The evening with Deborah Coyne on July 29 was an amazing success. Coyne, who met with members of the CSA and their guests, spoke about an issue that is of concern to secularists and atheists: God in the Preamble to the Canadian Constitution.
Coyne who is a constitutional lawyer and a law professor addressed the audience as a private citizen interested in learning about CSA, meeting CSA members and sharing her extensive knowledge of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one of the documents comprising the Constitution of Canada, which begins with the phrase,
Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:
From the moment she entered the room, Deborah Coyne was charming, relaxed and articulate. After Justin Trottier introduced Coyne to the 30+ people in the audience, she made it clear how genuinely pleased she was to be invited and how thrilled she was to see that so many people turned out to discuss God in the Preamble.
In her opening remarks, Coyne was willing say, on the record, that the constitution should be for all Canadians. It should exclude no Canadians and no provinces (read Quebec); it should be inclusive. With that as an introduction, she mentioned how pleased she is that Philippe Couillard, who became the leader of the Quebec Liberal in March,
proposes that a future Quebec government would undertake conversations with the other governments in Canada to determine how to proceed forward. He suggests that this could include other subjects, such as Senate reform, and could be concluded during the “symbolic window” of the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.
The passage quoted above is a more formal version of what she said to the CSA and is taken from her blog post “Mr. Couillard, Quebec, the Constitution, and Canada.” She repeated to the audience, more informally, her advice she gave to Couillard in her blog post:
it is important to remember a couple of lessons from the debates over the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord. First, it can be confusing to undertake multiple constitutional reforms at the same time. Linking different reforms can be unprincipled and deprive people of a chance to decide each on its own merits. Second, the Constitution belongs to the people of Canada, who must be consulted directly with respect to all significant reforms by way of referendum. If discussions proceed simultaneously on different subjects, there should be a separate referendum question on each.
The subject that occupied the audience was how to remove the words the supremacy of God from the preamble.
It will not be easy to remove the words the supremacy of God from the preamble. It may take a referendum to allow all Canadians to decide, but first it is important to examine the history of how God got in the Preamble.
The iconic phrase used to argue that Pierre Trudeau, the prime minister at the time, did not want mention of God in the Preamble is,
“I don’t think God gives a damn whether he’s in the constitution or not.”
Pierre Trudeau, Liberal Caucus, April 1981.
Coyne suggests that Trudeau agreed to have the supremacy of God in the Constitution as a compromise in order to concentrate on more serious opposition to wording in the Constitution and to expedite the process of “patriating” the Constitution.
However, it is important to remember that Trudeau was, in his own way, as controlling and strong minded as Stephen Harper. If he felt strongly that God should not be in the constitution he would have made sure there was no mention of God. Both Trudeau and Joe Clark, PC and leader of the opposition at the time, “addressed the country’s spiritual heritage” in the nationally televised “Salute to Canada” portion of Huntley Street’s cross country tour to promote the inclusion of God in the constitution. http://tinyurl.com/qx25abz 102
There were objections: The most notable objection came from Svend Robinson, NDP MP Burnaby, who would go on to challenge the inclusion of god in a petition to Parliament in 1999. Robinson
protested to the committee that such a preamble violated Canadians’ right to ‘freedom of conscience’ and the essential ‘respect for plurality’ that had evolved in Canadian society since the 1960 Bill of Rights. http://tinyurl.com/qx25abz 103
In 1999, Svend Robinson’s attempt to present a petition to Parliament on behalf of the Humanist Association of Canada asking for the supremacy of God to be removed from the preamble caused a three party uproar:
NDP leader Alexa McDonough stood immediately after Robinson to distance the party from the petition and its sentiment.
“The New Democratic Party, like the CCF before it, is proud of our roots in the deep and resilient faith of our founders, leaders like J. S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles,” she said.
“Together with my NDP caucus, I reaffirm our party’s continuing support for the inclusion in Canada’s Constitution of the preamble referring to the supremacy of God.” http://tinyurl.com/phg7gh6
Robinson was disciplined by his own party for tabling a petition in Parliament that called for removing references to “God” from the constitution. . . . NDP leader Alexa McDonough reprimanded Robinson and removed him from the party’s front-bench.
She says Robinson didn’t give his caucus colleagues any warning that he would table the petition. And McDonough says the party’s position is to keep the references to God in the constitution. http://tinyurl.com/qbx7vbz
Is this a lesson for CSA or any other group/organization that wants to convince Parliament to remove God from the Preamble? Deborah Coyne thinks it isn’t. She thinks that although it would be a long process, Canadians are ready for a change of wording in the preamble. Reiterating her conviction that the constitution should be for all Canadians, Coyne said that if the CSA or any other group/organization was to pursue the matter, all it takes is people to stand up and declare their intentions. They would need to motivate an MP to support them and take on the challenge of confronting Parliament. She also suggested we wait for Philippe Couillard to become premier of Quebec
Pauline Marois is the Premier of Quebec, she and her party were elected in September 2012. Unless something momentous happens, it will be at least three years before another Quebec provincial election is called. Does the CSA want to wait that long?