A Brief History of the Centre for Inquiry Canada
(2005 – 2015)
The ongoing story of the founding, development and growth of the Centre For Inquiry Canada (CFIC or CFI Canada) is one of challenge and opportunity as CFIC emerges from the combined efforts and resources of a diverse group of dedicated individuals.
While there were already humanist, skeptical and freethought organizations in Canada, the emergence of the Centre for Inquiry Canada provides something new and different: an educational organization that embraces humanism, skepticism, freethought and atheism. Bigger than any one accomplishment, CFI Canada is characterized by an attitude of optimism and growth, a desire to continually work to expand the movement’s reach into new cities and new projects (view CFI Canada’s Statement of Values).
The Humanist Association of Toronto and the Humanist Association of Canada had been making frequent trips to Center For Inquiry in Amherst, New York for many years. These organizations were deeply appreciative of the work being done by Paul Kurtz and other secular colleagues in the US. Don Cullen, Ron Burns, Jim Cranwell and George Baker had been laying the essential foundation for a Canadian affiliate of this (relatively) new movement growing in the United States. (view Recollections of the Founding of CFI Canada).
In the autumn of 2004 at Trinity College, an Anglican-affiliated institution within the University of Toronto, a small Atheist Society began under the leadership of undergraduate student Jennie Fiddes. It was a fun group, dedicated to informal debate and discussion. In January 2005 the group began to rebrand itself as a university-wide organization with a larger educational and outreach mandate becoming the University of Toronto Secular Alliance.
The UTSA’s initial event – a film screening of the provocative movie The God Who Wasn’t There, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and religious leaders – would define a movement that squarely took on controversial topics, while still managing to foster relationships with communities beyond itself.
From the beginning, the UTSA was part public education, part political activism. The group appeared regularly in the campus media, and then in the national media when they successfully pushed to have graduation prayers removed from convocation ceremonies. UTSA early highlights included a condemnation of the $4 million of university money being used to build a faith centre, a move which resulted in the acting president of the University to circulate a memo in response. The organization also supported an anti-Sharia law campaign, garnering considerable attention, especially when the McGuinty government declared one law for all Ontarians in the autumn of 2005.
The Secular Freethought Centre Opens its Doors
In the spring of 2006, the University of Toronto Secular Alliance outgrew its campus base and became the city-wide Toronto Secular Alliance. The organization had attracted over 600 people to an event featuring neuroscientist Dr. Michael Persinger and his famous “God Helmet,” an event that concluded the group’s exciting and busy first year.
It was at that same event that the public was introduced to the country’s first home and community centre for secular humanists, at 216 Beverley St., just south of the University of Toronto campus.
This achievement was made possible by an unlikely confluence of factors: the financial support of one incredibly generous and far-seeing donor, the energy of the newly emerging youth wing of the movement, the stability and institutionalization provided by the existing network of humanist and skeptical associations, and the charisma of Dr. Robert Buckman, a giant of Canadian humanism, who effectively brought these forces together.
The summer of 2006 was a critical period for humanism in Toronto. The Humanist Association of Toronto and the Toronto Secular Alliance, with support from other affiliated groups, joined forces to embark on the creation of an unprecedented institution: the Secular Freethought Centre.
While the Secular Freethought Centre began to succeed spectacularly, receiving new visitors daily and hosting popular events that featured, among others, former CBC radio personality Andy Barrie, the project was vulnerable because it lacked a dedicated full time manager and had little experience in sustaining such a novel enterprise. Enter the Center for Inquiry.
September 2006: CFI Ontario opens its doors and hosts the first Freethought Week Celebration with special guest CBC personality Andy Barrie
The Centre for Inquiry in Toronto
Observing the progress at the University, CFI was a well established institution that had existed in since the late 1970s and over the years, counted among its advisors Carl Sagan, Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. CFI had aspirations to establish operations in Toronto. Its speakers were routinely invited to give talks in Toronto and across Canada, and it enjoyed a thriving Canadian membership. The CFI provided management, connections and financial astuteness to take a start-up non-profit and turn it into a thriving professional charity.
In its first year of operations, CFI Canada launched a monthly lecture series, which continues to this day, helped establish campus societies at universities across Canada by holding a large number of its events on campus, and was featured in a variety of media outlets, including participation in a CBC The National 20-minute documentary on the rise of atheism in Canada.
