You always have to have an enemy

Tim Stevenson

Twenty-five years ago this summer, in Victoria, the United Church of Canada General Council wrestled with the issue of the ordination of openly gay and lesbian people to the Christian ministry.

The Council, the United Church’s highest court, which meets every three years, passed the initiative, with considerable, passionate and generally polite debate. I can remember: I was there, covering the event for Christianity Today magazine. I am trying to track down the piece as it appeared. Most of the clippings of stories that I wrote around that time are in a storage locker and not very accessible.

But for those readers who can access libraries that keep CT back copies, my piece was entitled Canadians barely united on homosexual issue. It was on page 50 of the October 7, 1988 issue.

I was reminded of this auspicious anniversary while reading United Church Observer interviews, currently online (, with three people who were impacted by that debate.

One of the three was Tim Stevenson, who was at the centre of the debate as a young, gay, aspiring minister who was, in effect, testing the court. At the time, there was a substantial number of ministers in the denomination who were believed to be “in the closet”, but the church was not yet lowering the barrier to ordination of known practicing gay or lesbian persons.

Much of Stevenson’s story, both at time of the 1988 Council and subsequently, is in the Observer piece. The interviewer was Gary Stephen Ross, a Vancouver editor. His piece includes the fact that, for most of the years since 1988, Stevenson has been the partner and, latterly, the spouse of the current United Church moderator, Gary Paterson.

Someone not mentioned in Stevenson’s story, is the person who carried the other side of the debate at that General Council, William Wan, a lawyer and minister who was at, the time, pastor of the Ottawa Chinese United Church.

Wan courteously and in a non-accusatory manner, presented the position for heterosexuality and urged caution toward the idea of gay and lesbian ordination. He was a credit to both his professions. (Later, he became vice-president and dean of what is now Tyndale University College in Toronto. Today, he practices law in Singapore.)

All of which brings me to the core of today’s OttawaWatch. It relates to something which appeared toward the end of the Stevenson Observer interview.

After serving for some years at minister of St. Paul’s United Church in Burnaby, Stevenson went into politics, working on the left side of the political spectrum. He was an NDP member of the BC legislature and, after being defeated in the BC Liberal sweep of 2001, was elected to the Vancouver city council. There he became known as a caustic and, some would say “nasty” partisan critic – a much different sort of person than the one remembered by those who knew him in his student and pastoral days. I can’t say that I ever experienced his alleged vitriol, but I certainly heard about it from others.

There were a few paragraphs from the Observer piece that I want to reproduce here, for two reasons:

  • To illustrate my own view that politics sometimes turns otherwise gentle people into vessels of vitriol. It is a part of the adversarial system.
  • To encourage faith-based people – no matter where they dwell on the political spectrum – to resist the vitriolic temptation.

We pick up here on the Observer interview:

Is Tim Stevenson still the passionate idealist of 1988? Has the cut and thrust of politics hardened him? On Easter Sunday, at a Thai restaurant in Vancouver — just down the street from St. Andrew’s-Wesley United, where Paterson delivered the sermon as Stevenson sat proudly with their three daughters and four grandchildren — they both pondered that question.

“He’s the same Tim, but I’ve seen him develop the more confrontational style that our adversarial system demands,” says Paterson. “You always have to have an enemy, which troubles him. He’ll come home and say, ‘I don’t like what politics is turning me into. How do I reach out?'”

“It’s true,” says Stevenson. “It’s hard to be compassionate without seeming weak.” He also finds the suppression of his spirituality necessary but difficult. “You can’t sit at the cabinet table or in caucus and say, ‘Where do you think God is calling us to go?’ I sometimes find that difficult. In the church, that’s the question we’re always asking.”

“He has the same value system he’s always had,” offers Paterson. “The challenge is, how do you keep your faith from being limiting, or trivial, or used as a justification for whatever you’re doing — cloaking it with God’s blessing?”

I will leave the story there, to let it make its own point. I have my own views on what kinds of politicians try to be conciliatory, as opposed to vitriolic. And I would venture the gentle suggestion that, very often, it is a Christian politician’s attempt to live out suggestion that, very often, it is a Christian politician’s attempt to live out the gospel that gets him or her to try to be “as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove.”

