Canadian government cancels part-time contracts of minority-faith prison chaplains

A clergyman in a prison

Photo by Phil Carpenter, Postmedia News

In a move that has drawn considerable anger from political and religious leaders across Canada, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews recently mandated the cancellation of all part-time prison chaplains who, incidentally, happen to make up the majority of non-Christian prison chaplains.

The cancellations, which include a total of 49 part-time contracts made up of 18 non-Christian and 31 Christian chaplains, will take effect at the end of March 2013 in order to save approximately $1.3-million of the program’s total $6.4-million budget.

What makes the move curious to onlookers, especially to onlookers of a minority religion or, rather, a non-Christian religion, is that the cancellations leave about 80 full-time chaplains across the country – only one of which is non-Christian.

Currently, of the nearly 15,000 inmates in federal custody, 37.5 per cent identify themselves as Catholic, 19.5 per cent Protestant, 4.5 per cent Muslim, 4 per cent First Nations spirituality, 2 per cent Buddhist, and less than 1 per cent are Jewish or Sikh.

Therefore, even though the majority of inmates (57 per cent) identify themselves as Christians, this does not justify having 79 of the current 80 chaplains of a Christian faith.

As a result, questions over religious freedom have taken center stage. Many groups, including Sikh and Muslim leaders and Liberal justice and human rights critic Irwin Cotler have called the cancellations “discriminatory.”

At this point it would be hard to disagree. The move appears religiously insensitive and unsustainable as it is simply too much to expect Christian chaplains to provide adequate spiritual guidance for all religious minorities, even if they do rely on volunteers from the communities of religious minorities.

In defense of the cancellations, Conservative MP Candice Bergen, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety, said, “The Canadian Forces have used this type of chaplaincy program for years. If it is good enough for our armed forces, then it is good enough for inmates in our federal penitentiaries.”

In addition, Julie Carmichael, director of communications for Mr. Toews, reasserted that “The minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners. However, the Government of Canada is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded his review and has decided that chaplains employed by [the Correctional Service of Canada] must provide services to inmates of all faiths.”

However, the problem is that the Government of Canada has given little evidence that it is not guilty of giving preferential status to Christianity. Regardless of the circumstances, the Canadian government should not be giving preferential treatment – which is much different than adequate treatment – to any one religion.

Instead, the Canadian government should protect the interests of minority groups, religious or not, because if the situations were reversed I am sure Jesus’ words, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” would hit much closer to home.