Across the Miles: Communicating the Humanist Message in Canada


Oct. 7, 2009

There are two constants in getting any message to every Canadian: many languages and many kilometers. Anyone who wants to bring Canadians together is confronted at every turn by these realities and anyone who wants to be successful has to master them at least to some extent. Such is the task for any national humanist organization in Canada.

Officially, Canada has two languages, English and French. For the most part the English language dominates areas outside Québec and French is dominant within Québec. However, the population of New Brunswick is fifty percent French-speaking and there are significant pockets of Francophones throughout the country. Canada's first female governor-general, for example, was Madame Jeanne Sauvé, a Francophone from the heart of Saskatchewan, a five-hour flight from Québec.

Additionally, there are intense pockets of other languages as well. Our hazardous material labeling system includes clear symbols and a brief description of the danger in at least two languages on each label. For most of Canada those languages are English and French. In Toronto, there are two additional labeling protocols: English and Cantonese and English and Mandarin. If you want to access the Toronto Transit Commission information system, you can do so in one hundred and seven different languages.

The Northwest Territories – Yukon and Nunavut – have their own collection of Inuit languages, in addition to English and French. You may have figured out by now that there are several different alphabets involved as well.

Canada's size is difficult to communicate to outsiders. We are the second biggest country in the world geographically and have the longest coastline of any country. Our southernmost island is as far south as the northern part of California, Toronto is three degrees north of the French Riviera, and we go as far north as the North Pole.

Roughly thirty-three million people are scattered across this vast geography. They are not distributed evenly, by any stretch of the imagination. Someone described Canada's population as thirty million people huddled up against the American border for warmth. The corridor from Windsor, Ontario (the city directly south of Detroit) to Montréal is as densely populated as the Eastern seaboard of the United States. A few hundred kilometers north of that corridor is virtually empty territory.

As you can see, any national organization must learn to communicate through telephone, and via the Internet. That explains why Canada, the third nation in the world to have satellites in orbit, concentrated on communications satellites and why Canadians make more long distance calls per capita than anyone else in the world. That national organization must also learn to communicate in at least two official languages as well.

When one adds the challenges of communicating to freethinking humanists (something like organizing cats into a choir), one can appreciate the difficulty managing a national humanist organization. The result is that humanism in Canada exists in small pockets across the country with the major concentration in Ontario. To unite these pockets into a viable political-social unit will require flexibility and consistent efforts at communication.




Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist, an agnostic member of SOFREE (Society of Ontario Freethinkers), and an active member of the Humanist Association of Canada. He is also Managing Editor of Canadian Freethinker.