A Disappointed Farewell: Why We’ll Miss the Office of Religious Freedom

Ottawa has confirmed what those of us in the religious community long feared – the new government will close the Office of Religious Freedom.  For some this is a cause of celebration.  For others it is a disappointment.

The critics of the Office appear to have convinced the government.  Among the criticisms has been a fear that the Office would be used by Canada, being a Western democracy, to “colonize” or “civilize” a targeted country that allegedly has a poor religious freedom record; that Canada would not be sensitive to the religious sensibilities on the ground when discussing Western concepts of religious freedom; that it is not in our national interest to worry about religious freedom but rather geopolitical stability and our own economic and security interests.  It was also stated that the mere existence of the Office implied that religious freedom was considered of greater importance than other human rights.  Further, that the Office did little to engender support or legitimacy when it was solely concerned with what was going on outside of Canada and not concerned about the domestic scene.  Finally, critics noted that the Office was set up by a government that showed very little concern for Zunera Ishaq, the plaintiff in the “niqab case,” who wanted to take the citizenship oath wearing her niqab, which she wore for religious reasons.

In my view, those criticisms, while worth considering, do not justify closing the Office.  First, the concept of freedom to believe and practice one’s religion is not simply a matter of “colonizing” anybody.  While there have been instances of Western countries using religion to colonize, which must be avoided, the fact remains religious freedom is a fundamental human right.  Period.  Given that it is 2016 and our long history of humanitarian work, we would expect no less of Canada than to respect cultural differences.  There has been no allegation that the Office was anything less.

Second, having the Office does not mean that religious freedom trumps other human rights. It is simply that we are living in a time when religious freedom is in peril because of all that is happening on the international scene with respect to the persecution of religious minorities.  A cursory look at Pew Research’s website will give all the information one will need to see the deplorable state of affairs.

Third, the outward focus of the Office made sense when you consider that we already have human rights commissions and tribunals in every province, plus our own legal system to deal with domestic religious freedom issues.  What we did not have was a means for Canada to turn its diplomatic mind to address global religious freedom.

Some years ago I was in Washington, D.C. working on international religious freedom.  My visits to the Canadian embassy were cordial but I had real difficulty getting anyone from the embassy to even attend a religious freedom dinner that addressed the issues.  The Office came into existence after I left Washington.  However, once Ottawa announced it was going to establish the Office, the Canadian embassy became an encouraging participant on the international religious freedom file.  The embassy actually hosted the religious dinner twice.   It was a new day for Canada on this file.  At such occasions, our diplomatic staff got to meet the various religious freedom NGOs and other staff from the international embassies in a more intimate and focused venue on religious freedom.   That is not to suggest Canada did not address religious freedom before; rather, it is to say that from my perspective, Canada definitely became a more serious partner on this matter than it was previously.

As to the matter of the niqab case, there is no question that the incident was unfortunate.  It simply made no sense to prevent a woman from wearing her religious garb at her citizenship swearing in ceremony.  However, the fact that the government took that position it did does not undercut the great work done by the Office of Religious Freedom.  In fact, the Office had no mandate to do or say anything concerning the matter.  That was the role of our courts.  Justice Boswell rightly rejected the government policy as being unconstitutional and holding that the policy “would make it impossible not just for a niqab-wearing woman to obtain citizenship, but also for a mute person or a silent monk.”

My point is this:  to suggest that the Office should be removed because it did not have the mandate to comment on the niqab ban is irrelevant.  Canada, as the Ishaq case showed, has plenty of mechanisms to support religious freedom domestically.

The winning argument to shut the Office, at least with this current government, is that international religious freedom should not be separated from the protection of other human rights.  Minister Dion suggests it is within that framework Canada will promote religious freedom.  My fear is that religious freedom will be lost in the shuffle.

I sincerely hope that our leaders will prove this one naysayer wrong.  I like the idea of Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Bruce Ryder that there be at least an Office of Human Rights in Global Affairs.  There is no word that Ottawa is thinking along the lines of Prof. Ryder.  However, I, and the many religious minorities across this country, who have fellow religionists in other countries who are suffering, will be watching to see whether this new government will be at least as vigilant as was the Office of Religious Freedom in raising the profile of this fundamental human right – just as equal as all the rest.

Thoughts on A Disappointed Farewell: Why We’ll Miss the Office of Religious Freedom

  1. David Baker

    Thanks Barry. I always enjoy reading your commentaries on current events. It assists me in engaging my congregation. I would appreciate your thoughts on Doctor-assisted suicides.