Scharf, Lee and Senate housing

Senator Mike Duffy

Diane Scharf, longtime senior Parliament Hill support staffer, behaved Christianly, on May 29, when she told Ottawa Citizen investigative reporter Glen McGregor that she might be partly to blame for erroneous expenses that triggered the current Senate residency “scandal.”

The Scharf story is one of two Citizen pieces to which I will refer in taking a look at the residency allowance issue that has surrounded the Senate for the past month. The other is an May 15 opinion piece by Ian Lee entitled Residency requirements put senators in an impossible position. Lee is a Sprott School of Business professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and a former banker trained in fiduciary responsibilities.

Both pieces can be found by going to, then doing a site search with, respectively, the words “McGregor Scharf” and “Lee residency”.

First, to Scharf: She generally keeps out of the public eye but I have written about her occasionally. The theme of that writing has been twofold – her long experience as a Liberal and, later, Conservative support staffer and her frequently mentoring of younger Christian staffers in the task of relating their faith to their Parliament Hill work.

This particular Citizen piece, in my modest view, was an excellent example of such Christian behavior. But, before quoting the Scharf references, I would note that in being Christian, she was being smart, as well. She didn’t hesitate to identify others who might want to take some responsibility, as well. (I should note that I have already written to McGregor, commending him for interviewing Scharf and writing the story.)

Scharf did a six-month stint as administrative assistant to Senator Mike Duffy from September, 2011 to March 2012, while his regular staffer was on maternity leave. She provided McGregor her perspective on that experience.

Notes McGregor:

(Scharf) says she had trouble keeping track of Duffy’s whereabouts because he travelled often.

“Mike was so busy and so much in demand. ‘Go here, go there do this, do that’ — it was hard to know if he was in Ottawa or PEI.”

Later in the story, McGregor says:

Scharf contends that Duffy, who resigned from Conservative caucus, is being unfairly blamed for what could be clerical mistakes on her part or others in his office.

And he adds that Scharf said:

…  Duffy was the hardest working politician she had served with on the Hill and was even working while he was in Florida in 2012 — a period for which Duffy has admitted he claimed $85 per diems [allegedly] in error.

Not shouldering all the blame

For her part, Scharf, while behaving Christianly, was not prepared to shoulder all the blame. According to McGregor:

Scharf said the Senate finance officials seemed disorganized and would often reject claims they had filed.

“If we were claiming for a period that we shouldn’t have, according to them, why didn’t they say something? They are such a bunch of mixed up people over there … They hire a lot of young girls,” Scharf said. “I just think you have to have your head on your shoulders if you’re handling finances.”

While practicing what might be described as good servant hood, Scharf has been around long enough not to be blindly partisan. McGregor notes that she worked, early in her career, in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s prime ministerial office. Until 2006, when the Conservatives formed government, she was a staffer in Liberal MP offices.

More recently, as she gradually wends her way toward retirement, she has been doing stints setting up the offices of newly appointed senators, including Denise Batters and Betty Unger. And, in her spare time, she volunteers administrative work to the new Ottawa Theological College being set up by the network Anglicans.

And about the housing issue …

McGregor apparently did not question Scharf about the issue of Duffy’s claiming housing allowances in both Prince Edward Island – which he represents in the Senate – and Ottawa.

But Ian Lee’s opinion piece deals with the general issue pretty thoroughly.

He notes:

There are currently two issues at play in this debate over housing allowances. First … who meets the criteria for a Senate appointment and secondly, how senators should be compensated for maintaining two residences. To address these issues, we must review the original foundational rules in the Constitution that govern the appointment of senators.

Lee offers substantive constitutional, legal and fiduciary details to bolster his arguments. He even gets in a light reference to “medieval theologians”, used as a means to maintain that the present residency rules are both arcane and confusing.

He suggests:

The Senate rules should be reformed to recognize the reality that senators must maintain two residences – one in Ottawa and one in the province from which they were appointed (excluding those appointed from Ontario or Quebec who were previously domiciled in the National Capital Region).

Of course, the Senate needs much more reform than just the residency rules. But, for now, those who set and enforce those rules should listen to another Lee observation:

Beyond the remarkable invasiveness that no pundit would support if applied to ordinary Canadians, this rule ignores the physical location of the House of Commons and Senate. Restated, neither the House of Commons nor Senate allow virtual voting or proxy voting. This means that an MP or senator must be in Ottawa to vote. And to be in Ottawa to vote, MPs and senators must live somewhere nearby. In the vernacular, the senator must have a residence.

