June 27, 2017: Standing in the lobby of a popular Toronto hotel, I observe the hustle and bustle of conference attendees as they connect with friends, down a quick cup of coffee or jostle to buy a few more books. This is the 2017 Imagine Conference, or Imagine 7 as it is also known. Imagine is marketed as “a secular retreat” and could easily boast to be the leading conference of its kind in Canada.
Just outside of the main conference room is the de rigeur area for commercial and sponsored booths. Included at the 2017 Imagine Conference is a booth boldly displaying the words “Shame On Canada” and “Human Rights Disgrace” across several six-foot tall green banners. Each of the imposing banners holds messaging about the funding of Roman Catholic School Boards in Ontario.
Currently, Ontario taxpayers fund two school systems: “public” and Catholic; the man responsible for creating these posters feels this is a matter of human rights and public policy. The Catholic Boards are, in fact opposed by many people in the province. But opposition to these schools is an issue that is skirted, dismissed and ignored by politicians just as it is often misunderstood by members of the public.
A retired Ontario dentist planned to bring public attention to his opposition to the funding of the Catholic schools system via advertisements; the same ads that loom over the conference attendees – but his plan was essentially shut down early in campaign.
The ads were timed to coincide with the opening of The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg (September, 2014). The hope was to leverage anticipated media coverage of the museum’s opening and raise awareness of a human rights issue which keeps being swept under the rug: government-endorsed religious discrimination (an example of Systemic Faithism). What better time to feature a recognized violation of human rights than during the launch of a national museum dedicated to Human Rights?
The idea was to reach the intended audience via City of Winnipeg’s transit system – in other words, to take out bus ads – a common-enough strategy for secular and religious organizations who wish to garner attention and public support for their organizations.
In Winnipeg, advertising via the public venue is managed and implemented by a powerful Canadian advertising company. Following the dentist’s application to advertise, this advertising organization denied the ads with the argument that it was the company’s opinion that the ads may violate Ad Council Guidelines; they also refused to answer repeated inquiries regarding the words or phrases considered offensive. Eventually dialogue was abruptly terminated by the advertising agency with a statement that “We consider this matter closed.”
Eventually, alternate advertising options were secured (bus shelters) through a separate advertising organization – weeks after the museum opened and without the intended effect.
Ironically, just as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was opening in Winnipeg, a powerful advertising corporation denied an individual his right to free expression – on a matter of human rights!
The theme of the ads which were deemed unacceptable and rejected was, essentially, religious discrimination is wrong. As the hustle and bustle of the conference continues, I am struck by how difficult it can be to just stop and consider simple truths or defend fundamental freedoms.