Conservative motion to save religious freedoms office fails to pass Commons

Andrew Bennett, Canada's religious freedom ambassador, speaks with the Canadian Press during an interview in his office Wednesday October 1, 2014 in Ottawa.
Andrew Bennett, Canada's religious freedom ambassador, speaks with the Canadian Press during an interview in his office Wednesday October 1, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – The Liberals all but flipped off the lights on Canada’s Office of Religious Freedoms, voting Monday against a Tory motion to keep open the controversial post and saying that its stand alone status is over.

The writing has been on the wall for the office since the Liberals took power in November and were made aware its mandate and funding will expire at the end of this month. They’ve been signalling no new funding for the office in Tuesday’s budget.

The office had been set up by the previous Conservative government in 2013, given its own ambassador and $5 million in funding to promote religious freedoms around the world. But it was controversial from the start.

Concerns were raised it was going too far in combining religion and politics. Having begun as a campaign promise some saw it as a ploy to win support from ethnic voters.

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There were also fears it would focus primarily on minority Christian groups, since it was inspired by the death of a Christian activist in Pakistan.

Now in Opposition, the Tories had been trying hard to save the office and sought to force the government’s hand Monday by introducing a motion calling for MPs to recognize its good work and for the government to renew its mandate.

But it was voted down 226 to 90, with the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green party leader Elizabeth May joining the Liberals in opposing the move.

If the Conservatives cared so much about it, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion questioned why they set a deadline for its mandate.

He insisted the Liberal government remains committed to strengthening and enhancing Canada’s fight for religious freedom, but within the context of its broader foreign policy.

“It is a fundamental universal right that is deeply important for Canadians, especially when they see how religious freedom is violated in many parts of the world.”

Current ambassador Andrew Bennett had already seen the writing on the wall – though he remains in his position until month’s end, last week he accepted a voluntary position at public policy think tank Cardus to lead its efforts to promote religious freedoms.

In its three years, the office has funded projects in Nigeria, Ukraine, Pakistan, Myanmar and Iraq, among others. The projects have ranged from the creation of books and school materials on religious tolerance to conflict mediation around the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

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Some Sikh, Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups had also been calling for the office to stay open.

Edmonton MP Garnett Genuis, who brought forward the motion, likened the need for the office with the requirement to have one focused on the status of women, calling them both required “centres of excellence” to deal with today’s challenges.

“Without specific centres of excellence, individual areas that need attention could risk getting lost in one murky interdependent and indivisible soup,” he said.

Genuis said there are too many people who have an “allergy to religion.”

“Western democratic governments are not in the business of promoting religion but all governments have to be in the business of protecting freedom, including freedom of religion.”

The Liberals agreed, but said the place for that is within a broader foreign policy context.

“Our goal is to build on and strengthen the good work of the office by including the protection of religious freedom as a fundamental component of a comprehensive vision of the promotion of human rights,” Dion’s parliamentary secretary, Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, told the Commons.

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