Actually, the senator must have two residences due to the constitutional requirements.

So, what should be done?

If Ian Lee’s arguments hold water (and I would recommend that all parties involved read his full piece in the Citizen) I would gently suggest four things to ensure that justice prevails:

  • The Senate should return the $91,000 that Duffy paid out on the rather wobbly basis that he might have done something wrong.
  • The Senate board of internal economy do all that it can to help Duffy – and any other senators from provinces other than Ontario or Quebec who might be affected – to fix up their paperwork so perception matches reality.
  • Duffy must obviously return that $91,000 that Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief-of-staff paid him out of his own pocket.
  • Since Wright already had plans to return to the corporate sector, it might be pointless to restore him to the chief-of-staff post. But all must be done to ensure that the public understands that Wright acted in good faith and with a generosity that took him well beyond the call of duty.

Understand: These are my own opinions, advanced without prejudice. I am prepared to suggest that I might not have all the facts. But those that I have, including what relates to a Christian way of doing things, encourage me to say that these relatively small injustices need righting before we get onto the question of real Senate reform.

Kofi Annan and the pluralists

Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan, best known for his 1997-2006 stint as secretary-general of the United Nations, was in Ottawa last Thursday, May 23, to talk about pluralism.

I was interested in hearing him because Canadian Brian Stiller, global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, (headed by another Canadian, Geoff Tunnicliffe) speaks well of the concept of pluralism. Stiller believes thoughtful and outreaching Christians should learn to understand and use pluralism to communicate respectfully and warmly with people and groups that are parts of non-Christian religions. While he does not think that we should back down on our Christian faith, he believes that serious Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others can live and work in close proximity without engaging in constant clashes.

Stiller talks more about this subject in his blog, at, under the topic of Reminding those who debunk pluralism, what it really is.

I will leave it to Stiller to stake out his position with OttawaWatch readers, and proceed to Kofi Annan… and the Aga Khan, under whose patronage Annan was in Ottawa.

The Aga Khan, the very wealthy leader of the Ismaili branch of Islam — generally regarded as that faith’s most liberal and outreaching manifestation, developed, in recent years, the Global Centre for Pluralism and headquartered it in Ottawa. It ultimately will be a $60 million project — one-half sponsored by the federal government, which made the commitment in 2007, shortly after the Conservatives took office. It is to be housed in the former War Museum on Sussex Drive, right behind the National Gallery on the banks of the Ottawa River. Environmental and renovation issues are holding up its redevelopment.

Annan is one of the directors of the Centre, along with 11 others, including Iain Benson, a Baptist-cum-Catholic lawyer best known for having founded the Centre for Cultural Renewal CCR). A couple of years ago, CCR folded in with Cardus to become a formidable Christian (with Reformed/Catholic emphasis) think tank. (You can find it at

You can get the full text of Annan’s speech on the GCFP, at And you can also see video of the Aga Khan’s remarks. As well, there is an a video interview with Annan, conducted by Globe and Mail editor John Stackhouse, an apparent distant relative of a man by the same name who teaches at Regent College.

I will limit my comments on Annan to note that he did an interesting comparison-and-contrast between Kenya after its violent 2007 elections and Syria today. He has been involved in both places, in trying to bring peace. It eventually came, in small measure at least, in Kenya. And he maintains that recognition of pluralism — a respect for religious and ideological diversity — helped pave the way to an eventual power-sharing arrangement. He holds out faint hope for the same thing in Syria, and suggests that collaborative action on the part of the United States and Russia is one of the keys to peace there. The United States needs to put pressure on the fragmented opposition to keep the more radical elements at bay and the Russians must force the regime itself to listen to reason from the outside world, he maintained.

* * *

I will wrap today with an Aga Khan story that ties in to the early 1980s, when I was editor-publisher of Burnaby Today and studying for my MBA at Simon Fraser University.

The Aga Khan was in Burnaby to lay the cornerstone for what ultimately became the Ismaili Jamatkhana on Canada Way. When completed, it was a commodious edifice, every bit as impressive, from the exterior, as Willingdon Church, the evangelical megachurch down the street and around the corner on Willingdon Avenue.

I mention this to make the point that members and leaders of Willingdon Church were accused wrongly and unfairly at the time, of trying to block construction of the the Jamatkhana. The fact was, as I recall, that Willingdon Church, whatever its differences with Islam, welcomed its new neighbours and wished them well, on the appropriate occasions.

