This week the Harper government decided to save Canada $1.3 million on the $276.1 billion dollar expense budget by eliminating all prison chaplains who are not Christian. In explaining this move a spokesperson for the Minster for Public Safety Vic Toews offered this:
“The minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners. However, the government … is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded … [Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.”
Perhaps it is just me. But this reads as a ridiculous statement. “The government is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding.” So a reasonable mind might naturally conclude that the government would support all or support none. But no! In the Harper government clearly logic is different. Not picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential treatment looks like this: Christian Chaplains will be retained. If that is not painful enough for inmates who are Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Baha’i, (well you get the idea), they are summarily told, you will be given interfaith counsel by the Christian Chaplains. So that I am clear…
1. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees religious freedom to all Canadians, including inmates.
2. The Government of Canada will not choose which religions deserve funding.
3. The Harper Government has decided that only Christian Chaplains deserve funding.
4. No matter, if a Jew in the Kingston Pen needs religious counsel, he can call on the local Christian Chaplain.
This narrow-mindedness has been packaged as ‘fiscal prudence.’ Who are they kidding? This has nothing to do with the .0005 % savings to the Government of Canada. If saving money were an issue how about cutting the number of ‘Action Plan’ Billboards and ads – the news today tells us that the Harper Government has overspent by 138 Million or 37 % its advertising budget. In the meantime, if this cut to chaplaincy is about saving money, it is foolhardy. Good pastoral services to those who a incarcerated is an important part or rehabilitation. Removing another restorative measure from Canada’s penal system will cost us much more in the long run than the $1.3 million that is being saved today. This move is driven by ideology plain and simple and Minister Toews should come clean with the Canadians and just say so.
We live in a world where fear and suspicion of ‘the other’ is on the rise, causing violence between peoples to be on the upswing. Canada is a nation whose reputation and whose history has positioned us to be a leader on the world stage in trying to bridge the divide between peoples. I fear that the more we see this government ‘not favouring’ certain segments of our population, the more those who are shown no partiality will find it difficult to look to Canada as a place where all are given a fair opportunity, a place where all are afforded rights to religious freedom.
As a Christian Priest I am embarrassed by the notion that people like me are being asked to be spiritual counsel for people of other religions. Canadians should speak to power. Christians should speak to power. We should all speak to power and make it known that when the government tramples on the religious rights of any, they are stepping on the rights of us all.