Thursday, 31 July 2014

Separation of church & state 2: First my own humble, if plucky, political experience

I have been a politician for 27 years. Part-time to be sure. A limited sphere of influence. Nevertheless, I am an elected official who has successfully run for office ten times. I am a school trustee (or as most American states call it, a school board member).

Ours is a good sized board of education. Our operating budget approaches $200 million dollars and exceeds that of the city administration.  We are the biggest employer in a community of 140,000 with some 2,000 employees spread over 50 schools and district buildings. 19,000 school-aged children are entrusted to our care daily by their families.

Much of what we do as a board of education is pretty straightforward. We hire excellent people to manage the district and hold them accountable for results. We have the responsibility to live within our means financially. [We are not allowed to run a deficit without the prior consent of the provincial Ministry of Education, and such permission would be highly unlikely.] We promote public education in a community where approximately 15% of school-aged children attend independent (largely faith-based) schools. We liaise with many groups with an interest in what happens in the schools, such as the local university, employers, the teachers' and staff unions, social service agencies, service clubs, advocacy groups, and the police. Perhaps most importantly, we participate in the development of a long-term strategic plan and ensure that it is enfolded into the warp and woof of the school district's activities.

A good deal of the politics has been removed from our job as a trustee. We no longer set the local school tax rate. This is done provincially. Similarly, teacher collective agreement bargaining takes place at the provincial level. In addition, a good deal of the budget which we receive from the Ministry of Education is targeted to specific programs, thus eliminating much of the spending discretion we once had.

That is not to say that political decisions don't have to be made. Whenever resources are scarce--and they always are--one group has to be favoured over another. And no matter what choice we make, the loser accuses us of bias, even injustice. No matter how much good one wants to do as a politician, one simply can't meet all the needs, however meritorious.

[That's why I always tell wide-eyed, naive, would-be candidates to political office my two axioms for being an elected official:
  1. You can't please everyone no matter how much you want to. So if you don't have a thick skin,
    don't go into politics.
  2. Never take criticism personally, no matter how personally it might be delivered. Those who know you, know better. Those who don't will lash out at the nearest available politician. It's just part of the reality of political life.]
In addition, we often run up against moral issues. We once had a teacher pose nude in a men's magazine, for instance, and were criticized by the media locally, regionally, and nationally for disciplining her. The issue went to the British Columbia Court of Appeal and set a precedent that is studied in schools of law to this day regarding community standards. Some Christians have taken us to task about the Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in the high schools. Sex education is always a hot button, including such issues as contraception and reproductive health (code for abortion). Naturally we have to deal with drug-related issues.

Out of these experiences I have come to certain conclusions about functioning as a person of faith in a non-sectarian setting such as a public school board. I'll discuss those in my next couple of posts.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Separation of church & state 1: How to be christian without being a Christian

Sharon and I have been on the road for the past month, visiting children, siblings, assorted other relatives, and friends in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. We drove east across Canada and back home via the Excited States. In doing so, we were thrilled by the beauty of this continent, and enjoyed many outstanding experiences, among them:
  • The Cabot Trail, and Cape Breton Island generally.
  • Celebrating our 45 wedding anniversary with our children, their spouses, and Sharon's brother in lovely Baddeck, Nova Scotia (home of Alexander Graham Bell in his later years).
  • Peaceful agricultural and cottage country along the north shore of Lake Erie.
  • The South Dakota Badlands.
  • The Bighorn Mountains and the wild terrain generally of Wyoming. I expected a stage coach to careen around the corner pursued by a half a dozen mounted outlaws at any moment.
  • Mt. Rushmore.
  • Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota (you had to be there).
  • Yellowstone National Park.
  • Glacier National Park in Montana, particularly the Going to the Sun road (pictured on right). My knuckles are still white, and my mind continues to be boggled.
  • And once again, the beautiful foothills country west of Calgary. It never gets old.
Since returning three days ago, we have done seven loads of laundry, waded through scores of email messages that needed addressing right away, calculated our vacation expenses, committed suicide (just kidding, although contemplated when we did the expense calculations), and brought our schedules for the rest of the summer up to date.

