A full response to Humanist Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation statement

Two weeks ago I began Tweeting my reactions to Humanist Canada’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report. I heavily criticized the organization for it’s response, which in my view used the opportunity to make an easy attack on religion while doing nothing on promoting reconciliation with Canada’s aboriginal peoples. I expanded upon my Tweets in a Storify, which I posted here, on Twitter and Facebook, tagging Humanist Canada.

To his credit, Eric Thomas, President of Humanist Canada thanked me for my comments and promised to circulate them with the Board. My hope was that Humanist Canada would engage with my critique and together we could work toward a stronger and more constructive statement. I have belonged to Humanist Canada in the past (I mostly don’t right now as I’m living in the UK) and, while Twitter is a glib medium, did hope my public criticisms would prompt action.

I knew at the time that sharing it publicly was a risk. It’s often better to respond privately in these situations but given this was the only statement I was aware of from a secular or atheist group (I later saw Secular Connexion Séculaire’s letter), I wanted in part to start a larger discussion about the issue in the atheist community in Canada. Given Eric’s initial offer, I was cautiously optimistic.

Now, Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson, a board member of Humanist Canada and author of the response, has doubled down on the statement in a comment on Canadian Atheist. Since I do care about the future of Humanism in Canada, I want to make the proper case now of why that statement and accompanying press release failed and how I believe it could have been a statement that put Humanist values in action.

Despite Lloyd’s assertion, I’m not “antipathetic” to Humanist Canada as an organization. My Tweets were born out of an incredible disappointment and frustration at what could have been something truly progressive, forward-thinking, and constructive. Instead, the leaders of freethought in Canada took the opportunity to simply bash religion, playing into the tired narrative that we have nothing more to add to the national dialogue.

This blog post is divided into several sections below. The first is my main point. Beyond that are nitpicks and specific disagreements and a dissection of the press release that went alongside Humanist Canada’s response. I’ve also restrained myself to avoid profanity as much as possible throughout this blog, as apparently it might come off as vulgar.

My core argument: Humanist Canada’s response was a missed opportunity

My biggest issue with Hstatement is that it was completely silent on the importance of reconciliation. It reads, on the whole to me, as a glossing over the core motivation for the report and like it was an opportunistic attack on religion. One of the most common and frustrating criticisms of Humanism is that it’s a purely negative and anti-religious.

I firmly believe Humanism has much more to offer than that. In the words of the Humanist Manifesto III: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” There’s the eloquent seven point definition of the Amsterdam Declaration. Even Humanist Canada’s own Humanism 101 page says:

Humanism is a philosophy or life-stance based upon a profound respect for human dignity and the conviction that human beings are ultimately accountable to themselves and to society for their actions. It is a deity-free worldview that affirms our ability to lead ethical and meaningful lives without reliance upon a belief in the supernatural. Humanists are guided by reason and scientific inquiry, inspired by music and art, and motivated by ethics, compassion and fairness.

While each of these is clear that Humanists don’t believe in the supernatural, they spend far more time saying that we do believe in human dignity and in our ability to make the world a better place through reason and compassion.

Humanist Canada’s Statement betrays those pretexts and instead focuses mainly on using the Commission’s Report as a chance to take a snap at religion. I base this on the press release, which should arguably highlight the organization’s key messages (but I’ll dissect it thoroughly later). Those points, from my reading are:

  • Humanist Canada “has endorsed the broad scope” of the report.
  • A call on the Government “to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples.” [sic]
  • That the Commission “paid insufficient attention to the culpability of Canada’s churches.”
  • That “spiritual violence” is a problematic term because it could lead to censorship of free speech.
  • “All forms of religious indoctrination of children are a form of child abuse.”

The first is a platitude, the second rhetoric, and the remainder is spent bashing religion or the commission for not bashing religion more. I’ll respond to some of these in more detail later.

In my opinion, a meaningful Humanist response would involve actually internalizing the report, creating organizational actions that take some ownership of the issue, and suggest ways individual Humanists can work toward reconciliation. The point of the report was that there has been a systematic attempt to destroy a culture by successive Canadian Governments. The Commission goes as far as to term this cultural genocide.

This is based on five full years of top-level research, interviews, and investigations across the country. While I respect that Lloyd has firsthand experience with some of these issues, as Humanists we clearly need to distinguish between these anecdotal experiences and the systematic and arguably scientific approach that went into writing this report. While that doesn’t exempt the report from criticism, it should give pause and reflection when drafting a response. At very least, it should merit a conflict of interest statement if your statement might be coloured by the experiences of the author.

But let’s get back to the term cultural genocide because that should be a big obvious flag that these issues go far beyond religion or the actions of the churches. While the churches absolutely need to be held responsible, and Humanists certainly have a role to play in calling them out, it was a racist culture across the entirety of Canadian society that perpetuated the residential school system. A racism that continues to exist to this day.

