Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Dr. Andrew Bennett, ambassador to the Office of Religious Freedom, (right) sit down with Lal Khan Malik, national president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at Canada, prior to announcing the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom in Vaughan on Tuesday Feb. 19, 2013
Credits: PMO Handout
While there was much fanfare this week celebrating the opening of the Office of Religious Freedoms, even the most basic analysis tells us this is destined to cause headaches down the road.
And basic analysis is really all anyone is equipped to make. That’s because not many specifics have been released about how it will be accomplishing its goals.
What we do know is that the office, announced by the prime minister Tuesday, will have an annual budget of $5 million and be headed by Andrew Bennett, dean of a Christian liberal arts school in Ottawa.
From the official press releases:
“Specifically, the Office will focus on advocacy, analysis, policy development and programming relating to: Protecting and advocating on behalf of religious minorities under threat; opposing religious hatred and intolerance; and, promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.”
So these activities could range from issuing statements denouncing persecutions to flying around the world trying to orchestrate ground invasions. A betting man would put the truth somewhere in the middle.
Now the left’s criticism of this stems from that tired narrative of the vast right-wing conspiracy’s attempt to turn all Canadians into evangelical Christians. Like all such murmurings of late, there’s really no proof of this.
In fact, the biggest concern is just the opposite. That they’ve cast the net too wide. A cursory view of international affairs shows there are many disgruntled sects across the globe fighting among their countrymen for various cultural and religious reasons.
How will we decide which of these we lend an ear to? And will we step in when religious groups are doing the persecuting? After all, some people’s idea of exercising their religious freedom involves the persecution of women, gays or non-believers.
Regardless of what the government intends, how has this announcement been interpreted by those abroad? Perhaps they see this as a sign we’ll provide them supplies. That we’ll have a word with their leadership. That we’ll send in military support. Or that we’ll let their entire community jump the queue and come to Canada.
The other problem with such a subjective term as religious freedom is you never know how the guy after you will interpret it.
In a democracy, whenever the government gives itself a new office, funding mechanism or law they are actually giving it to every other Canadian to use and perhaps abuse. One day Stephen Harper will be out and it will be up to the next person to oversee it. Even if you believe this government has a firm grasp on the idea of religious freedom, would you say the same about Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau?
After all, it takes these offices a couple years to really hit their stride. From that perspective, this office is more designed for Harper’s successor.
At its best, the office could serve as a sounding board to make sure that our other foreign policy decisions are in line with these goals. That our sanctions punish the right people. That the billions of foreign aid we hand out every year doesn’t end up being used to persecute religious minorities. That said, shouldn’t we already have such filters in place?
Small c-conservatives have been pointing out online how this is a strange move for a party that should be committed to less government, not more. The budget could greatly expand. The mandate could broaden. The demands from across the globe could increase. This office may very well become a Pandora’s Box.