Now my mind has turned once again to blogging. I was rushing at the end of my last few posts regarding Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau as we prepared to leave on the big road trip (12,000 kilometers in our trusty Camry, by the way, plus a return flight from Toronto to Sydney NS). I feel that the really big issue in connection with those posts has not yet been addressed; i.e., how would a person of faith whose principles include the right to life for unborn babies function in a non-sectarian setting like the Canadian Parliament.

That insightful, erudite and humorous Newfoundlander Rex Murphy summarized his thoughts on Trudeau Jr.'s pro-choice pontifications with a column entitled In Justin Trudeau's world, Christians need not apply (

I enjoyed the column thoroughly, as I do all of Murphy's writings. But I had to ask myself, "Is he correct?" Are principled, committed Christians (or people of any other faith that includes a commitment to pro-life beliefs) doomed to be pushed to the margins of society in the face of not compromising their principles?

Or, to put it another way, how is a person of faith to function in a system that is, by practice or definition, based on the separation of church and state?

As usual, I have only very formative ideas of what the answer is to that question. So this is what I would like to explore next.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Liberal Pary of Canada & abortion 4: One of these things is not like the other

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

The remarkable children's program Sesame Street has introduced a large number of phrases and songs to the general English lexicon. Parents have been singing the song above to their children for many, many decades.

The song came to mind when I read Justin Trudeau's justification for insisting that all his MPs and even candidates for nomination be pro-choice, which he equated with supporting equal rights for women. Perhaps through misunderstanding, maybe willful playing with words, possibly because of plain ignorance, Justin placed that equation squarely in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

I encourage and am pleased that there are always a wide range of views within the Liberal Party because the Liberal Party is representative of the country as a whole, and that’s a good thing. But the Liberal Party is also the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and with our votes we will defend that Charter and that’s what every Liberal who walks into this House of Commons needs to understand and do understand that in the matter of defending women’s rights our votes are clear. We defend the Charter.

Of course, there is no constitutional right to abortion. Our present abortion-on-demand regimen rests on a lack of any law against it, not a positive statement in the Charter for it, as exists in the U.S.

His further asserted that his father :...had no problem legalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality and moving in ways that recognized the basic rights of the people. "He too held fast to  his beliefs. But he also understood that as leaders, as political figures, and as representatives of a larger community, our utmost responsibility is to stand up for people’s rights.” 

It could be that Justin has just never studied what his father did with respect to abortion. Pierre Trudeau certainly did not simply do away with all legislation that would place any restrictions on the provision of abortion. His medical committees were sufficiently restrictive that they were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as contrary to Trudeau's own Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nor would it appear to be the case that Trudeau Sr. equated abortion on demand with equal rights for women, as we saw in my last post. I quoted him as saying:

“I think she should have to answer for it and explain. Now, whether it should be to three doctors, or one doctor, or to a priest or a bishop or to her mother-in-law is a question you might want to argue, you do have a right over your own body, it is your body. But the fetus is not your body; it’s someone else’s body, and if you kill it, you’ll have to explain,” Mr. Trudeau said.You would have to convince me that a person who asks for an abortion has no responsibility at all,” the Montreal Star article quotes Mr. Trudeau as saying. The report said he was responding to the protestors by stating his “private attitude.”

“You know, at some point you are killing life in the fetus in self-defence, of what, of the mother’s health, or her happiness, or of her social rights or her privilege as a human being?” Mr. Trudeau went on to say.

“I think she should have to answer for it and explain. Now, whether it should be to three doctors, or one doctor, or to a priest or a bishop or to her mother-in-law is a question you might want to argue, you do have a right over your own body, it is your body. But the fetus is not your body; it’s someone else’s body, and if you kill it, you’ll have to explain,” Mr. Trudeau said.

And according to Pierre's biographer, it would not be accurate to say that he had "no problem" with some of his legislation. A 2009 volume of a biography of Trudeau, written by former Liberal MP John English, a history professor, says Mr. Trudeau later had “profound reservations” about many of the social changes his landmark overhaul of criminal law had sparked, and shared them in confessions with his priest. But he believed the reforms “were essential,” including changes that legalized homosexual relations (Source: Hill Times).

And finally, Trudeau Sr. accepted pro-life MP's into his caucus and did not "whip" them in voting for abortion-related issues. The same can be said for all his successors: Prime Ministers Chretien and Martin, and Liberal leaders Dion and Ignatieff.

Other than that, father and son have identical views.