Addressing Discrimination Against Atheist Refugee Claimants – E-Petition 3114
UPDATE: This petition was read in the House of Commons on June 22. A government response to the petition must be provided within 45 calendar days – on or before August 5, 2021.
In September of 2020, one of SCS’ provincial advocates informed me about Canada’s Less Complex Claims (LCC) refugee policy. The LCC policy of Canada’s Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship department grants refugee status to members of religions listed in the policy from countries listed in the policy without the lengthy hearing process normally required. For example, Ahmadis, Christians, Shias, and others who are in danger from Pakistani vigilantes are included in the LCC policy.
Atheists, who suffer the same persecution, officially or on the streets of the countries listed, are not included in the LCC policy. This is clearly discriminatory against atheists. The report from the SCS advocate included a reference to an official government website that included a complete list of the countries and religions included in the LCC policy. I verified the reference which took me to an official website of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Following established successful practices, on September 9, 2020, I emailed the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, the Hon. Marco Mendicino, drawing his attention to this discrimination and asking him to modify the LCC policy to include atheists. Normally, this kind of email prompts a response from a minister’s staff, asking for clarification, and often a meeting (by Zoom, recently) with those staff members. Sometimes it results in direct contact with the minister involved.
However, in this case, the email and a subsequent follow-up email (Nov. 4) received only an almost-instant automated response, the content of which had nothing to do with the request made. Given the unusual automated, reflexive response, I was pretty sure my email had been diverted or trapped by a staff member.
This was further confirmed when I went back to the website given to me by our advocate to gather more details. I discovered that the list of countries included in the LCC policy had been removed. The website page had been scrubbed on or before November 3, 2020.
SCS made contact with the Centre for Inquiry Canada (CFIC), and Humanist Canada (HC), to keep them apprised of the situation. Representatives of the three organizations met to discuss strategy.
We quickly agreed that the goal was to get the minister involved, because this discrimination was putting lives in danger and we had no reason to believe that he had been informed of the emails. An HC representative on the committee was able to recover part of the scrubbed listing. It is available here, along with a more detailed account of SCS actions.
Given the failure of the Minister of Immigration and his staff to respond to SCS, the joint committee agreed on an e-petition as the right way to force a response from Minister Mendicino.
An e-petition is directed electronically at a government minister. That is what sets it aside from other public petitions such as those on sites like Change.org. In addition, e-petitions are a function of Canada’s House of Commons — they are official government documents requiring action by the minister to whom they are directed.
The minister, Hon. Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship in this case, must address the issues in the e-petition within 40 days of its being read in the House. This also sets it apart from public petitions that, even if they reach a Minister of the Crown, may not receive any substantive attention.
The first step, after identifying that we had an issue requiring the attention of the Minister of Immigration, was to formulate the petition listing the details of the issue we wanted addressed. See the content of the petition here.
Since an e-petition is read in the House of Commons (virtually or in person), it requires an MP to sponsor and to read it there. MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Liberal, Beach-East York) graciously stepped forward to do this. Yes, we do have supporters in the halls of government.
Then we had to collect a minimum of 500 signatures to qualify the petition for reading. As of this writing, we have 1,575 signatures on the petition, more than three times the required number. So as soon as the deadline for signing, April 25, passes, the petition will be read in the House of Commons.
While taking the e-petition route did not preclude a public petition as well, the joint committee decided to focus solely on the e-petition. In the future we might consider doing both if we have the personnel available to support that.
In addition to getting the issue on the record, e-petition 3114 also gets secular humanism on the radar in the House of Commons. It gives us a presence in the House of Commons upon which we can build. At the moment, most parliamentarians are not aware of our existence, or that atheists make up between 20 and 25 percent of Canada’s population. A few key people do know, however. They include MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith; my MP, Tim Louis; the Hon. Bardish Chagger, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth; and, now, the Hon. Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Immigration.
The e-petition also got many secular humanists involved in ways they had not previously been. Thanks to those of you who signed the petition. Those who have had reservations should consider this information when the next e-petition defending secular humanist rights is presented.
Also important is that the three organizations — CFIC, HC, and SCS — have demonstrated to each other that we can work together effectively. Discussions about even better co-ordination of these efforts are happening.
Secular Connexion Séculière (SCS) is a national advocacy group focusing, since 2011, on lobbying government to end systemic discrimination against atheists in Canada. More recently, it has begun to address provincial and local issues with a network of advocates who monitor discrimination against atheists across the country. SCS is supported as an independent entity by subscribers across Canada.
Doug Thomas, B.A., B.ed., is a life-long non-believer who is a registered lobbyist with the federal government. Along with Dr. Barrie Webster, he founded SCS in 2011 for the specific purpose of defending the right to freedom from religion and the purpose of lobbying for the elimination of systemic discrimination against atheists in Canada. He monitors the activities of parliamentary committees daily and regularly emails cabinet ministers to draw this discrimination to their attention.