This morning I briefed you on a fight going on in Saskatoon between the city’s mayor and one of its citizens over a led prayer at a volunteer appreciation dinner. Worse, perhaps, than the mayor’s recalcitrance, was the racist and anti-immigrant backlash Mr. Ashu Solo faced as a result of speaking out, despite the fact that he was born in Canada (brown people are easy to demonize). Perhaps even worse than that was the uninformed and lazy reaction from other atheists who decided that, despite not having been there or knowing anything about the situation, they knew the correct way to handle things.
I spoke to Mr. Solo via Facebook and e-mail, and asked him a few questions about the situation. Here is an edited version of his responses*.
1. Tell me a bit about yourself: where you’re from, what your personal background (i.e., education, occupation, hobbies) is, how long you’ve lived in Saskatoon.
I’m an interdisciplinary researcher, electrical engineer, computer engineer, intelligent systems engineer, political and public policy engineer, mathematician, and entrepreneur. I’m also a progressive political writer, progressive activist, and civil rights activist. I’m currently a representative on the Saskatoon Cultural Diversity and Race Relations Committee, an advisory committee to Saskatoon City Council. I served honorably as an infantry officer and platoon commander understudy in the Cdn. Army Reserve.
I was born and raised in Saskatoon. I’ve lived in Saskatoon for about 30 years.
2. The details of the story are fairly well-publicized. Do the media accounts fairly match your own description, or is there anything missing/misleading in the stories?
I think some of the bloggers have the mistaken impression that Councillor Randy Donauer was praying to himself. He was trying to lead the entire extremely diverse audience in a Christian prayer.
Many in the media have no understanding of Saskatoon politics and how there have already been numerous complaints about Mayor Don Atchison and Mr. Donauer abusing their government offices for Christian indoctrination. They think this was an innocent one-time mistake by them. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is an ongoing problem with them for which they have already received significant criticism.
3. Tell me about the interactions you’ve had with the mayor’s office. Has he made the attempt to reach out and understand your position?
I’ve sent about a dozen emails to Mr. Atchison and Mr. Donauer and copied them to City Council as well as various media outlets. They haven’t bothered to respond to any of them. Justin Trottier from the Centre for Inquiry Canada also left messages for Atchison and Donauer about this issue. They never bothered calling him back either, and obviously have no interest in discussing this issue.
4. From an outsider’s perspective, your correspondence with the city appears very combative. For example, you mention that you are considering suing the city for implying that you do not support freedom and tolerance. Is there anything that sparks this anger besides the prayer and subsequent dismissive attitude from the city?
The anger is sparked by the threatening, racist, and bigoted backlash against me by conservative Christian supporters of Atchison and Donauer, my belief that Atchison and Donauer have endangered my life by not ending this matter, their lies about me to the media, the abuses of their office by trying to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share them at a taxpayer funded municipal government event, and the fact that I need to keep standing up against their religious discrimination and bigotry.
Other than this event, the only other event from my past that drives me to stand up against religious discrimination and bigotry is there was a Christian Lord’s prayer in assemblies and Christmas plays in assemblies at Saskatoon Public Schools when I was in elementary school. I’m angered by this attempt at Christian indoctrination using the public school system and their failure to ever apologize for it. I wish I would have stood up against this as a kid, but that’s hard to do when one is in elementary school.
5. You detail a number of abusive correspondance you’ve received on your website. A website calling itself “The Canadian Immigration Report” calls your fight with the city an example of “Minocracy” – minority rule over the majority. How much of the backlash toward your story do you think is motivated by race? Put another way – if your name was Ian Cromwell and you looked like Justin Trottier, how much more/less abuse do you think you’d be getting right now?
If I had a Christian name and were white, I think I would be getting almost as much abuse, but the insults wouldn’t be directed at my race or ethnicity; there would be other kinds of insults. However, I might be wrong about that. Much of the backlash could be motivated by race because there have been other cases where Caucasians have stood up against religious discrimination and bigotry and didn’t receive as much backlash. I have no way of knowing what motivates bigots.
6. Not all of your detractors have been theists. You’ve faced a lot of criticism from other atheists as well. How do you respond to critics who think that your complaint is frivolous, and/or that it makes atheists look silly when there are more important things to fight?**
Some of my opponents have said that I should have gone to the mayor privately, but I’ve tried talking to the mayor before about police corruption and he hung up on me. I thought the media reporting this would put more pressure on them to stop violating the separation of religion and government.
The first thing many of my opponents don’t understand is Saskatoon politics. Atchison has had an ongoing problem with abusing the mayor’s office to promote Christianity. There is a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. This is a privately funded Christian event organized by Donauer and others. However, with this event being called “Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast,” Atchison is using his office to promote Christianity.
