Friday, January 11, 2019

How to change a law in six easy (?) steps

Below is a lightly edited article I wrote for the January 2019 edition of Critical Links, the monthly newsletter of the Centre for Inquiry Canada.

It boggles the mind that Canada had, until late last year, a law prohibiting "blasphemous libel", punishable by up to two years in prison. Though it had not been invoked in decades, I believed this to be an unjustifiable restriction on freedom of expression, and played a minor role in ensuring no one will ever again be charged with blasphemy in Canada.

I am not a professional lobbyist. Though I try to stay informed about current events, I am not particularly politically active, nor have I ever been a member of any political party. My priorities in life are raising my four young children and doing well in my job. So how does a "nobody" like me go about repealing an obsolete law that no one seems to care about?

Here's my advice for those outside government seeking to improve the world through legislative change.
  1. Wait for an opportune time. The road to repealing Canada's blasphemy law started in September 2016 when an Alberta judge cited a section of the Criminal Code that the Supreme Court had declared to be unconstitutional in 1990. In response to this embarrassment, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced she had ordered a review of Criminal Code provisions found to be unconstitutional. This was clearly the time to take action. 
  2. Build a coalition. Politicians answer to Canadians writ large. Bureaucrats answer to politicians. If you are speaking just for yourself, no one in power will want to speak with you. But when representatives from three of Canada's leading non-religious organizations - Centre for Inquiry Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Humanist Canada, each of which had established institutional credibility over the years - presented a joint request, we were granted a meeting with the Senior Policy Advisor in charge of the Criminal Code at the Justice Department. 
  3. Marshall your arguments. Ensure you know your material. You will want to leave a positive impression with whomever you're speaking with, so do not waste even a minute of their time. CFI, CSA, and HC met in advance to agree on major talking points and the more detailed rationales for each position. Because everyone from the three organizations was familiar with everything we wanted to convey, there was neither repetition nor contradiction when any of us spoke. 
  4. Do your research. Stating a reasonable sounding philosophical position is a good start, but is not enough. If the benefits or harms are merely theoretical, it may make for an interesting chat, but it will not drive change. Ensure your carefully constructed arguments are externally validated - backed by evidence, references, and (especially with politicians!) media pieces. You needn't cite every article in conversation, but be sure to have them at the ready if asked or challenged, and offer to leave a full package behind before you leave. 
  5. Tailor your presentation to your audience. As much as possible, learn in advance about whom you will be speaking with and what they might want from you. This doesn't involve spying or any form of skulduggery. Simply by looking up someone's profile on LinkedIn and understanding where they fit in their organization's hierarchy, you can gain valuable insights into what might motivate them. You should be familiar enough with what you want to communicate that you can alter the planned order or emphasis based on the flow of the conversation. Our meeting in December 2016 was with a lawyer with impeccable credentials - so we ensured we demonstrated knowledge on the topic of blasphemy without claiming to have legal expertise. We tied our goal - repealing Canada's blasphemous libel law - to the (very public) review commissioned by the Justice Minister a couple months previously. While we acknowledged that it had never been tested by the courts, we argued Canada's blasphemy law almost certainly violates the right to freedom of expression enshrined in section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - which made it within scope of the review. The government could avoid a potential future embarrassment by removing a law before a judge referred to it in a conviction, only subsequently to have both the conviction overturned and the law struck down. 
  6. Be patient. The wheels of government (in fact, of any large organization) turn slowly. We met with representatives of the Justice Department on December 16, 2016. On March 8, 2017, the government introduced Bill C-39, which would remove from the Criminal Code only those sections previously struck down by the courts. After an initial bout of disappointment, we took heart from Minister Wilson-Raybould's statement that this was only a "first step". Sure enough, three months later, on June 6 2017, Bill C-51 was brought before the House of Commons. It was an omnibus bill that, in addition to repealing Canada's blasphemy law, removed sections related to (among other things) challenging someone to a duel, fraudulently pretending to practise witchcraft, and impersonating someone during a university exam. But the main changes in the bill were updating provisions related to consent and admissibility of evidence in sexual assault trials. For this reason, it was carefully studied by both the House of Commons and the Senate, taking over 18 months before it received Royal Assent on December 13, 2018 - nearly two years after CFI, CSA, and HC met with the Justice Department to press our case. 
If someone like me - no one in particular, with zero public profile, no insider connections, and no experience trying to influence the legislative process - can play even a small part in repealing a manifestly unjust law, so - with appropriate prioritization and persistence - can you.