Humanist Perspectives: issue 191: The Courage to Continue

The Courage to Continue
Is it “controversial” to say that public funds should be used for public schools?
by Dr Richard Thain

O

ne August morning, I was reflecting on the soon-to-be-inaugurated Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Television ads were being shown announcing the museum’s Opening Gala Weekend in September, and there was much talk about Canada championing human rights. I was struck by the idea of how appropriate it would be to place a message on a billboard in front of the Museum concerning the officially sanctioned human rights abuse in the Ontario school system.

I was motivated by my admiration for the dedication and perseverance of all the activists in the One School System Network in the face of frustration at being ignored by the authorities. Renton Patterson, author of the booklet, Not Carved in Stone, provides a sterling example. He has been writing newsletters on this issue for over a quarter of a century.

I asked myself, would it be possible to leverage off the media hype, draw some attention to our Ontario school funding human rights issue and stimulate public discourse by directing some inquiries to a couple of our websites: www.OnesShoolSystem.org and Civil Rights in Public Education’s www.CRIPE.web.org?

Several days before my billboard epiphany, I had been reading about Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian scholar, activist and Nobel Laureate, who had addressed the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s congress at Oxford this summer. He is recognized for imploring people to not only discuss social issues but to “take action!” With this challenge in mind, I conceived the idea of creating a “Winnipeg Ad Campaign for Human Rights.”

To that end, I contacted Pattison Outdoor Advertising, intending to rent the biggest billboard available. The account executive at Pattison informed me that there was indeed a large billboard situated near the museum. However, it was not available at the time of the opening. So, we discussed other options, including bus ads. Many buses converge near the museum located in Winnipeg’s historic Forks District. If I couldn’t rent a strategically located billboard near the museum, running a bus ad campaign seemed the best alternative.

The museum’s opening Gala Weekend was September 20th. Time was therefore of the essence. I signed a contract for 50 buses for 4 weeks to carry a series of ads. The cost was more than renting a billboard, but the $10,000 paled in comparison with the time and effort spent over the decades by the many volunteers who support the one school system (OSS) concept.

I knew I would need help with the ad project, and reached out to a small group of friends. I sent them eight suggested texts for the ads to get things started. Together, our group came up with twenty ads that we whittled down to a dozen texts. Our team expanded from the initial small circle of OSS activists to over twenty people, including some strategic partners in Winnipeg and Alberta.

The final ads stated facts and expressed the opinion that Ontario should move to a single publicly funded secular school system with French and English boards, open to all, and abolish public funding of a separate system which gives one religious group (Catholics) preferential treatment over all other citizens. I did read in the fine print of the contract that there were guidelines. However, I certainly didn’t expect Pattison would have an issue with these ads since they contained no hate speech nor did they propose violence of any kind. On the contrary, what I was advocating were very positive and constructive notions: principles of equality and fairness (in line with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and respect for the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I declared it a “disgrace” that Ontario has not yet eliminated religious discrimination in the education sector and pronounced “Shame on Canada” for allowing this international embarrassment, financial disaster and moral scandal to continue.

The ads did not get placed on September 15th as planned. Instead, I was told, there was “a problem with the ads.” After an exchange of emails, I was informed, “someone will contact you.” A few days of silence from Pattison followed. By this time I had engaged a lawyer, Dan Mayo, who received an official communication from Pattison on September 23, refusing to run the ads on the grounds that they may be in violation of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, and stating that Pattison “considers this matter closed.” The museum’s official Gala Opening had come and gone by then. Outraged by this denial of my right to freedom of expression, our team informed the media and interested organizations about what had happened. Here are some of their responses:

“It is ironic that at the same time as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is opening in Winnipeg, Pattison Outdoor is denying my right to free expression,” Thain pointed out. “This right is enshrined in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

[From the Media Release “Freedom of Expression Denied!” issued by Secular Ontario (Sept 26, 2014)]

[...] Pattison Outdoor, rejected the ads, saying they might violate the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards “I was stunned when they said, ‘We won’t run these,’” Thain said.

Part of the contract Thain signed said the company could reject ads that violated the code, but Thain said there is nothing wrong with his ads. Some of them are fact, and others are opinion, “and people express opinions all the time.” “I did not know by signing that contract I was forfeiting my right as a citizen to my fundamental rights to freedom (of) expression,” he said. “It (the contract) didn’t say: ‘The Constitution doesn’t apply to you now.’”

Thain, a secularist, says Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic schools discriminate against non-Catholics and are wasteful of taxpayers’ money. “It’s a human rights issue, number one,” he said. “Even if we didn’t save one cent (by eliminating Catholic school boards) it would still be necessary to remove religious discrimination from our society. That’s a basic principle of modern democracy.”

The company wouldn’t specify which part of the code the campaign violated. Calls and emails to Pattison on Tuesday weren’t returned.

“You can write all the contracts you want, but it still has to comply with the Constitution,” Mayo said.

[From an article by Blair Crawford which appeared on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen (Oct 1, 2014).]

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it’s the courage to continue that counts,” Winston Churchill declared. I failed to get a billboard or bus ad campaign in place during the period of the museum’s opening. However, Crawford’s excellent article, a short radio interview, and some blog coverage can be considered small victories. And we shall continue the battle.

Pattison Outdoor Advertising is part of the Jim Pattison Group, a privately held company, owned by its Chairman, Jim Pattison, one of Canada’s wealthiest billionaires. I consider Pattison Outdoor to have denied my right to freedom of expression and I am therefore currently exploring my legal options.

BREAKING NEWS: Dr Thain has engaged a different media company (Outfront Media) which has accepted the ads and will post them in Winnipeg bus shelters near the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in the coming weeks.

For more information:

Dr Richard Thain is a freethinker who has supported numerous atheist, secular humanist & skeptic organizations for thirty years.

Editor’s note: The title, “The Courage to Continue,” is not Dr Thain’s but mine. He’s far too humble to have allowed it, but I am far too convinced it’s appropriate, so I didn’t ask permission. Plus, I had already used up my powers of persuasion getting him to agree to be on our cover.

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