Category: Columns Published on Sunday, 30 December 2012 08:02 Written by Ashu M. G. Solo
I made a complaint to Saskatoon Transit and the City of Saskatoon about Saskatoon Transit buses having “merry Christmas” messages on their programmable bus signs with the bus route name and number. After making the complaint, there was an extreme public backlash and City Council got involved in this operational issue. They decided to retain the Christmas greetings on city buses, but consider messages for other cultural holidays in the future. This is better than before, so I’ve already won a partial victory.
City Council has referred this issue to the Cultural Diversity and Race Relations Committee, which is one of its advisory committees. Because the Christmas messages won’t be on city buses again for 11 months, I will wait and see the policy created by the Cultural Diversity and Race Relations Committee and whether City Council adopts it. If the resulting policy is discriminatory, I will proceed with a civil right complaint to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission and seek a judgment that has the effect of banning religious messages by the state throughout the province of Saskatchewan and that has persuasive value in other provinces too.
City Council’s decision to possibly allow greetings for other holidays is not a practical idea. There are over 10,000 religions, 150 of which have one million or more followers. Most of these religions have multiple holidays. Therefore, it would be impossible to have messages for holidays in all other religions. Are they going to have greetings for Scientology holidays and Voodoo religion holidays? Are they going to have messages for L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday, a holiday that is as important for Scientologists as Christmas is for Christians? They would have to hire a staff just to figure out all of the religious holidays and program all of them into each of the 110 buses with programmable messaging signs. The bus drivers can choose which programmed messages they want to display at their discretion, so I doubt if many of them will display messages for religions that they don’t believe in. I wouldn’t. Are they going to force bus drivers to do this? They can’t display messages for all religions, so they should display messages for no religions. I repeatedly told City Council this.
It is highly inappropriate and discriminatory to have a Christmas message displayed by Saskatoon Transit, which is owned by the City of Saskatoon and funded by taxpayers. If Saskatoon Transit were not owned by the government, I wouldn’t have made a complaint. People don’t like their taxpayer money funding buses to promote a religion that they don’t believe in. If the “merry Christmas” message were from a private advertiser on one of the internal bus signs, this would be more acceptable, but it is not acceptable for Saskatoon Transit to display this message on its own.
When Saskatoon Transit displays a Christmas message on buses, it sends the message that there is a priority given to Christian values, that Christians are more valued or welcome than others while marginalizing others, and that a citizen is second class if she’s not a Christian. Many new immigrants use these buses and many of them are not Christian and do not celebrate Christmas. Christmas messages on Saskatoon Transit buses make them feel excluded and like they need to convert to Christianity to be first-class citizens. City Council’s decision to not remove these messages makes Saskatoon look like an archaic city of religious intolerance.
Christians have a religious requirement to proselytize others. That’s why there is so much opposition to the removal of Christmas greetings from buses. They should not be using the state for proselytization. If Christmas greetings are so important to them, they can put them on their own personal vehicles instead of on city buses. “Merry Christmas” might be a secular greeting to many people, but it is also a religious greeting to many people. Otherwise they would not oppose getting rid of the greeting or replacing it with a more inclusive greeting like “happy holidays.” Many Christians say “merry Christmas” to push their religion onto others and that’s why some of them boycott retail stores where clerks are told to not say “merry Christmas” to customers.
Some people argue that Christmas is secular to non-Christians, but the people that they’re talking about are mostly of Christian ancestry and the same can be said about all religious holidays. Hannukah is secular to non-Jews who are of Jewish ancestry and Eid al-Fitr is secular to non-Muslims who are of Muslim ancestry, but the bus doesn't display messages for Hannukah or Eid al-Fitr. Saskatoon Transit is giving preferential treatment to the Christian holiday.
There was an extremely racist and bigoted backlash against me. This shows how important it is to make complaints like this. Numerous people told me to go back where I came from. I was born here, served in the army reserve here, and don’t have to accept religion in government here.
Christmas messages on buses violate the separation of religion and state, impose religious beliefs on people who don't share them, and give preferential treatment to one religion over all other religions. It's my position that a Christmas message on Saskatoon Transit buses violates the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code by discriminating against people on the prohibited grounds of religion and creed and violating freedom of conscience. Furthermore, it’s my position that Saskatoon Transit is violating the guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion, religious equality, and multiculturalism in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The freedom of conscience and religion includes freedom from religion.
Separation of religion and state is a fundamental aspect of freedom of religion. Separation of religion and state means the state can't interfere with freedom to practice religion, but also means the state can't promote any religion. This is to protect people of all religions including Christians. Secularism protects religion from the state and the state from religion.
In a constitutional democracy like Canada, the majority cannot discriminate against the minority. This is not a Christian city or a Christian country. This is a secular multireligious city in a secular multireligious country with people from numerous religions as well as spiritual people, agnostics, and atheists. We need to respect everybody. We need to protect the rights of the minority from the misdirected will of the majority.
Biography: Ashu M. G. Solo is an engineering and math researcher and developer, entrepreneur, political writer, progressive activist, and former infantry officer and platoon commander understudy.