In a Dec 27th post (“Has the abortion issue been reopened in Canada and what does this mean for social movements?”), I wrote about a push on the part of some Canadian conservatives to reopen the issue of abortion – an issue that has otherwise lain fairly dormant. I suggested that with a Conservative majority government, a new political opportunity has opened for Conservative issues in Canada. Not surprisingly, Lawrence Martin titled his Dec 27th Globe and Mail article “A banner year for the new conservative agenda” where he writes, “For core conservatives, those of the doctrinaire variety, nothing can compare to the success of the year now passing. In 2011, Canada took its sharpest turn right in its history.”
Another Conservative campaign promise is about to be realized: the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom (Globe and Mail, Jan 1st). The objective of the Office, which will be housed within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is to improve religious rights and freedoms in other countries. In the US, the Clinton Administration signed a similar initiative which was unanimously approved by Congress. However, criticism soon emerged that the US effort was bias against Muslims and promoted Christian values and ideals.
Is the Office of Religious Freedom another example of the conservative political opportunity?
The announcement about the Office was made at a gathering of faith-based organizations in Ottawa with the notable absence of Shia and Sunni Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus. Those who attended the closed-door meeting were handpicked by the Conservative government and not coincidentally, those who were invited represented religious communities with influence in key electoral ridings (see Vancouver Sun, Dec. 30th).
Although the Office is meant to promote religious freedom around the world, some critics worry that the focus of the Office might be Canada. Some religious and Christian-right leaning Canadians may not have a problem with that. In a Christian blog called “Every Day for Life Canada,” Lou Iacobelli writes, “Every Day for Life Canada believes the Office of Religious Freedom must first protect and promote religious liberty here in Canada before it can have any moral authority to speak on behalf of Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia or anywhere else in the world where there’s faith based persecution. Charity must always begin at home.” What do Canadians think about the Office? It’s too soon to tell, but an online poll (cbcnews.ca, Jan 7th) finds that almost 80% of those who took the poll believe this is an attempt by the Conservatives to build political favor among religious ethnic communities. Only 7% say it is about protecting human rights and religious freedoms.
Groups with an international focus in promoting well-being, such as Amnesty International, were not contacted by the government regarding this effort to promote religious freedom around the world. Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada told the Vancouver Sun that “The development of the office so far has been a very closed process…the grey areas that often result from religion and human rights bumping up against each other are very real and will need a holistic approach, not one driven simply by ideology – or theology, as the case may be. Religious freedom can very often butt heads and collide with other human rights concerns, such as lesbian and gay rights, women’s rights and freedom of expression.” Other groups have also expressed concern, like the Canadian Secular Alliance which worries that the Office may create religious tension in Canada.
Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal opposition, supports the idea of the Office, but he tells the Globe and Mail that the Office “can’t be a tool for pressure groups the Conservatives hope to appease in Canada.” Religious freedom has been a powerful political tool for religious and ethnic groups in Canada – for example, on the same-sex marriage issue. My analysis of Parliamentary committee hearings found that religious freedom was the dominant argument among anti-gay marriage organizations that testified before the Justice and Human Rights Committee in 2003 (even more so than the Christian values, traditional family frame which has been successful in the US) . If, to some critics (and some hopefuls), the Office of Religious Freedom does turn its gaze onto Canada, what might the political consequences be for issues like abortion and gay marriage?