When Brent Loucks of News Talk 650 CKOM asked Atchison on air on April 24, 2012 whether he’s going to stop having public Christian prayers at municipal government events in response to my complaint, Atchison started talking about how this city was supposedly founded on Christianity by a Christian priest named John Lake (you can hear this starting at 3:30) How is this relevant at all? How is it relevant to whether there should be public Christian prayers recited at official city events in 2012 that the city was founded by a Christian priest? In 2012, Saskatoon is an extremely diverse city with people from numerous religions. Why would Atchison say this unless he’s trying to imply that Saskatoon should be a Christian city today?
My civil rights complaint has nothing to do with atheism. I’m not just fighting for the civil rights of atheists. I’m fighting for the civil rights everyone including Christians. I’m fighting for the civil rights of Christians because most Christians wouldn’t want a politician from a minority religion imposing his beliefs on them and many Christians don’t believe in using the government to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share them. People should be able to pray to their own version of the divine or just go ahead and dine.
I wanted to start a national debate on this issue and that’s what exactly what I’ve done.
7. Your decision to go to the Human Rights Commission has also raised a few eyebrows. How do you respond to those who say that involving the Human Rights Commission is an overreaction? Is there any truth to the statement that your complaint exposes the fact that HRCs are nothing more than a place for people to whine about hurt feelings?
My civil rights complaint is to protect the rights of the minority from the misdirected will of the majority, to protect the right to freedom of conscience and religion including freedom from religion, to enforce the separation of religion and government. This has nothing to do with hurt feelings; this has to do with people abusing their government offices to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share them, protecting against government giving primacy of one religion over all other religions.
8. Many atheist writers, myself included, have written derisively about Christians claiming religious ‘persecution’ for slight offenses, when there is real legitimate persecution of Christians happening in the world. Is your situation just the flip side of the same coin? If not, why not?
Every citizen of the free world has a duty to stand up to defend and advance the frontiers of freedom. I don’t shirk that responsibility; I embrace it. That’s why I served as an infantry officer and platoon commander understudy in the Cdn. Army Reserve. That’s why I’ve fought for civil rights on many occasions. I don’t cower in fearfulness. I stand up for fairness.
9. CFI Canada has come to your defence. How have they been helping? What difference has that made to you personally?
The overwhelming support that I’ve received from CFI and its members has made me better understand that I’m not just fighting for me. I’m fighting for a lot of people and they greatly appreciate that I’m taking this on for all of them and taking the heat for all of them. I received some help from Justin Trottier, national communications director for CFI Canada, and Kendra Getty, chair of CFI Saskatchewan. Justin Trottier has appeared on the Roy Green Show twice with me. I have a lot of new friends from CFI now. Some of my supporters have told me they consider me a hero and I’m honored that they think that. I’m also supported by the Canadian Secular Alliance. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association agrees that civic events must be secular and is writing a legal letter arguing for this.
10. My understanding of Saskatoon is that it is a city with a lot of tension, not only between a very overtly religious majority and a non-religious minority, but racial tension as well. I imagine that this isn’t the first time you’ve had to deal with overt displays of religiosity and racist backlash. Is this an isolated complaint about a prayer, or are you trying to raise aware of the problem in your city in general?
Numerous conservative Christian supporters of Atchison and Donauer have threatened me, told me to go back where I came from (even though I came from here), insulted my first name, insulted my race, insulted my ethnicity, insulted my atheist belief, etc. That just shows me that there’s much more racism and religious bigotry than I ever realized in Canada and makes me infinitely more determined to fight against discrimination and bigotry. Canadians like to believe that their country is free of racism and bigotry, but the backlash against me proves that isn’t true. They tried to intimidate me out of filing a civil rights complaint, but instead they made me infinitely more determined to file it and I did.
11. You’ve made it clear that you’re looking for an apology from the mayor and a statement that prayer will no longer be part of the city council’s way of doing things. If he held a press conference tomorrow and announced that he was going to do exactly that, would you accept it and move on?
If they agree to these demands tomorrow, the case will be resolved tomorrow.
12. Looking back on your experience since the volunteer dinner, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
My supporters think I’ve made the right decisions at every stage in this case and I believe I have too. I think I would have been more aggressive in contacting more media outlets earlier about this civil rights abuse by Don Atchison and Randy Donauer to get the message of religious liberty out even further and stir up even more of a national debate on this issue.
13. What advice would you give to other atheists (or even non-Christian theists) faced with the same situation you faced?
It’s better to always vigorously stand up for what’s right than passively sit down for what’s wrong. People should stand up and fight when they see an abuse of civil rights. Write a civil rights complaint, send it to the opposing party and media, and take it to the human rights commission if they don’t get a satisfactory remedy from the opposing party. Then the state won’t be governed with bigotry. The state will be governed with liberty.
14. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
People can refer to my website for my emails to Don Atchison, Randy Donauer, and City Council, my civil rights complaint against Atchison, Donauer, and the City of Saskatoon, and my media coverage for this complaint.
The entire, unedited interview can be viewed here
*These responses have been heavily edited for brevity, but I hope you will trust me that I have done my level best to ensure that Mr. Solo’s positions are accurately represented.
**Mr. Solo’s response to question #6 was several pages long, and is worth reading in its entirety.