CFI Canada also served as home to the inaugural meeting of the One School System Network, a coalition of secular advocacy, religious, civil rights, and teacher and trustee organizations that joined forces to demand the end of government funded Roman Catholic public schools in Ontario. The coalition was an important player in opposing the proposal to fully fund all private faith schools in the province, which ended up becoming the defining issue of the 2007 provincial election. The Network has also served as a model for similar bodies across Canada dedicated to ending government funded faith-based education and other forms of tax-payer support for religion.
May 26, 2007: CFI Canada hosts inaugural meeting of the One School System Network
July 24, 2007: First Front Page National News Story (National Post)
October 5, 2007: CBC The National airs Spreading Atheism featuring CFI Canada
January 2008: CFIC participates in The Globe and Mail Faith & Ethics Panel
May 2008: CFIC Executive Director on the Michael Coren Show on Crossroads Television, representing secular humanism nearly monthly until the show ends in summer 2011
CFI Canada Nationalizes
By the end of 2007, CFI Canada was well established as an increasingly important organization within the City of Toronto while a growing network of campus groups across the country worked in affiliation.
During 2008, CFI began to receive requests from individuals across the country who wanted to bring the same level of activity and visibility to atheism, skepticism and freethought. By the end of 2008, CFI Canada branches were established in Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver.
In Calgary in April 2008, CFI Canada hosted the inaugural event of its first branch. Since then, CFI Calgary has featured presentations by physics professor Victor Stenger, author of “God: The Failed Hypothesis,” Michael Shermer, Dr. David Eberth of the Royal Tyrell Museum and Dr. Jim Linville of the University of Lethbridge.
October 11, 2008: CFI Calgary inaugural event, features radio personality Rob Breakenridge
CFI Calgary has focused its political attention on its province’s high amount of public subsidies to religious schools, sometimes even creationism-teaching evangelical Christian schools. The group responded loudly when in 2009 the government passed Bill 44, enshrining into human rights legislation so-called “parental rights” to pull children from classes discussing controversial topics like religion and sexuality. From the beginning, CFI Calgary experienced terrific media success, and has been on the radio regularly, especially on the Rob Breakenridge Show on QR77.
In the summer of 2008, about the time CFI Canada co-hosted a conference on Secularism and Religion in Quebec Education, CFI Canada held its first Montreal meetings, culminating in the establishment of CFI Montreal, Montreal’s Cafe Skeptique, and student groups at McGill and Concordia universities. CFI Canada’s Montreal branch has distinguished itself by bringing onto the CFI Canada Advisory Committee notable academics, such as Dr. Brian Alters, Director of the McGill Evolution Education Research Centre, Kai Neilsen, author of Why be moral?; Rodrique Tremblay, former Ministry of Industry and Trade for the Government of Quebec; and Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster of the McGill Office for Science and Society.
Building on active affiliated groups at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, CFI Canada used a massively well-attended presentation by Professor Richard Dawkins in Vancouver in May 2008 to recruit leaders to run its new CFI Vancouver branch. The Vancouver branch has made unique contributions to the science advocacy and skepticism aspects of CFI Canada’s mandate. In particular, volunteers with CFI Vancouver were featured in a CBC Marketplace expose on homeopathy, and contributed to developing CFI Canada’s Extraordinary Claims Campaign.
From 2008 right up to the present, CFI Canada has continued to establish new branches in many Canadian communities including Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, Saskatoon, Kelowna, and most recently Sudbury and Regina.
Throughout it’s history, CFIC has been about the passion and commitment of individuals. The CFI Canada community continues to be built by people who value different parts of the organization or the mandate as a whole. Whether it’s the secular, scientific, skeptical, humanist, rational, freethought, atheist or indeed, even the work of a single campaign or initiative, CFI Canada has become a leading choice and community centre from coast to coast. The CFIC story is the story of people.
The Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign, the largest Canadian atheist advocacy project ever
February 2009: Atheist Bus Campaign Kick Off, the largest atheist advocacy project in Canadian history
The Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign was a game-changer, and what it managed to change, even before the first atheist ad-bearing bus left its depot in February 2009, was the conversation about religion in Canada.