    Reply
  2. Steve Little

    Barry my old friend. I appreciated your article. I seldom respond to the things I read. But today…..well here’s what I think.

    Our former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the Conservative party that instituted the office of religious freedom in the first place, once stated that the niqab was “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

    Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal supporters on the other hand openly ridiculed that statement. In other words they were suggesting that women in Saudi Arabia for example, are not being discriminated against. That they are free!

    And now just six months after he was elected, Mr. Trudeau and his cohorts have announced that they will close down the office a religious freedom. Should we be surprised? I’m not! In the end it’s just politics.

    The freedom of some will be defended vigourously by Mr. Trudeau and his liberal supporters. While the freedom of others will most certainly diminish.

    Reply
  3. Sil Lindo

    Thanks Barry for the great work that you do in brining this and other important issues to our attention.
    I suppose what our new Government has done parallel the story in 1 Kings 12: Hope they come to their senses soon enough.

    Reply
  4. Trudy Beyak

    What I do know is this: Christians are most certainly being bullied and discriminated against in Canada right now, as we speak. Take for example, the Trinity Western University [TWU] case that is currently before the courts. It is a travesty that law societies in Canada are bullying Christians for making a commitment of celibacy, if single, and believing in marriage between a man and a woman. These choices are wholesome and good! And, it’s their religious right to make those choices in a free society. Yet, the law societies voted to take away the ability of TWU future law grads to practice law! In a free and democratic society, that is absolutely wrong! Right now, this government is talking about forcing Christian doctors and other doctors of good conscience, to kill their patients, who want to die, or to refer them to a doctor who will kill them. They can’t do that! Simply put, it is against the ethical and moral principles of Christians and other religious minorities to kill. In short, the bullying against people of faith and most certainly, against Christians, in Canada is real and getting worse with time! To see the doors of the Office for Religious Freedom in Canada closed now – is another nail into a gathering darkness, I think our society would be wise to avoid.

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Hi Trudy, it seems to me that we have to all agree to disagree on these matters. The Office of Religious Freedom was a great start. It was not perfect but it was moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, we will never know what it might have been with a few more years of operation. The struggle for many who are opposed to Christian organizations having a role in the public sphere is that they are of the view that Christians force their views, beliefs, practices etc on others who do not have those beliefs. Thus, in the case of Christian universities that grant government recognized degrees they argue that is not the place for religious organizations because it is a “public” enterprise. Or if, Christian universities want to exist then they must follow public norms. The problem, of course, is how can you have a Christian university (or other Christian “public” institution) if it cannot operate as Christian? There is a disconnect here. The same can be said of Christian doctors who refuse to perform euthanasia on their patients – the argument is “well, you cannot be involved in a public profession unless you are willing to follow the public norms regardless of conscience.” That is very problematic for at least two reasons. First, such thinking suggests that Christians (or other religious groups) who hold conscientious views against euthanasia need not apply to medical school. Is that what we really want? I hope not. Second, what may be normative today may not be so tomorrow. If society’s opinion changes then what was considered “physician assisted dying” today might be considered murder tomorrow. After all, it was not too long ago that euthanasia was a crime. The Christian conscientious positions against such practices has at least 2000 years of history – suddenly there are some who want to ignore that cultural reality for a concept that is only mere months old. We need to keep engaged with our culture and share our views with the hope that common sense will ultimately prevail.

      Reply
  5. Andre Fotev

    Thanks Barry for your article & insight.

    There’s been a steady tide of social behaivior redefining what is considered a ‘tolerant’ position.

    Being tolerant used to mean that opposing sides of any stripe would be granted a respected impartial seat to a table of dialogue.

    Todays knee-jerk definition of tolerant wants to dismiss & discredit outright a *certain group with fixed moral objectives (ironically revealing such an attitute as intolerant) souring a decent chance of even having a dialogue on weighty matters.

    Its only from a perspective of stability can one discern a wishy-washy trend.

    Time will tell how this will play out, its our faith in The One who promisees & not the promisees alone that gives us comfort.

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Well said. It is my experience that when people have a knee-jerk reaction to a concept that they disagree with they will, in quiet moments of reflection, think more soberly. However, for the moment they may appear unresponsive to reason. We are at a time where it seems much of our society has decided they would rather re-learn the ancient ways than accept them at face value. A fantastic read is “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Arthur A. Leff of Yale Law School found at:
      http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3810&context=fss_papers

      Leff rejects the old norms but he rightly fears for the future without them. It is fascinating to read his honest account.

      Reply

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