June 20, 1999
The first column upon returning from vacation is a chore. After spending three weeks relaxing and trying to purge my mind of work and its aggravations, I have to re-stress myself scouting around for a subject.
This year, though, the transition is uncommonly easy. In fact, I have a passel of possibilities, so now the question becomes which one to do first. All hell breaking loose over God and Svend Robinson in the House of Commons wins out.
At first glance, I thought the fracas was just another case of the unconventional MP from Burnaby–Douglas championing a controversial policy or reform. After much harrumphing and cheering—depending on your point of view—I figured the matter would be resolved one way or another.
In this case, first impressions didn’t tell the whole story. The idea to remove “the supremacy of God” from the Constitution didn’t come from Robinson, but from a 1,000-name petition on behalf of the Humanist Association of Canada, for which Robinson was only the messenger. In fact, Robinson said he didn’t approve of the petition’s wording and would not sign it, even though in 1981 he campaigned against the phrase’s inclusion.
Whether or not you support Robinson, his strong sense of political independence is one of the best things about the House. At a time when autocratic prime ministers and their cabinet courtiers are usurping the House’s legislative authority and legitimacy, it’s reassuring to see that MPs like Robinson aren’t afraid to speak their minds.
What Robinson did can hardly be considered extraordinary; after all, isn’t tabling a petition on behalf of constituents part of an MP’s duty? Robinson seems to thinks so, but his party thinks otherwise. His own party leader Alexa McDonough banished him to purgatory on the backbenches, and prominent members vilified him in such terms that you’d think he advocated armed insurrection.
The real story here is not Robinson or the Humanists, but the stupid political religiosity of the federal NDP.
The odds of the petition succeeding were slim to none. First, Constitutional amendments are excruciatingly hard to pass because of the amount of federal and provincial consensus required. Second, debating “supremacy of God” is a non-issue for the vast majority of MPs, especially when serious matters of economics and military policy command attention.
All the NDP had to do was let Robinson table the petition, let political inertia take its course, and that would have been the end of it. Unfortunately, that would have made too much sense. Instead, the party chose to go supernova. Leading the explosion of invective was Kamloops MP Nelson Riis, who condemned Robinson’s action as “disgusting” and “absolutely stupid,” although why, we’re never told.
Robinson suspects that his colleagues went after him and denigrated the Humanists’ petition because the party is more concerned with pandering to increasingly scarce supporters than with upholding principles like freedom of speech or minority rights.
Manitoba MP Pat Martin virtually proved the point in the National Post: “Why would you want to poke 90 per cent of the population in the eye with a stick and then ask them to vote for you in the next election?”
What indeed of minority rights?
Leaving aside the political hurdles facing the Humanists’ petition, their request to remove “the supremacy of God” from the preamble to the Constitution was eminently reasonable and in the best interests of democracy.
As a secular state, Canada is founded upon the rule of law and, as such, God is irrelevant. Strangely, though, these two concepts are side by side in the preamble, which raises the question: Could God and the Rule of Law ever be at odds with each other? If you’ve ever heard an anti-abortionist deliver a “right to life” tirade, you know the answer.
On the one hand, pro-choice activists can cite the rule of law in defence of their action, while the anti-abortionists appeal to God, which in this case makes them outlaws. The plain truth is, the preamble is a contradiction and a disservice to our democratic culture. (If there’s one thing God isn’t, it’s democratic).
Besides, “the supremacy of God” is an empty expression. Those who are religious don’t need the Constitution to validate their certainty in God’s existence. For atheists and agnostics, however, the preamble is offensive. Freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion.
As it is, Humanists feel insulted, and with good reason. True, the British and French who were principally responsible for building this country came from Christian backgrounds, but that doesn’t mean that Christianity is the state religion or that a metaphysical postulate like God belongs in the Constitution. To argue otherwise would equate Canadian values with God and that’s nonsense. It’s also intolerant and undemocratic.
The Humanist petition deserves to be taken seriously. The fact that it comes from a minority group is no excuse for treating it with contempt. We willingly bowdlerize our language to placate feminists, and we excuse Sikhs from wearing motorcycle helmets, yet we think it beneath us to respect those who don’t believe in God.
Denigrating atheists appears to be one of the last acceptable prejudices in this allegedly enlightened country.
Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson!