A Word From Our Man In Ottawa…

Humanist Dave with beard and taped photo

Humanist Dave with beard and taped photo

Last month, MSS member Chris jetted off to a bright future and a new life in Canada. I think. I mean the brighter future bit, not the Canada bit – I know he’s in Canada. Or at least he said he is, I’ve no real hard evidence. Hmm. Anyway, in his first overseas missive, Chris introduces us to the Canada Humanist scene and their own Atheist Bus Campaign…

Greetings from Canada! Coincidentally, just as Ariane Sherine prepared to make her way to my old stomping-ground in Liverpool I attended my first meeting of the Humanist Association of Ottawa (HAO) at which the topic was the Atheist Bus Campaign. I thought it worth mentioning not only because of the fact that it was relevant to a Merseyside meeting, but also because it raises some issues that haven’t been so important in the UK.

David of the HAO gave a talk on Humanism as a whole and also, more specifically, the way that Humanism has been represented in Ottawa. While I disagreed with some of what was said (“Humanists are all atheists”, “Humanists only believe in what can be proven”, “Humanism is not a religion”) this was largely a matter a semantics. The most interesting side of the talk was what the group had been doing to spread awareness of Humanism and represent the non-religious in the city. So far they have been accepted onto interfaith panels in the city which contribute to the development of council policy. However, they have not been successful in getting involved with religious newspaper columns and the wider media. The group have also had a presence at gay pride parades and festivals, running stalls and distributing leaflets. However, an initial application to run the Atheist Bus advertisement (the same as has been running all over the world) was initially turned down by the city’s transport authority, OC Transpo.

It was this latter campaign that spurred the group into action. They saw three potential avenues to fight the decision: (i) through the law, (ii) by submitting a complaint on the basis of restriction of freedom of speech, or (iii) politically. The legal and human rights approaches were both deemed to be too expensive and too lengthy for a small organisation like the HAO and so they opted for politics and publicity as their weapon of choice. Turning up to the next OC Transpo meeting in specially-made t shirts and with duct tape covering their mouths (and with the media forewarned), four bold members of HAO made their presence felt (calmly and politely). Two HAO members gave presentations as to why they felt the advert should be run. In response, a member of the audience gave a presentation outlining why she felt that the advert should not be run (focusing on Hitler and Stalin being atheists and, therefore, if we run the advert we will inevitably have another holocaust…).

OC Transpo stated that it was their policy that “if in the opinion of the management an advertisement may offend some readers, we will not use the advertisement”. Clearly there is enough wiggle-room in this policy to (appropriately) fit a bus. Two letters of pre-emptive complaint had been received and this was enough evidence for them to decline the advert. This was in spite of 90% of the media coverage and the majority of local church groups actually being in support of the advert.

Dave with atheist bus ad

Dave with atheist bus ad

The next step was to take the matter to the City Council. Here 20 HAO members made an appearance in the public gallery, proudly sporting their Atheist Bus t shirts and attracting even more media attention. Bizarrely a counter-protest was organised outside which involved teachers and pupils from a local church-run primary school. Clearly it was more important that the children learn how to be “good Christians” than learn anything useful in the classroom. Having said that, David made the point that everybody (including both protests and the city council) conducted themselves in a civil manner. During the meeting the council voted 18:5 to overturn OC Transpo’s ban on the advert – a strong decision in favour of the HAO.

However, there are a few little details that made for interesting hearing… The first is that one council member decided to vote against overturning the ban on the basis that she was exercising her freedom of speech. The lady did not seem to see the irony behind using her free speech to ensure that others did not have the opportunity to exercise theirs… Secondly, these people were politicians and a number of individuals were careful to state that, although they were in favour of running the advert, it was not because they agreed with its message or even that they thought that free speech was that important, but simply because they saw a lengthy lawsuit coming and wanted to save taxpayers’ money. Very principled! Finally, and possibly the most outrageous, was the action of the mayor of the city who voted against overturning the ban. Only the previous day he had been present at a meeting of the Ottawa interfaith group where representatives from all the major faiths had agreed that they had no problem with the advert.

In the end, though, the OC Transpo decision was overturned and the advert ran on 30 buses for 4 weeks at a cost of CAD$7,000. However, David was pleased to point out some “bank-of-the-envelope” calculations that he had been doing which had estimated the value of the media coverage over the affair as being worth somewhere in the region of CAD$400,000-500,000. Subsequently the Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that (to paraphrase) “Canadians do not have the right to not be offended”. Also in terms of free-speech, the Supreme Court announced that a criterion that should be used in deciding whether to permit controversial material such as the Atheist Bus campaign should be whether the benefits of releasing it outweigh the costs of not doing so. Clearly the correct decision has been reached in Ottawa, although along the way the inherent reluctance of those in power to permit the basic human right of freedom of speech has been laid bare. Whether this stems from individuals acting on the basis of their own conscience and particular beliefs rather than out of a desire to serve their electorate’s needs or whether politicians are simply afraid of losing votes by alienating the religious element of the electorate is unclear. Whatever the answer, the Ottawa Atheist Bus campaign stands as a good case study of how Humanism and Atheism have been successfully promoted despite initial opposition.

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