Wednesday, March 11, 2009

God and City Council

[I'm going to resist the temptation to do yet another Bus Sign. For one thing, I can't think of a good punchline off-hand]

At Ottawa City Council today, God could be found hiding in the corner behind Policies and Procedures. Or at least, that's where his erstwhile defenders were, when Councillor Alex Cullen presented his motion to overrule OC Transpo's decision to refuse the atheist bus ads.

Cullen gave an impassioned address about free speech and the need for municipal government to uphold it. It probably didn't hurt his case that the city's solicitor had prepared a memo outlining the legal issues involved in carrying "viewpoint" advertising in public facilities -- and pointing out that Transpo's current policy was almost certainly in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the city would likely get its ass handed to it in the event of a lawsuit. It boils down to: mere likelihood of public offense isn't enough to ban an ad. IOW: deal with it, pearl-clutchers.

Then the nay-sayers had their turn. Marianne Wilkinson continued to complain that she was offended, but acknowledged that the policy was problematic. She proposed amending Cullen's motion, replacing the directive to run the ads with a directive to review Transpo's policies, and bring them in line with the Charter. Cullen replied: What a great idea, and proposed amending his own motion -- by adding the review directive to his own, rather than replacing it. Councillor El-Chantiry had his say; I don't recall what except he also didn't like them, and the same from Councillor Bloess. But the real comedy came from another councillor, I think Bob Monette, who claimed the ads were from "some young people who thought it would be funny" -- and in the blissfully unselfaware manner common to ideologues, went on to complain that the ads were derogatory (OK, at 51 I guess I should accept "young people" as a compliment). Then there was some blather from that side about how Council was wasting time on irrelevancies like this when we still hadn't got the bus system back to full capacity following the strike -- as if putting (revenue-paying!) signs on the sides of busses was in some way impeding doing maintenance and getting them on the road. But the main theme from the opponents was that it was some kind of sin to override the Process -- that Transpo's bureaucrats had made a decision in keeping with Stated Policy (though we know that Policy has not been consistently applied in past cases of pro-religion ads), and while we should fix the Policy, we shouldn't overrule the bureaucrats, because....well, because. Exactly when the Policy would get fixed, and the ads get approved, wasn't quite clear.

Then Hizzoner Larry O'Brien almost gave us a surprise: he started off talking about how clergy on the Ottawa Interfaith Council (of which he is chair) were pretty unanimous in support of the ad; that they welcomed the opportunity for dialog. And for a moment we thought he was going to change his earlier reported position and vote Yes. But then he reversed course, sought refuge with his cronies in Policy and Procedure, and announced he would be voting No.

There was a little confusion in the voting process, because first Council had to approve adding the policy-review directive to Cullen's motion, then vote on the motion as amended. Both votes passed 13-7, with presumably the same councillors voting the same way on both (I didn't keep track).

Various media were there -- at least Metro, A-Channel, the Citizen, the Sun -- filming and photographing Council and the dozen of us sitting in the gallery wearing our protest T-shirts. After the vote, we filed out, and there occurred in the corridor what I believe is called a "scrum" -- we shook Cullen's hand and thanked him; the journalists talked to people at random; I suddenly found a bright light shining in my face, through which I could dimly make out a camera lens, a mike, and a nice lady asking my opinions what had just happened. I managed to blurt out something about free speech (hopefully without sounding too pompous) and about how some people want religion to be immune from criticism, and it shouldn't be. Maybe they'll edit me into the Slavering Baby-Eating Atheist Monster, I dunno. There's a reason I don't work in PR.

A few people had to take off for other commitments, and the rest of us had a celebratory dinner at an Indian buffet on Laurier. On the way back, we just had to take the picture above, which is an artwork hanging in the elevator lobby off the parking garage (sorry for the quality; the only camera we had was a Blackberry). While we were doing that a woman came out of the elevator, and asked immediately recognized the ad on the shirt. She was very pleased to hear that Council had voted our way, and left saying something favorable (I don't recall exactly what) about Hitchens and Dawkins. Funny how you run into people....

All the other kids have already posted this video, but I especially like the fact that the guy looks like Mayor O'Brien:

Hat tip for the video: Mike.


Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

Thanks for standing up for freedom and free speech and all that, Eamon. Now that I am on the board of the Minnesota Atheists, we may start fundraising for an ad campaign of our own.

Tangled Up in Blue Guy

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insider's report, EK. And thanks for going to bat for all of us.

Out of curiosity, I mapped out the votes by ward. Interesting result - the NO votes were largely rural or suburban (Kanata, Orleans, Cumberland, etc.). O'Brien, with most of his support in the rural areas, went NO as well. The city core voted YES (ignoring the absent councillors Chiarelli, McRae and Deans). This looks like another "urban/rural divide" issue.

Eamon Knight said...

bPer: I haven't mapped out the rest, but Kanata was split: to my pleasure, our councillor Peggy Feltmate, voted Yes. We happen to know Peggy from our United Church days, so I was really waiting to see how she would vote. As we both know, UCC folks usually have their hearts in the right place 8-).

Anonymous said...

Indeed they do. The UCC can rightly be proud of its heritage of progressive social activism. I would not be surprised to learn that many UCC congregants would not oppose us. As O'Brien noted, many local church leaders support our cause. That was the case of the two religious leaders on Ottawa Morning Tuesday as well. It looks like the opposition comes down to the usual suspects we spar with online - fundies and evangelicals.

I noticed that Feltmate had voted in favour of the motion. It was Kanata North that seemed to be the outlier in the pattern. That leads me to suspect that Wilkinson truly was voting her personal convictions without any consideration for those she represents. I really find this behavior in her puzzling. Wasn't she the mayor of Kanata for years before amalgamation? Wouldn't that give you an understanding that you have to represent all your constituents, not just those in your personal clique? Geez, what would she do if she had to consider an issue related to a men's shelter, or the Odawa Native Friendship Centre, or something like the Project 4000 programme? "It's not my people, so I won't support it"? I just hope this comes back to bite her some day. And that Alex Cullen is rightfully rewarded for his wonderful work on our behalf. I know that I won't feel comfortable working for his next election campaign, but I'll probably send some money his way.