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.