Her speech was bound to raise the ire of many, but when Governor General Julie Payette spoke to the respected Canadian Science Policy Centre convention two weeks ago it’s likely she was unaware of the response it would generate. Yet, she’s been dealing with it ever since.
Before proceeding further, I should declare that I had penned a National Newswatch article following her appointment that praised Payette’s selection, revelled in her life of remarkable accomplishments, and concluded that she was, indeed, a woman of her times. I should also state that I’m a person of religious faith who rejoices in her scientific advancements. Yet, after viewing her speech a number of times, I grew to understand how she got into some hot water.
It was likely the seemingly mocking tone in her words that set some off, as when she noted, “We are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process, let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.” I don’t suppose her eye roll helped matters.
Almost immediately the Internet and traditional media sources were fired up with opinions, pro and con, that soon enough descended to personal attacks regarding this remarkable woman. Regardless of which side of this issue people land on, there are some things that should prompt serious reflection. Let’s consider some of the context of the Canada Payette represents.
According to a 2015 Angus Reid poll, two-thirds of Canadians believe in God, with some 53% maintaining that, “God is active in the world.” To describe these millions as deluded and ignorant is perhaps one of the most un-Canadian things we can do. And what of the refugees and immigrants who have come to this land in recent times, the majority of whom cherish a deep and abiding faith that saw them through some of the most horrendous events we can imagine? First Nations spirituality remains one of the most powerful and respected forces in Canada – a set of beliefs that has assisted them in enduring the isolation they have known for centuries. Are we implying that they just don’t get it? Because if we are, I’m not sure our current variety of secular liberalism has turned us into those “kind” and “tolerant” Canadians the world respects. All this isn’t taking into account the many scientists, health professionals and researchers who see their personal religious faith as one of the “drivers” for their desire to better humanity.
Yes, various religions have committed immoral acts, but then again, some of the most brutal experiments on humans, in war and peace, have been committed in the name of science. Humanity is a complex reality and oversimplifications benefit neither religion, science or democracy.
A few days after Payette’s speech, I spoke at a multi-cultural event in London where a number of questions were raised concerning her words. Some present had been in this country for less than two years and were left to wonder if denying religion was an official Canadian policy since it came from an esteemed Canadian figure. The concerns were real enough since many had escaped their countries of origin, in part because of persecution for their kind of religious faith. They perceived Canada as a nation with open arms and hearts capable of accepting their sentiments and appreciating the richness newcomers brought to this nation. One woman from Pakistan asked if Payette’s words meant that things have changed.
Of course they haven’t. And we can be certain that our Governor General never meant anything of the kind and is likely devastated that her words carried weight she didn’t comprehend. This is her first month in office and she will become an effective voice for all Canadians and not just for those she agrees with. We see what happens when someone is elected to political office and then spends their tenure only rewarding those who supported them as opposed to, perhaps, the majority who didn’t. It’s cheap politics and a deep slight to inclusive democracy. Payette understands this and just happened to have a rocky beginning.
The real spotlight should be on all of us. Do we truly accept those who recently arrived in Canada or those who inhabited the land before we even got here? If so, then we have to come to see that their religious and spiritual persuasions are every bit as vital as our foundation of science. Canada is big enough for both, and it’s time we started living that truth as well.
Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.