Brad Wall says a secular petition doesn’t have a prayer
Province by Gregory Beatty
When the Supreme Court ruled in April 2015 that Saguenay city council’s tradition of opening meetings with a Christian prayer violated a duty of neutrality owed by the state to Canadians on spiritual matters, other councils across the country, including Regina, were quick to ditch their own opening prayers.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, though, refused to end the province’s tradition of opening each session of the legislature with a prayer. He justified his decision by saying no one had ever complained about the prayer, which dates back to Saskatchewan’s entry into Confederation in 1905.
That stance, says David Richards of Centre For Inquiry Regina, was the initial spark behind a petition he and his CFI colleagues recently delivered to the legislature asking the premier to abide by the Supreme Court ruling.
“When Mr. Wall came out with his announcement, that got us thinking,” says Richards. “If the only reason they’re keeping the prayer is because no one’s asked them not to we should ask him not to.
“Some individual letters were sent at that point. Then at Christmas the premier gave his annual message and that tipped the scale to having people think, ‘No, this is something that needs to be addressed.’ Not the fact the Christmas message existed, but that he was using a government website, speaking on behalf of the Saskatchewan government and not just as an individual, and explicitly stating the superiority of his faith over others.”
The CFI, as an organization, champions the separation of church and state and supports science and rational thought over pseudoscience, superstition and whatnot. So the petition was right up their alley.
Read narrowly, the Saguenay decision could be regarded as only applying to prayer at the municipal level. When I contacted Saskatchewan’s Justice Ministry about the ruling last May, that seemed to be its interpretation. The department had studied the ruling, I was told, and that it didn’t apply to the legislature’s prayer.
“Technically, [that’s] perhaps right,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane. “But the spirit of the ruling is that all governments should be secular and having a prayer at the beginning of the assembly, be it municipal, provincial or federal, goes against that spirit and the separation of church and state in modern Canada.”
Presented with a second chance, via the CFI petition, to bring his government onside with the Supreme Court ruling, Wall instead ratcheted up his rhetoric.
“I don’t want to see the prayer changed,” he told reporters. “And I would work against seeing the prayer removed from the legislature. I think it’s important and it should continue.”
Wall has Mennonite roots, so religion is doubtlessly important to him. But politics factors into his position too, says McGrane.
“Brad Wall could have easily stood up and said, ‘Listen, personally I like to have the prayer before the legislative session. But the courts have ruled that violates the constitution so I’m going to have to follow them on this.’ That allows him to please people who are for the prayer. Or he could’ve said, ‘I believe in the separation of church and state and this is the right thing to do.’
“Instead, he seems to have decided it was a chance to play to his base,” says McGrane. “Playing to his base is something he does once in awhile. The prison food issue was another example. He’s also increased subsidies massively to private Christian schools, and now he’s standing up for prayer in the legislature. That pleases people who deeply believe Canada is a Christian nation and Saskatchewan is a Christian province.”
As practiced these days, especially by zealots on the right, politics can be a vicious sport. Richards got a taste of just how vicious after media reports of the CFI petition surfaced.
“Any comments that were openly threatening on various websites seemed to get taken down by moderators fairly quickly,” says Richards. “The personal messages that have been sent to me and my loved ones have not crossed the line into threatening, so there’s nothing I would take to the police. They’ve just been very hostile and aggressive.”
As premier in a first-past-the-post electoral system that has seen power increasingly centralized at the executive level, says McGrane, Wall pretty much has a blank cheque when it comes to setting government policy.
One of the few constraints on that power is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That’s what tripped up the Saguenay city council, and the Wall government is no stranger to its sting either.
“We saw that when they clearly overstepped their constitutional boundaries on the right of association under [the Bill 5 Essential Services act],” says McGrane. “The government’s also overstepped its constitutional boundaries when it comes to minority francophone education rights. So certainly the courts can operate as a check on government power particularly as it relates to the charter to assure that fundamental rights and freedoms aren’t violated.”
While the CFI has talked about a charter challenge, Richards is hopeful it won’t come to that.
“Support Brad Wall or not, one of the things he has consistently shown is he is willing to change his mind on issues as new information becomes available or his own opinion changes,” says Richards.
“That’s a trait that’s often used as a negative against liberal politicians, but I actually see it as a positive, and I think it’s by far one of Mr. Wall’s strongest characteristics. There may be policies of his people don’t agree with, but more often than not he does seem to try to do the right thing. And I’m hoping he realizes that’s what this is.”
NDP MLA David Forbes has promised to present the CFI petition in the legislature during the upcoming session which opens May 17.
“For now, we’re hoping that will [do the job],” says Richards. “The fact the petition’s getting widespread attention is positive, no matter the outcome. The primary reaction we get from most people is shock this is still happening. So the fact people are now aware their government is promoting a Christian prayer at the start of each legislative session is a good thing.
“Whether the practice changes soon, or in five years, it’s going to change eventually. This is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. And I’m hoping Mr. Wall can see himself on the right side of history.”