the reforms are likely good ideas, like allowing societies to be registered and file documents electronically; however, at least one section would potentially allow members of the public to sue non-profits if they feel they are “carrying on activities that are detrimental to the public interest.”

Given that every non-profit is already required by the same law to operate in the public interest, there seems no reason to open non-profits up to the risk of frivolous lawsuits. Vancouver community advocate Sandy Garossino believes this proposal is designed to allow the province’s oil and mining industries to sue environmental NGOs. By the same logic, religious groups could use this same clause to persecute atheist and pro-choice organisations by claiming they are a threat to “traditional values.”

Most frustratingly, the government’s White Paper has been hiding on their website for months with little notification to the thousands of non-profits that are going to be affected by this. Every organisation in the province should have been told about this consultation and given the chance to respond.

The paper is 166 pages. There is simply not enough time to know what other changes will impact non-profits in the province. A quick glance suggests extra reporting requirements and changes to what needs to be in the by-laws.

The government needs to extend the deadline for responses and seek feedback from those who are set to be affected.

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Humanist Hustings–Europe Votes 2014

Moving to London (details eventually coming) has allowed me to attend more great events. Last night, I attended the British Humanist Association’s Humanist Hustings all-candidates forum for the upcoming European Parliamentary Elections. The event was held in Conway Hall, London’s freethought home.

To my mind, no humanist group in Canada has ever hosted a similar event, but the first major difference here was how, in their opening speeches, nearly every candidate identified as either being a member of the BHA or an atheist. This was especially surprising for some as all major parties, including the Tories and UKIP, were in attendance.

I live tweeted the event, so you can find my reactions under #HHEP14. I thought I’d just post some additional thoughts here.

First, the strongest speaker was, by far, UKIP candidate Tony Brown. Faced with a largely antagonistic audience, Brown made his best case to connect with the audience, discussing his upbringing in an “atheist family” and noting his admiration for Richard Dawkins. He repeatedly tried to draw a link between the EU, and particularly the large European People’s Party (representing numerous Christian Democrat parties), and the Catholic Church. It was a fairly novel argument and could appeal to a nationalistic secularist. Nevertheless, his line that “I’m not a climate change denier, the climate has always been changing” and subsequent denial of man-made climate change was met with heckles.

The other stand-out speaker was Caroline Allen of the Green Party. Her smartest line was to admit that the Green’s science policy had been pretty weak in the past but that they’ve done a lot of work on it and people should give it another look (I will, the link is here). Unfortunately, she lost some credit on this front (in my mind) by maintaining the party line against fracking and GMOs.

Otherwise, the Liberal Democrat, Matt J McLaren, and Tory, Caroline Attfield, both sounded a bit nervous, although McLaren caught his stride near the end and made a strong argument about secularism as a core Lib-Dem value. Attfield, meanwhile, went off policy on a couple points, suggesting that Europe could play a bigger role on security issues (she clarified that she meant foreign policy when probed) and that the role of the Church of England is shrinking.

Dr Louise Irvine of the National Health Action Party made a spirited defense of the NHS and represented her single issue party well. On other issues, she sided between Labour and the Lib Dems (ironically also where she was seated).

Finally, Mary Honeyball, representing Labour and the only sitting MEP at the debate, gave a decent defense of her party, but I got the sense after that she didn’t really inspire anyone. Whether she was aiming to play it safe or not, I think there was a missed opportunity by Honeyball.

My question, prefaced with a thanks to the parties that voted for recent clinical trial regulations (#AllTrials), was on how the candidates would involve evidence in their decision making in the future. Each gave a relatively predictable answer (evidence is widely seen as a good thing), with Dr Irvine mentioning the value of publishing all clinical trials and Brown admitting that the UKIP vote against the regulation was about keeping the policy within the UK, rather than being personally against the idea.

I realised later I should have asked if the candidates would publicly change their mind if evidence proved them wrong. When I asked this to Brown after, he pointed out that Nigel Farage has repeatedly done just that, in particular, noting where his party has been far off.

After the event, I went for a couple drinks and finally managed to meet Andrew Copson, the BHA’s Chief Executive, who very expertly chaired the evening.

Nature blasts Swiss anti-immigration referendum

As part of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, Swiss voters recently approved immigration caps by a narrow margin. This means that the country, which has remained independent of the European Union, will no longer be able to continue to allow the free movement of labour with its neighbours (a fundamental plank of the EU).

It’s not clear yet how much the Swiss government is going to clamp down on immigration but the vote has already attracted condemnation from the editorial board of the leading scientific journal, Nature. They note that the move was fuelled by xenophobia rather than rational debate:

But direct democracy becomes problematic if it is driven by populism and irrational fears, such as those over unemployment and crime (Switzerland is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world, and the current unemployment rate is barely 3.5%). Certainly, immigration there has increased over the past decade — but this is in large part because the economy and health system rely heavily on the services of foreign workers. Ironically, the initiative to ‘stop mass immigration’ got the highest level of support in rural areas, where there are relatively few foreigners. In cosmopolitan cities, such as Zurich, Basle and Geneva, a majority of voters rejected the initiative.