CFI Canada joined forces with the Freethought Association of Canada – a body that had grown out of the student-run Toronto Secular Alliance – to maximize the reach and effectiveness of their joint interest in running atheist advertisements across the country.
Although the Atheist Bus ads ran in Toronto and Calgary with no trouble, CFI Canada ran into a roadblock in Ottawa, and then in Halifax where they were prohibited on the grounds that:
all advertisements must meet acceptable community standards of good taste, quality and appearance. Furthermore, the ads will not be considered discriminatory, or objectionable to any race, creed or moral standard.
Across Canada some media outlets went further, referring to the ad’s message – “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” – as “fanatical.”
Ultimately, the ads would be refused in cities across Canada, notably all cities in British Columbia and a number of large municipalities in Ontario including London. The refusal to run the ads sparked two distinct controversies. In certain cases, it was clear atheists were experiencing discrimination, which reinforced the very consciousness raising goal of the campaign. This was certainly true in Halifax, where the Bus Stop Bible Studies, an association that places quotes from the Bible in public transit, had in previous years been given permission to put up religious ads.
But some cities in Canada had blanket policies against running any ad that is religious, political or ideological. This raised a critical debate about free expression in the public space.
However, the Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign story has a happy ending, and a CFIC victory. On the local scene, champions of free speech emerged. For example, Alex Cullen, an Ottawa Councilor and Chair of the City’s Transit Committee, championed an appeal that ultimately saw Ottawa City Council conduct a vote, in front of groups of children bused in from local Christian schools, and pass a motion by 13-7 to allow the ads to proceed.
Then later that year the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that BC Transit had violated Charter free speech rights by refusing to display political ads by the Canadian Federation of Students, a landmark ruling on the responsibility of public agencies to be bound by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This precedent guaranteed that all cities across Canada would have to run atheist ads, and other ads that might make controversial claims about religion, alternative medicine and other matters related to CFI Canada’s mandate. CFI Canada therefore proceeded to run atheist ads in Kamloops and Kelowna, BC the following year. Then, as a further twist on the story, Kelowna became the first jurisdiction in the world to enjoy the dubious honour of having atheist ads stolen off its bus, an action that merely served to increase support and attention.
The ads’ message of atheist engagement in public debate on religion has begun to receive well-deserved public affirmation. The ads sparked religious response, such as the United Church of Canada’s own ad – “There probably is a god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”- and related debate on the UCC’s blog WonderCafe, and Muslim Imam Syed Soharwardy’s “pro-god” campaign to unite believers to fund an ad stating “God cares for everyone . . . even for those who say He doesn’t exist!” CFI’s Atheist Bus ads were featured in a book on religion in Canada by sociologist Reginald Bibby, entitled Beyond the Gods & Back.
Professionalizing the Organization
With the increase in visibility from the Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign and its growing body of educational events and media appearances across Canada, CFIC moved to professionalize and institutionalize itself. In late 2009 and during 2010, the organization hired new employees, with branch directors appointed in key locations: Ethan Clow in Vancouver, Brahim Abdenbi in Montreal, Nate Phelps in Calgary and Pam Walls in Toronto. Nate Phelps, the estranged son of Pastor Fred Phelps from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, has worked with CFI to become a major champion of gay rights and church-state separation.
After receiving charity status from the Canada Revenue Agency in September 2009, CFIC launched what would become an annual year end fundraising campaign, campaigns that would see financial support matched by donations from various large donors.
CFIC had emerged as an independent, completely Canadian-led, highly-visible national charitable organization.
September 16, 2009: CFI Canada receives charitable status
October 1, 2009: CFIC hires Pam Walls as CFI Ontario Executive Director.
Educational and Outreach Project Highlights
Over the course of its more recent history, CFIC has taken on a variety of large scale educational and outreach projects that have contributed to the movement for skeptical inquiry, freedom of thought and secular humanism.
