Canada's New Religious Obsession On Display in Ukraine

The crisis in Ukraine is not about religious freedom. So why is Canada trying to portray it that way, asks Kyle Matthews.
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January 28, 2014

This past Sunday I received an email from a former colleague who now works for the United Nations. They asked for advice (on behalf of a friend in Ukraine) on what to do with some shocking photographs of the escalating human rights abuses against protestors taking place in Kiev.

I responded with a list of email addresses for influential individuals working in key organizations and governments, and because social media has become an important tool for raising awareness and holding people to account for abuses they commit, I also suggested the photographs in question be shared with the world via Twitter.

After responding to my friend I logged into Twitter myself to get updates on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. I have been following the protests in Kiev for some time and knew things were escalating. One tweet that jumped out at me was posted by the Canadian government:

I shook my head and read it again. What was Andrew Bennett, Canada’s ambassador for Religious Freedom, doing in Ukraine? As far as I knew, the crisis had nothing to with religious freedom and everything to with establishing a true democracy, opposing Soviet-style authoritarianism, and the strong desire of many Ukrainians to break free from Russia’s orbit and develop closer ties with the European Union.

All was made clear the next day. Bennett, who – keep in mind – is not Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, told Canadian journalists that the Ukrainian government was trying to intimidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to prevent its bishops and clergy from joining the protests. While this is important and should not be dismissed, it reflected a desire of the federal government to portray this crisis in religious terms when the larger picture demonstrates that it is more about civil and political rights, not religious freedom.

There is no doubt that Ukraine is an important country for many Canadians, given the large number of our fellow citizens who are of Ukrainian origin. Unfortunately the optics of sending our Ambassador for Religious Freedom is not a positive one. Of all the countries in the world where his office’s official mandate would best serve religious groups at risk of persecution, very few experts would agree that Ukraine is a priority. Perhaps a few trips to current conflict hot spots might be in order. For example, the Central African Republic where Muslim and Christians are fighting each other, Myanmar (Burma) where the Muslim minority Rohingya are victims of atrocities and segregation, or in Pakistan where blasphemy charges are leveled against religious minorities on a frequent basis.

Keen observers of Canadian foreign policy have been critical of the Harper government for elevating religion as a key priority and cherry picking certain international crises to woo key diaspora groups at election time. Many have lamented how religious interests have permeated and transformed our diplomacy, international human rights priorities, and official development assistance.

One danger in all this, domestically speaking, is that it has alienated many people in Quebec. The humanitarian and development communities have grown frustrated that so many Quebec NGOs have had their funding agreements with the Canadian government slashed. Montreal-based academics have documented that an increase in funding towards faith-based groups has taken place in parallel to these budgetary cuts.

To make matters worse, the Parti Quebecois government has made several public pronouncements about Quebec NGOs being shortchanged under Harper’s watch. Both Quebec’s Minister for International Affairs Jean-François Lisée and Premier Pauline Marois have called for the province’s share of the official development assistance budget be given to Quebec so that it can set up its own international development agency. Add the religious undercurrents of Ambassador Bennett’s media blast from Ukraine to the current debate surrounding the charter of "values" and "secularism" raging in Quebec and you begin to realize the stars could align for more grievances.

It is far better (and more stable for Canada’s national unity) if Canada refocuses on promoting international norms like the Responsibility to Protect, which speak about equality and justice for all. This would be more productive than broadcasting a message that conveys foreign policy is simply an extension of domestic electoral politics and a tool to be used to mobilize key constituencies with simple rhetoric.