I’m encouraged to see Nature weigh into this debate. Often scientists are wary of stepping into political debates – either for pragmatic reasons (you need to keep everyone happy to keep funding up) or personal disinterest (they’d rather focus on their experiments). But in USA under George Bush and in Canada under Harper, we see a continued assault on science and pure research by those who would rather focus on industry and climate change denialism.

Similarly, immigration debates have a huge impact on the exchange of ideas. Here in the UK, there are many stories of professors, professionals with PhDs, who are unable to secure the proper visa to begin employment, due to draconian anti-immigration laws.

Discriminatory engineers?

One of my undergraduate classmates linked to an article on a recent Alberta Human Rights Commission tribunal finding that Alberta’s professional association for engineers (APEGA, formerly APEGGA – which it’s referred to in the decision) discriminated against an international applicant. APEGA is already planning to appeal the decision.

The 67 page decision is available on the APEGA website.

So what happened?

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Supreme Court strikes down Canada’s prostitution laws

A few weeks ago I did a “mini-cruise” to Amsterdam. We spent two nights on a ferry (which was really a small cruise ship) and had about 6 hours to explore the infamous capital of The Netherlands.

During that time, we walked through De Wallen, Amsterdam’s red light district where prostitutes stand in windows in their undergarments, advertising to potential clients. The entire practice is fully legal, regulated, and generally safe (though perpetually controversial).

It may now be a glimpse of Canada’s future as the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, has ruled that the governments laws against prostitution do not stand up against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, the exchange of money for sex is not illegal in Canada, but (1) living off the profits, (2) advertising, and (3) running a brothel were. This combination of rules made it effectively illegal as one could be arrested for soliciting sex on the street, could not operate out of their own or a shared premise, and could not hire security or bodyguards.

Because of the dangers created by working the streets, a number of sex workers and their supporters from various civil liberties and legal defence groups in Ontario challenged the laws in the Ontario Supreme Court. That court overturned the laws but the government won appeal at the Court of Appeal.

This lead to the showdown in the Supreme Court of Canada today, which has the final say on the issue. Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, who tends to write brilliant decisions, wrote for the unanimous majority:

The appeals should be dismissed and the cross?appeal allowed.  Sections 210, 212(1)(j) and 213(1)(c) of the Criminal Code are declared to be inconsistent with the Charter.  The declaration of invalidity should be suspended for one year.

This verdict is very similar to the Morgentaler decision, which ruled that Canada’s abortion laws infringed upon a woman’s right to security of the person but granted Parliament a year to draft new legislation.

Brian Mulroney’s government actually did pass a bill through the House of Commons but it died in the Senate (our unelected chamber) in a tie vote. Since then, Canada has had no legal restriction on abortions (instead it is now treated as the medical procedure that it is).

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are now in the awkward position of having to draft a law on a highly controversial topic – something they have opted not to do at every turn for the entirety of their time in power.

Not that I like to be in the position of giving advice to the government, but one potential option might be to criminalize prostitution itself. The entire ruling dealt with Canada’s way of making a legal activity incredibly dangerous. I suspect that this is the direction that will likely come about (although I haven’t read the full background to the decision) and would also probably be supported by the Liberal Party and maybe even Mulcair’s NDP (because unfortunately no one really wants to be seen as on the side of the prostitutes).

Despite the progress Canada made in the 1990s and early 2000s, I don’t think it’s quite reached the permissive attitude of The Netherlands.

Today’s required readings on revolution

Following his manifesto for a revolution, Russell Brand received ample praise and criticism, which he explores in a piece in yesterday’s Guardian.

I think he makes a lot of good points in there, key among them is an admission of his own potential faults and biases:

One thing I’ve learned and was surprised by is that I may suffer from the ol’ sexism. I can only assume I have an unaddressed cultural hangover, like my adorable Nan who had a heart that shone like a pearl but was, let’s face it, a bit racist. I don’t want to be a sexist so I’m trying my best to check meself before I wreck meself.

Watching people receive criticism online, I’ve come to expect the double-down defence, where rather than stop and consider that there may be some legitimacy to the complaints, the author denies, obfuscates, and attacks to defend himself (and it’s typically him). So II was actually really surprised to see this admission in Brand’s writing.

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Same old politics or revolution?

Progressives are buzzing after British comedian-turned-revolutionary Russell Brand released his revolutionary manifesto as guest editor of the latest issue of New Statesman and went on an anti-capitalist rant when interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight.

The editorial is worth reading in its entirety. It wanders quite a bit but combined with the interview identify the core complaint that galvanized the support behind the 2011 London Riots, the Quebec protests, and the Occupy Movement: The system is broken and it won’t be fixed from within.

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