For All Mankind

Michael Van Pelt on why Canada's new Office of Religious Freedom is an opportunity to build on our vibrant pluralist heritage.
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February 22, 2013
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At the long-awaited launch of the federal Office of Religious Freedom, I found myself, the child of a Dutch migrant, standing next to a gentleman from Pakistan, both of us surrounded by a multitude of faiths.

As I looked around at the faith communities gathered at the Ahmadiyya Muslim centre in suburban Toronto, I saw Canada. Not Canada as the soft, colourful, romanticized ideal of multiculturalism, but Canada as a vibrant, functioning reality of genuine pluralism.

And I saw something else. I saw suffering. Virtually every group on hand to welcome Andrew Bennett as Canada’s new ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is connected, in some way, to adherents elsewhere in the world who are made to suffer purely because of their religious beliefs.

Suffering has become my shadow companion since last summer when my 15-year-old son drowned. Standing beside the gentleman from Pakistan, I could not help wondering how my suffering would increase if my son’s life had been taken from us not in a terrible accident, but from a bomb thrown through the window of our church, from blows suffered while imprisoned for reciting the wrong creed in a private apartment, from the myriad of means used daily outside Canada to harass and intimidate and, yes, exterminate religious believers.

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From that perspective, the name given to the new entity by the Conservative government is something of a misnomer. Ambassador Bennett’s large role will be the promotion of religious freedom. But before freedom can flourish, suffering must be staunched. Before it can be staunched, it must be itemized, publicized and vigorously, relentlessly condemned. Dr. Bennett is a man of principle.  He has the character and deep caring for humanity to suit the role of a diplomat.  (Full disclosure, Andrew and I are personal friends.) However, Ambassador Bennett “holds” the office of ambassador. He is not the office.  Ambassador Bennett will first need the commitment of his own department.  This will require a newfounded curiosity and care for religion and understanding of its place in our world.  As well, Bennett will need the support of the commons – and the House of Commons.

Enter Canada. Proceeding from the charity that is at the heart of our country’s formative Judeo-Christian faith, we have achieved the reality of a vibrant, genuine pluralism and therefore have an international duty to speak out against the suffering that is inherent to religious oppression around the globe. We have found the way for Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims and all others to gather peaceably for a significant political event. If we do not speak for that spirit, who will?

There is an attractive argument that says religious minorities are hardly the only victims of suffering, and therefore should not be privileged above women or homosexuals or child soldiers or the hungry or all others on the horrifying roster of victims of global inhumanity. The argument is attractive because it is, by and large, true. It is a mug’s game to abstractedly triage political responses to the world’s pain.

Granting that, it is also true that where oppression arises, it invariably makes its earliest target the freedom to believe, to worship, to know God as one chooses. Prime Minister Harper put this well in his speech announcing Ambassador Bennett’s appointment: “Democracy cannot find fertile ground in any society where notions of the freedom of personal conscience and faith are not permitted.”

The prime minister noted that Canada’s own Bill of Rights, the forerunner to our cherished Charter of Rights and Freedoms, emerged from former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s conviction that to be Canadian is to be free to worship, to stand for what is right, to oppose what is believed wrong, and to choose how one will be governed.

Such freedom is, in Diefenbaker’s words, the heritage Canadians must pledge to uphold for each other and “for all mankind."

Critics of the new Office of Religious Freedom tend to miss the “for all mankind” part. They miss it most frequently because they continue to inhabit a world where secularism has conquered all, spiritual life has been driven entirely into the private domain, and religious faith of all forms has been debunked as non-operative superstition.

It’s a world that has nothing to do with the one that exists. In every corner of the world, including Canada, religious belief remains as vital as bread and water to the daily lives of millions. Canada’s key difference is that we are a genuinely pluralist country where a Dutch immigrant can stand beside a Christian from Pakistan watching a Ukrainian Catholic being welcomed by Buddhist monks in saffron robes and Muslim women in hijabs.

If we balk at spending a mere $5 million from a $2.6 billion budget for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to help make our peaceful state possible in the rest of the world, how willingly will we respond to other forms of global suffering? The answer will tell us what we really stand for as Canadians.