January 21, 2015
The Lester B. Pearson Building is Canada’s headquarters for the new federal Global Affairs Canada Department. Lester Pearson is, of course, widely remembered for his 1957 Nobel Peace Prize and as a leader who helped launch Canada into international renown as a human rights leader and an advocate for peace. In the lobby of the building, visitors are surrounded by symbols and signals of the important function of this department: flags of all the nations of the world and all the provinces and territories of Canada hang tidily side by side, an elegant and understated statue of Lester Pearson is displayed alongside his Nobel Prize medallion and certificate, Alfred Pellan’s paintings represent our government’s ”continued interest in representing the best of Canada at every opportunity” and a wonderful totem pole stands alongside the lounge. This was the auspicious setting for a meeting, coordinated by Ambassador Andrew Bennett of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom, between CFIC, representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and members of the Global Affairs Canada staff. Seanna Watson, CFIC’s Education Chair said,
“I was encouraged to see the new government’s humanistic perspective of concern for all peoples of the world, as evidenced by the renaming of the “Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development” to “Global Affairs Canada”. I’m also hopeful that CFIC will continue to be regarded as a voice for the non-religious, and will be able to raise awareness and increase understanding to promote the fundamental human right of secularism – that there should be neither special accommodations nor special sanctions applied to any persons, writings, or actions for purely religious reasons.”
In December of 2015, CFIC invited Raihan Abir, a recent refugee to Canada and a targeted atheist writer from Bangladesh, to join CFIC in a meeting with Ambassador Bennett. At that meeting we were able to discuss CFIC’s grave concerns with terrorist attacks on atheist writers in Bangladesh – and with the Bangladesh government’s failure to provide adequate protection for the victims. In response, Ambassador Bennett has taken efforts to ensure that CFIC’s concerns were heard and that the victims of systemic persecution were not ignored. Within days of our meeting, he coordinated our January 21, 2015 meeting.
Attending the meeting from CFIC were Eric Adriaans (National Executive Director), Kevin Smith (Board Chair), Seanna Watson (Education Chair) and our guest Raihan Abir. Raihan is of course, also an essential link between CFIC and the Mukto Mona freethinking website (Bangladesh’s leading freethinking website). UNHCR send two representatives, including Furio DeAngelis – the UNHCR Representative in Canada – while Global Affairs Canada provided several representatives with a selection of relevant portfolios. We were very pleased that Ambassador Bennett hosted and led our dialogue.
On the agenda for the meeting was voicing of feedback and perspective relating to the bloody targeting of atheist writers in Bangladesh and the significant challenges faced by non-religious victims of faith-based bigotry, persecution and intolerance. It would be inappropriate to publish specifics of our dialogue – we must consider the safety and security of the vulnerable persons – the CFIC team felt confident that our concerns were heard and taken seriously. Following the meeting, Raihan Abir said,
“I understand that Canadian value and respect my work and writing for secular humanists of Bangladesh…that these human rights are what Canada stands for. Ambassador Bennett provided me with encouragement to continue my work even with his tweets about our meeting.”
As National Executive Director of CFI Canada, it is clear to me that Ambassador Bennett and other government officials recognize the significant secular human rights concerns in Bangladesh – as well as the intimate connection between religious intolerance and human rights violations. Throughout Canadian society, we don’t always agree on the way we phrase our concerns, nor should we; but we may only advance our work by entering meaningful dialogue with earnest and open intentions to achieve our common goals. CFIC is proud to have been a voice for Canadian and Bangladeshi citizens who will remember 2015 as a bloody and unacceptable year. Kevin Smith, Chair of CFIC’s Board of Directors commented that,
“Canada is a country that has spoken-out for human rights, freedom of expression and diversity. I felt extremely proud as a Canadian to meet with high-level UN and government officials who demonstrated a sincere desire to assist with the Bangladeshi refugee issues. Without our supporters, members and volunteers, it is probable that this initiative wouldn’t continue. I was honoured to be one of the CFIC representatives at this meeting. Ambassador Bennett has my thanks for coordinating the meeting as do the UN’s Mr. Furio DeAngelis and Mr. Michael Casasola (Resettlement Officer) and the very competent and experienced leaders from our Global Affairs Canada staff.”
In coming weeks, CFIC will follow-up with the various officials we met; there is much work to be done by the Canadian secular humanist community to continue to advocate for our friends around the world and a safe and welcoming destination for those whose home is no longer safe.
Eric Adriaans, National Executive Director
Pictured above: Eric Adriaans, Seanna Watson, Kevin Smith, Raihan Abir, Furio DeAngelis (UNHCR), Ambassador Andrew Bennett (ORF)