Among other ways, the report provided evidence for this with quotes from Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A MacDonald, politicians through the 1920s, and the 1969 White Paper conceived by Liberal Prime Ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chretien (then Minister of Indian Affairs). Each of these, the report concludes, demonstrate an attempt to destroy or integrate aboriginal culture into the White Christian majority culture of Canada.

In case it’s not clear: every Canadian – including Humanists – was complicit in this system.

If Humanist Canada at the time stood up for the freedom and dignity of Canada’s First Nations, this would have been a chance to highlight that. If Humanist Canada was silent, this is the time to admit that we were wrong. In either case, it would then have to follow with how Humanist Canada plans to work toward reconciliation. You can’t endorse the report while ignoring the extremely clear calls to action.

As a bare minimum demonstration that Humanist Canada understood this, I suggested the statement ought to have highlighted some of the recommendations reflected in the core principles of Humanism (for example, the call to repeal the spanking law).

But beyond that, what’s desperately missing from Humanist Canada’s statement and is the biggest missed opportunity here, is any commitment to do anything following the report. Instead of being a leader on one of the main human rights issues in Canada at the moment, Humanist Canada had absolutely nothing to say on what it felt Humanists ought to do in light of this report. There was no promise to review its own policies and activities. No suggestions for members to add their suggestion. No promises to reach out to Canada’s aboriginal community. There was no ambition in it to make the world a better place. And that’s why I’m angry.

To give a really tangible suggestion, as many as 31% of aboriginals in Canada say they have no religion. That’s almost seven times as many as say they practice “Traditional (Aboriginal) spirituality”. And while that doesn’t mean they are all atheists or Humanists – early research into non-religion amongst aboriginals in Australia suggests many may eschew the word religion while still maintaining spiritual beliefs – undoubtedly some would share our values and would be eager to work with an organization promoting human dignity and secular values.

At the very least this presents an incredible opportunity for dialogue around what it means to be non-religious in contemporary Canada. We should be building bridges, starting discussions, and learning about these issues. In particular, there’s potentially much we can from the aboriginal perspective before we force our own ideas and campaigns on them.

For me this report generates so many important and interesting questions and I really wish it had done the same for the current leadership of Humanist Canada. These are questions that could lead to a larger, more diverse movement (something I hope Humanist Canada cares about). For example (these are really just illustrative):

  • How do aboriginals view Canada’s non-religious communities?
  • What can we as Humanists and secularists do to promote reconciliation?
  • How many members of Humanist Canada are aboriginal? Why aren’t there more? What are their priorities?
  • What do non-religious aboriginals believe in?
  • What barriers do atheists and the non-religious face on reserves?
  • How do aboriginal beliefs inform modern secular aboriginal people?

Finally, it’s a missed opportunity because it fails to engage with where Canadians are on this issue. Angus Reid’s poll, released last week, on Canadian’s reaction to the report shows strong support for the report – with younger Canadians most optimistic about the report bringing a better situation to Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

That’s not to say Humanist Canada ought to just follow the polls. We do have a place in challenging majority opinions, but that needs to come first from demonstrating an actual understanding of the issue and making the case why the majority is wrong.

Lloyd claims in his comment that “Instead of simply parroting the ‘me too’ line of some political parties, we added to it.” But I see no evidence from that statement that Humanist Canada actually grasped the issues at play before jumping in to say religion should have been bashed more.

A strong and constructive response could have shown how Humanist values of tolerance, compassion, and open secularism are not just relevant in this conversation but are those that could potentially offer the optimistic future that younger Canadians believe is possible.

In no particular order below are my more specific responses to Lloyd, the Humanist Canada statement and their abysmal press release. I don’t plan on spending any more of my time arguing about this statement. I’m not alone in these criticisms and I hope by now you can see why we find this position problematic. Nevertheless, I maintain my offer to help build a constructive response.

Spiritual Violence

“We are concerned that this term could be used to cut off reasonable discussion which is a clear infringement of free speech and personal evolution,” Lloyd said in the press release. The release claims the term spiritual violence “was defined as demeaning a person’s religious traditions.”

But just because someone uses the word spiritual doesn’t mean atheists should automatically throw up their arms in protest.

Despite Lloyd’s claim, the report is explicitly clear both about what definition of spiritual violence it was using and in when it’s something to be condemned. In the context of the report, spiritual violence is very clearly about an active government policy to destroy a culture. For example, the second paragraph of the report defines cultural genocide and identifies what would constitute spiritual violence: “Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed.”

If that’s not enough, they straight up define what the they mean on page 276. Perhaps Lloyd missed the rest of this because the statement says it’s defined on page 272.