September 2009: CFI Canada’s Campaign for Free Expression was taken as the model for a new international campaign of the same name and featuring International Blasphemy Rights Day every September 30
November 2009: CFIC coordinates a pro-evolution campaign with a dozen campus groups across Canada to celebrate Darwin Year
January 2010: CFIC launches the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism to critically examine scientific, technological and medical claims in public discourse. CASS has organized prominent alternative medicine awareness campaigns, including a public mass homeopathic overdose event, responded to the pseudoscience surrounding wireless radiation, defended climate science and evolution, and hosted panels on scientific skepticism at science fiction conferences
March 2010: Ottawa launches “Living Without Religion,” part of a growing network of social support groups for those who have left often oppressive or cult-like religious traditions. The group attracts former Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Scientologists, Mormons and even a few from genuine cults, with many in attendance having endured emotional abuse and ostracism from their family, friends and loved ones.
April 2010: CFI Canada Board President Kevin Smith begins representing secular humanism weekly in the Ottawa Citizen’s “Ask the Religious Experts” section
August 2010: CFIC launches its own multimedia production initiative: Think Again ! TV, a news and variety show featuring investigative journalism, interviews and expos from a secular, atheist and skeptical perspective
November 2010: CFIC launches the Extraordinary Claims Campaign, featuring bus ads, educational events and online discussion to promote critical, skeptical and scientific inquiry, focused on the tagline “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
June 2011: CFIC’s Secular Organizations for Sobriety welcomes atheists and agnostics from Alcoholics Anonymous, a quasi-religious institution which enjoys favoured status in the courts, after agnostic AA groups are de-ratified. Since its inception, CFIC has put the “human” in “humanism” by reaching out to people in need through a diverse range of social programs including Living Without Religion, secular family programs, skepticism and humanism themed discussion groups, and critical thinking-based ESL classes.
September 2011: James “The Amazing” Randi crisscrosses Canada, impressing massive audiences at CFIC branche events with his combination of magic and skepticism
March 2012: CFIC becomes science advisor on a $30 million lawsuit against Shoppers Drug Mart and Boiron Labs for violating consumer protection laws through the false marketing of homeopathic product Oscillococcinum
May 2012: CFIC’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism provides several experts for The Conspiracy Show on Vision TV. From the pilot episode on UFOs, CFIC has provided the scientific and skeptical perspective on The Conspiracy Show for topics ranging from crop circles and energy healing to remove viewing and the JFK assassination.
November 2012: CFIC hosts “Eschaton 2012”, celebrating reason at the end of the world. Eschaton is Canada’s first freethought conference in the nation’s capital.
December 2012: CFIC joins a coalition fighting against the Ugandan “Kill the Gays” bill, which would have punished Ugandans engaging in same-sex acts with life imprisonment or even the death penalty, while forcing citizens to report offenders. The Bill fails to pass before the legislative season ends.
April 2014: CFIC conducts a protest march in Ottawa with stops at the Uganda and Nigeria embassies; on the same weekend, CFI Canada hosts Richard Carrier and Zeba Crook for a “Did Jesus Exist” academic debate
June 2014: CFI Canada approves renewed Bylaws in compliance with the Canada Not For Profit Corporations act including significant advances in the transparency and democratic functions of the organization.
January 2015: In response to the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris and the case of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, CFI Canada is a driving force in the call to end Canada’s Blasphemous Libel Law – Criminal Code Section 296 and the formation of the International Coalition to End Blasphemy Laws (IACBL)
National Leadership Changes and Renewal
As may be expected in any rapidly growing organization, periods of leadership change occurrs at CFIC as the organization grows and adjusts to the demands and expectations of a larger community. Working alongside a dedicated volunteer Board of Directors and an ever-increasing team of national, provincial and local volunteers, several individuals contribute their leadership talents as National Executive Director during these years: Justin Trottier (2006-2011), Derek Pert (2011), Michel Payton (2011-2013), Eric Adriaans – (2014-present).
In June 2014, CFIC adopts new bylaws with expanded democratic processes; included in those bylaws is a requirement for a transition election for a new Council. The transition election nomination process yields 10 Council nominees for 10 available positions - this slate of Councillors is acclaimed. Members (now called Friends of the Centre For Inquiry Canada) who are current and in good standing at the date of the Annual General Meeting (June 15, 2014) re eligible to stand for election to Council; interested individuals are required to be nominated by at least two existing Councillors. Election cycles are standardized with the CFI Canada Annual General Meeting. By rule of the Bylaws, the number of new Councillors is set at 5% of the members in good standing at the start of the fiscal year (October 1). The primary responsibilities of the CFIC council are to elect the board of Directors and to elect the Council.