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Interview with Dave McKee on Secular Schools — Leader, Communist Party of Canada (Ontario)

2022-12-13

Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/01/24

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved in the theory and politics of communism? What books and thinkers do you recommend?

Dave McKee: As a university student I became involved in social justice activism, beginning with a kind of left-wing Christian point of view. I was working on a wide range of issues — peace, anti-poverty, environmentalism, gender equality, and international solidarity — so I began looking for systemic critiques that could help me understand certain situations. This was during the late 1980s and early 1990s, so the overthrow of socialism in the Soviet Union was a topic of much debate and I began to think more critically about “what we were left with,” capitalism, and out of this I was increasingly drawn toward Marxist theory. I spent some time studying Latin American liberation theology which, to me, combined elements of progressive Christian thinking with Marxist politics.

I graduated during a deep economic recession, so instead of landing in a steady, lucrative job I struggled for a bit. The lyrics of Billy Bragg’s “To Have and Have Not” kind of rang true for me: “At 21 you’re on top of the scrap heap; at 16 you were top of your class.” This fueled my interest in Marxism, as a political theory that could explain economic and social dynamics, as well as my search for a movement that took a comprehensive, transformative approach to social change. By this time, I had moved away from religion and had adopted a decisively materialist outlook. After a bit of looking around, I found the Communist Party and was impressed by their long history of dynamically applying Marxist theory to the concrete conditions of any given moment. I was particularly attracted to the Party’s understanding of the need to campaign for immediate economic, social, and political reforms, as part of the sustained struggle for transformative (revolutionary) change.

Throughout this process moving toward communism, I read a lot of very useful books. Among the ones that I found most helpful early on were: The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels); Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Lenin); Canada’s Party of Socialism: History of the Communist Party of Canada, 1921–1976 (CPC); Nationalism, Communism, and Canadian Labour (Abella); and The Scalpel, the Sword: The story of Dr. Norman Bethune (Gordon, Allan).

These books give a decent overview of the fundamental theory of communism, the history of communists in Canada, and the personal experiences of individual communists.

Jacobsen: With young people looking to institute a single secular school system with a coalition in their locale or country, by which I mean in a global context, how can they do it? What do you recommend for them?

McKee: It’s not an easy process, I must admit. Many places have some form of secular public school system, but they also have some form of religious education integrated into the public system. In Ontario, this integration takes the form of a parallel Catholic school system that is publicly funded. Changing this takes a broad, united movement.

One of the first steps toward building a campaign for a single secular school system is to identify those forces that have an interest in publicly funded religious education, and then determine why they have that interest. This second step is obvious in some cases, but it often also leads to some unexpected conclusions.

Once we have a clearer sense of the forces against secularism, we can build a strong, focused narrative to confront and oppose them. This includes developing precise arguments for the necessity of a single secular system, within our specific conditions, that can be supported by data and research. We can use these arguments, as well as the process for developing them, to build strong and active connections with a broad range of communities in our respective societies.

The overall goal is to isolate those forces who favour religious education and (hopefully) overwhelm their strength through mass mobilization.

Jacobsen: Are single secular school systems cheaper in total costs than separate publicly-funded school systems?

McKee: There are some organizations that make this argument, but I don’t favour it.

It is reasonable to expect some cost savings in areas like administration or governance, by moving from multiple school systems to a single one, but I think this is often overstated. For example, a single secular system in Ontario would have, by and large, the same number of students as the current dual system. This means that a single secular system will require a similar number of facilities and workers, including administration, as the current one.

Perhaps more significantly, total education funding in Ontario is desperately low and this has produced a general crisis in the public school system. Since 1990, 2000 schools have been closed and hundreds are currently threatened with closure and sale; there is a $16 billion backlog in school repairs across the province; school shortages and overcrowding mean that children have to be bussed out of their neighbourhoods to find a school that can accommodate them; and reduced staff has meant that violence in schools in increasing. So, the parameters of the debate on education funding need to be less about cost savings (targeted or overall) and much more about increasing the budget to properly fund student, worker, and community needs.

If our approach to public institutions is guided by a cost savings argument, we will quickly find ourselves on a slippery slope to diminished quality and delivery of services. A much stronger argument for a single secular school system is that it provides the best and most consistent method for ensuring universality, accessibility, quality, democracy, and accountability in public education.

Jacobsen: What advice do you have for secular youth who want to become politically active and activists in general for a more secular world?

McKee: One important consideration is to not counterpose secularism to the democratic right of individuals to practice their religions or to have none. This is, perhaps, a subtle distinction but it is one that is easily overlooked. For me, state secularism means that public institutions must display neutrality toward religions — to be universally accessible, their structure and delivery must not be contingent on a specific religion, or on religious belief and practice in general.

This is different from persecution or coercion of religious people. For example, a public institution can be secular without prohibiting its employees from wearing religious symbols. Persecution tends to heighten interest in religion, strengthen religious conviction, and open the door to reactionary or extremist articulations of the particular religion.

I mentioned earlier in this interview that my entry into social justice activism was through the progressive wing of the church. Even though the outlook of that movement was a religious one, the vast majority of people with whom I worked were defenders and promoters of state secularism. I am an atheist now, and have been for some time, but my early experience taught me that there is a very broad basis of unity for building a secular society. As activists, we must appeal to that basis and build that unity.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dave.

McKee: Thank you!

License

In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at www.in-sightpublishing.com.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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