Spiritual violence occurs when:

  • a person is not permitted to follow her or his preferred spiritual or religious tradition;
  • a different spiritual or religious path or practice is forced on a person;
  • a person’s spiritual or religious tradition, beliefs, or practices are demeaned or belittled; or
  • a person is made to feel shame for practising his or her traditional or family beliefs.

There is plenty of evidence to support our conclusion that spiritual violence was common in residential schools

There are four separate definitions there and it’s clearly not about restricting anyone’s freedom to criticize religion. The entire report is about the abuse of aboriginal peoples by the state. It’s about the government having a policy to tell people they’re wrong, what you can and can’t believe, and often trying to – sometimes literally – beat and torture your beliefs out of you. Take this section, which makes it clear (p 282, emphasis added):

To have a right that you are afraid to exercise is to have no right at all. The Declaration asserts that governments (and other parties) now have an obligation to assist Indigenous communities to restore their own spiritual belief systems and faith practices, where these have been damaged or subjected to spiritual violence through past laws, policies, and practices. No one should be told who is, or how to worship, their Creator. That is an individual choice and, for Indigenous peoples, it is also a collective right. However, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people need to be assured that they do indeed have the freedom to choose and that their choice will be respected.

In his comment Lloyd says that “To ignore inconvenient facts in support of a political narrative, especially when accompanied by rants to silence dissent, is a definition of totalitarianism.” I’m sorry Lloyd, but the stuff I said wasn’t totalitarian, it was critical of Humanist Canada. This stuff, about government policy to destroy cultures, that’s totalitarian.

Instead of supporting the right to freedom of religion for aboriginal peoples and for secularism (ie the government not telling you what to believe), this is “The one commission recommendation [Humanist Canada has] questioned.”

That recommendation, number 60, calls on church leaders to be sensitive to this historic abuse to prevent it from happening again (particularly related to attempts to destroy their culture). That sounds sensible to me. Anyone going into schools in a position of authority ought to have some modicum of understanding of their students, particularly if there are generations of abuse from people in positions of authority.

On signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Humanist Canada’s press release and statement “Call on the Government to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples [sic].” But as I pointed out in my Storify, you literally can’t sign it after the vote. That’s just not how it works.

Yes, the Harper Government has dragged its heels at every opportunity and continues to delay meaningful action. The Huffington Post article Lloyd linked to, discussing Canada’s objections raised at a 2014 meeting to the language used in a small number of clauses is a red herring. It’s literally not a document we can sign.

The report recommends:

43. We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.

44. We call upon the Government of Canada to develop a national action plan, strategies, and other concrete measures to achieve the goals of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Read it again and compare it with what Humanist Canada says.

They are clearly different calls. The Commission talks about adopting and implementing the Declaration. If the Government could sign the Declaration, they would have made it recommendation number 1 (or at least one of them).

If that recommendation – that Canada should adopt and implement the Declaration as a framework for reconciliation – is what you meant, you should have said that. Language matters in these situations. At best you look naïve when you release an official statement asking for things that cannot happen. It’s a good way to destroy the credibility of your organization and – why I’m extra incensed – of our movement.

Lloyd says “Curiously, Mr. Bushfield approvingly posted a letter from Secular Connexion Séculaire” citing the SCS document I put in my Storify. What Lloyd missed was where I said, “though [SCS] still mistakenly calls on Canada to sign UNDRIP when we already have.” So I really can’t see what’s confusing Lloyd unless he hasn’t actually read what I wrote.

I completely agree that the Government shouldn’t have voted against the Declaration in the first place and the continued objections are embarrassing to our country, but we still can’t sign it.

On “good experiences” in residential schools

In his response on Canadian Atheist, Lloyd says I tweeted “that the HC document ‘reads like a Catholic apologist.’” The good thing about the internet is that I can show you exactly what I said:

Maybe Lloyd’s not familiar with Twitter but basically there’s a 140 character limit which means complex thoughts and ideas have to be summarized in very short form. This is why (as you can see) I took a screen-cap to quote one specific sentence from the statement:

We are disappointed that the Truth and Reconciliation Committee failed to report on aboriginal people who had good residential school experiences as reconciliation cannot be achieved without balanced reporting.

And I compared that specific section with a Catholic apologist arguing that we need to talk about the people who had good experiences in residential schools.

To go from my Tweet, which even within Twitter’s limits I think still gets across the point I wanted, so saying I dismissed the entire statement as Catholic apologetics is worse than anything Lloyd accuses me of.

But let’s look at what Lloyd, speaking as Humanist Canada, actually says in that line. And let’s set aside the weasel words of “balanced reporting” which are more often used by conservative media outlets to give space for climate change denialists or to some puffed-up theologian in a piece about atheists.

The reason this line was “the worst” is because it obscures what the point of the entire report was. I pointed this out in my very next Tweet and in the article I linked to in my Storify.

