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Op-ed: Religious taunts disappointing

November 9, 2017 — 

The following is an op-ed written by Royce Koop, associate professor and head of the department of political studies. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Nov. 9, 2017. 

 

Author Frank MacKinnon once persuasively argued that the Governor General provides Canadians with a non-partisan figure to identify with, even when they strongly disapprove of the prime minister and government of the day. Because the Governor General is unelected, Canadians can continue to see her as a focus of loyalty in her largely symbolic role as the head of state’s representative, while still vigorously opposing the party in power.

Opposing the government in Canada doesn’t necessarily entail opposing the regime or the country.

This seems like a banal point until you compare our politics with those of our southern neighbour. In the U.S., the head of state, presently U.S. President Donald Trump, is elected and deeply involved in the political battles of the day. Unlike in Canada, there is no impartial head of state for Americans to identify with when they become disenchanted with and alienated by the actions of the president. In this situation, opposition to the government can lead to dangerous opposition to the regime.

I’ll take the Canadian system, thank you very much.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent decision to appoint Julie Payette as Governor General was, I thought, one of the most inspired and thoughtful choices ever made by a prime minister. Surely a former astronaut was well positioned to inspire near universal support from Canadians.

So my jaw hit the floor last week when Payette used the occasion of a speech to dismiss religious Canadians who think there was a divine role played in the creation of humanity.

In her speech, Payette expressed wonderment that “…we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.” Payette’s exasperated mockery was met with agreeing laughter from her sympathetic audience.

Who exactly was Payette making fun of? A 2011 Ekos poll found that 33 per cent of respondents thought that Canadians were either created in their present form or that there was some divine role played in the process of evolution. So, Payette’s mockery was aimed at about a third of all Canadians.

So much for the Governor General as a point of loyalty and pride for all Canadians. Turns out that it’s hard to feel loyal toward someone who mocks you and your beliefs.

In a liberal democracy, we want governments to make decisions that are in accordance with the wishes of the majority, but not in such a way that the rights of minorities are violated. Elections empower governments to act on behalf of the majority, but the Charter of Rights and Freedoms limits the extent to which they can do so out of a recognition that governments can quickly tread on the rights of minorities.

As citizens, the challenge can be to square this with our own beliefs and interests. It’s easy to champion minority rights when our views align with theirs. It’s a lot harder when their interests or beliefs diverge from ours, and even harder still when minorities seem eccentric or even alien.

That’s an important point to make because, to outsiders, the most deeply held beliefs of religious Canadians may indeed seem eccentric. A lack of public support for religious minorities has meant that it’s traditionally been easy for governments to run roughshod over their rights.

It doesn’t take much effort to find examples from Canadian history.

In 1919, the government banned the immigration of Mennonites into Canada in part as a result of opposition to their religious doctrine of conscientious objection. In the lead-up to the ban, newspaper editorials condemned Mennonites as draft-dodgers and shirkers, and a member of Parliament called them “cattle.” Public opinion seemed to support the ban. The order-in-council that banned Mennonites referred to them as “…undesirable, owing to their peculiar customs…” Conrad Stoesz, from the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives in Winnipeg, argues that Mennonites were seen to be lacking in “Canadian values.”

The ban was finally lifted in 1922, which allowed Mennonites who had been experiencing targeted oppression and violence following the Russian Revolution to flee to Canada.

Now, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the proponents of the historical bans on Mennonites expressing the same mocking incredulity about the beliefs of these religious groups as Payette expressed about people who believe in creation. And that matters in part because citizens take cues from political elites. For example: in a response to Payette’s comments, a media commentator tweeted that “…not believing in natural selection is as ridiculous as horoscopes.”

The Governor General is supposed to be an impartial point of loyalty and pride for all Canadians. Instead, Payette has incited others to equate the most deeply held beliefs of religious Canadians with reading a horoscope. Truly, what a shame.

 

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