Saturday, October 6, 2012

In my own backyard

So the Wild Hunt published an article yesterday which talked about the decision of Minister Vic Towes to cut all part-time paid chaplaincy positions for inmates; leaving full time chaplaincy duties to be performed by Christian (and one Muslim) chaplain. The reasoning behind the measure, has of course been lauded as "cost cutting", but $1.3 million dollars is a paltry sum compared to what the government spends on other endeavours. I haven't mentioned Canadian politics here all that often, but this is something which does bear witnessing, because there really is something else at work here.

The Conservative party, for those not in the know about federal politics north of the 49th parallel, is aptly named; they are the more right leaning federal party. They are currently enjoying their first majority government in almost 20 years, after having bucked the historic trend of the Conservative party forming a minority government, only to be dissolved and then defeated by the Liberal party. Canadian politics is, though, a significantly different beast than those in the US; and political longevity is found in the centre. As such, the Conservatives are not all that conservative in their policies; they do, however, have rather aggressive right wing Members of Parliament and of course there is their base to think about. Their recent string of electoral wins is a combination of staying in the centre, a succession of ineffective opposition leaders (especially in the now third place Liberal party, which historically could be considered the "government party"), and disaffection with the legacy of that party. The base for the Conservatives has generally been in the western provinces, which would also be the closest thing to a "bible-belt" in Canada, and yet the party has not really done anything to pander to the religious right component of their base.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly resisted requests form his own party to reopen the issues of same-sex marriage, and more recently abortion. There was some dust up over including gay rights in an information booklet given to new comers to Canada, with it finally being added just prior to the 2011 election. The government has invested funds into an "Office of Religious Freedom", whose purpose is to aid in the expansion of the rights of religious minorities in foreign nations. A noble undertaking, to be sure, but again of the kind with the faint smell of something fishy lingering about it.

The Conservatives are not stupid, and realize that not giving something to a significnt part of their base could lead to disaffection and fragmentation (because this happened less than 20 years ago). The conservative Christians need some kind of bone thrown their way to reward their loyalty and support; and since Harper is too politically wily to believe his party would survive a repeal of same sex marriage, or the reopening of the abortion issue, something else needs to be done.

Well, there is that "Office of Religious Freedom" I mentioned eariler. Which countires, and which religions need protection? Christians of course, and since the RR base are the same sorts who decry the international persecution of Christians, seems like a good choice. The Conservatives get to aid in the spread of the Canadian ideal of religious freedom, which appeals to centrist voters; and get to help out persecuted Christian communities in other countires, which appeals to that segment of their base. Is the same office going to be doing anything to say, fight the growing tide of "witch-killings" in many African countires, or the supression of practicioners of Falung-gong in China? It remains to be seen. I hope very much that this is not going to be another platform for spreading the "good news" of Christianity, but I have my doubts.

The other thrown bone is the issue mentioned above, the firing of all part-time prison chaplains who were employed by Corrections Canada. The door is still open for volunteer chaplains providing the services to inmates, but I'm certainly not the only person who feels this smacks of favouritism. Essentially this means that chaplaincy services for all religions (except that one Muslim cleric, and of course First Nations) are going to be served by Christians. I understand that chaplains are required, regardless of their individual religion, to serve the needs of any religious group; but the efficacy of a Presbyterian minister knowing and understanding the needs of an Asatruar, is going to be difficult. But again this goes back into the idea of a two message policy. On the one hand it appeals to their image of fiscal belt tightening, which will appeal to those precious centrist votes. On the other hand it attacks the "PC excesses" of a multifaith system, and effectively provides a solely Christian chaplaincy. It may not be overt endorsment of a given religious persuasion, but it certainly is tacit support, and that segment of the base will understand it as such.

Afterall, few people are going to kick up much of a fuss over the charter rights of convicts. Oh sure the NDP and LIberals are already speaking out against the move, but that is to be expected from opposition parties. This is a disappointing move, but not terribly unexpected. The best hope is a charter challenge in the courts, or a lot of negative press attention given to the issue.

I hope that this issue is resolved fairly, and that my (and others) misgivings are wrong in regards to the "Office of Religious Freedom". But all this remains to be seen. Again, I'm hopefut but at the same time I'm not really expecting my misgivings to be misplaced. The base needs their bones, and right now no one but them are really paying any attention.

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