If, as Lloyd says, he has “also worked with clients who viewed residential schools as ‘safe havens’ from abuse suffered in their families of origin,” then the answer, the Humanist answer, is surely not to simply change who the abuser is. It must be to challenge human rights abuses wherever they occur. That some people saw residential schools as not better but less bad than their home-life is surely another sign of our continued failure as a country to protect indigenous peoples?

So Lloyd quote-mined a Tweet to argue that I didn’t read his statement. And I’m the one who’s being “disingenuous.”

My “most disingenuous suggestion”

Lloyd says “Probably Mr. Bushfield’s most disingenuous suggestion is that HC is opposed to those recommendations not directly mentioned in our two page response paper.”

The only problem is I never said that.

I said, as I’ve repeated in thorough detail above, that Humanist Canada missed an opportunity by not mentioning any of the recommendations or reconciliation. But that’s not even in the same universe as accusing Humanist Canada of being opposed to any of them. I wrote about what an actually meaningful response would look like. There were a whole bunch of recommendations in there, but all Humanist Canada had to say was it “endorsed the broad scope” of the report.

And that doesn’t mean a Sagan-damned thing.

Having made up what I said, Lloyd continues, “He uses this ruse to falsely accuse HC of supporting the spanking of children.”

Go back and read my Storify. Again I never said any of that.

On spanking, I asked rhetorically, “Surely Humanist Canada isn’t pro-smacking children?” I clearly didn’t do this to imply that Humanist Canada endorses spanking. Read the context of what I said.

I was arguing that Humanist Canada should have used the statement as an opportunity to show common ground with the recommendations and Humanist values. Spanking is something I assume most Humanists oppose (based on the evidence and morality), so I clearly didn’t “use this ruse to falsely accuse HC” of anything.


The press release

Before I address the press release itself, I want to establish my credentials. I’ve spent much of the past 8 years campaigning, in voluntary and professional capacities, for secularism and science. In that time, I’ve written and helped write countless media releases which have landed front page newspaper coverage as well as radio and TV interviews. Some of my early work was undoubtedly helped by the novelty of atheism, my more recent and focused work has been on the strategic thinking on building and framing of a story so as to make the greatest impact possible.

As campaigning has become my profession, and this blog has already run way too long, I’m not going to break down everything that’s wrong (from a public point of view) with Humanist Canada’s release. I’m not going to do their work for them for free. But here’s a quick run-through of why I consider it to be amateurish and damaging to the credibility not just of Humanist Canada but potentially of the broader Humanist movement.

This release went out three weeks after the report. There is almost no point in putting out a press release that late. No one’s going to care because it’s not news.

The first line actually needs to say something newsworthy. That Humanist Canada is a “a National, Secular, Non Profit and registered Charitable Educational Organization” is not. It is redundant (all charities are registered non-profits in Canada) and grammatically incorrect (none of those words should be capitalized). That stuff all belongs in a footnote with a description of what Humanist Canada is.

There’s no story in this release. Pick two, maybe three main points at most and centre a narrative around that. Imagine you’re writing the newspaper article for them. Walk them through the story.

Too many ideas are crammed into each paragraph. Just make them nice, clear and short (even just a couple sentences each). Give the quotes their own space.

Link directly to the statement. This was an electronic press release, sent over the internet. You don’t need to say “find this thing here” you can link directly to it or even add it as an attachment.

Give an email address for contact. It’s 2015, most of the journalists that follow up with me send an email.

Don’t pay for it! This was released on MarketWired, a professional wire service. I don’t know for a fact that Humanist Canada paid for this release but I do know that there are free wire services. Nevertheless, in my experience it’s generally far more effective to send a release (by email) directly to news desks and journalists. Like other non-religious charities, Humanist Canada is funded almost entirely by donations, so it’s just wasting donor’s money. A better use of funds would be to pay someone professionally to do your communications, who might have foreseen many of these criticisms.

Also, Peoples in “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples” should be capitalized.

Update 16 July 2015:

I’ve made some minor copy edits to the post and cleaned up the later sections. None of my arguments have changed substantively.

I want to add that in my Storify, and for as much as possible here, I directed my critiques at Humanist Canada’s statement, albeit sometimes in the tongue-in-cheek format of social media. I did this on my own, independent of any organizations. Lloyd, however, repeatedly and blatantly misrepresented my arguments and resorted to personal attacks. And Lloyd speaks as “the board member who prepared the draft position adopted by HC.” Even if his comments aren’t endorsed by Humanist Canada, this is the only communication I’ve received from them (albeit indirectly) since they promised to review my notes.

While I will continue to be an active supporter of the Humanist movement in Canada, I’m incredibly disappointed by the behaviour of “Canada’s national voice for humanism” and its current leadership.