At Burnaby Today, my advertising manager was Laila Graham, an Ismaili, who had worked at a Nairobi newspaper where she met her husband, Neil, a Brit ex-pat journalist.

The Aga Khan had spoken appreciatively of Christians during his Burnaby appearance. And Laila commented at the time, that her boss had replied just as diplomatically about Ismailis, in his BT column.

Those were the days. Last Thursday, the Aga Khan was showing his age, leaning heavily on his cane. But he still spoke strongly in voice that reflected a grace, that wherever it came from, made him easy to respect in other parts of the faith spectrum.

Scoping the BC election

It was a late night in the Mackey household in Ottawa yesterday (May 14/15). Somehow, the folk in our home province couldn’t schedule the British Columbia election results to suit their eastern Canadian ex-pats.

But not to complain. The B. C. election results were arguably instructive to folk in other parts of Canada whose provincial and federal party system have an endemic split between the political centre and right.

Second best

You have read it before in this space. British Columbia has the second best kind of democracy available under the Westminster parliamentary system. For 70 years, the centre and right parts of the political spectrum have worked systemically to exercise governance in the province. First it was with the Liberal-Conservative coalition of the 40s. Then came W. A. C. Bennett’s Social Credit, which held power in 1952-72. Mostly under W. A. C.’s son, the centre-right stratagem worked even better from 1975 until the end of the following decade.

The centre-right forces regrouped under the BC Liberals and returned to power in the early 2000s. And, on Tuesday night, they were re-elected unexpectedly, according to the pollsters with an actual increase in seats. (Final results were Liberals, 50, NDP, 33, Independent, 1 and Green, 1. Premier Christy Clark lost her seat, so she and her party will be figuring out a place for her to run soon in a by-election.)

So, despite predictions, the centre-right coalition held and an earlier resurgent Conservative party’s vote virtually collapsed on election night. And the BC Liberals will extend their lease on government to a minimum of 17 years.

What would be best?

Before looking, as I am wont to do, at the faith-political tidbits connected with the B. C. situation, permit me to remind OttawaWatchers what, from this particular perch, would be ideal, if a centre-right coalition is second best. It, too, comes out of British Columbia. I mentioned it a few weeks ago, proposing the:

Convening of citizens’ assemblies to explore, in depth, parliamentary reforms that would diminish the destructive aspects of party discipline. Such an assembly occurred in British Columbia in the early 2000s. Its recommendations, tested in a referendum held in conjunction with the 2005 provincial election, fell just short of approval.

The assembly recommendations, in short, proposed creating fewer and larger multi-member ridings, allowing a fairer mix of party allegiances among the elected members. It was a complex proposal, which is probably why it was not quite ready for voters to try.

Faith-political tidbits

The influence of the Christian faith, from a range of perspectives, has prevailed in B. C. over most of the aforementioned 70 years. Its major influence came from across the mountains in Alberta, from then-premier Ernest Manning who, on the side, was the preacher on Canada’s National Bible Hour. It shaped the BC Social Credit movement under Bennett Senior. A lesser but nevertheless significant influence was on the NDP and its predecessor, the CCF. It came from Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan CCF premier in the 40s and 50s, and an ordained Baptist minister with spellbinding oratorical abilities.

Fast-forwarding to this week: There are a number of people worth watching in the new BC Liberal lineup, not the least of them Premier Clark. In mentioning them, I would note that these are politicians who not only let their faith try to shape them, but do it carefully, so that they do not become known as religious fanatics or bible-thumpers. Although coming mainly from the evangelical and conservative end of the faith spectrum, they have learned to incorporate into their thinking some of the concerns of those who come from more leftward positions.

Another caveat: I have been watching these people for several years, mostly from afar. So my perspective is over the long haul, not necessarily in the more recent months. I make the assumption that they have come to their present positions as part of a political maturing process.

So here goes:

Christy Clark. Clark is known to be a regular Anglican churchgoer who draws strength from worship and fellowship in that setting. Less-known is the fact that she took a couple of years of religious studies earlier in life at the University of Edinburgh, a British equivalent, it is safe to say, to UBC’s Regent College. She gave witness to her faith a few weeks ago at a City in Focus breakfast in Vancouver. Douglas Todd, religion/ethics writer for the Vancouver Sun reported on her talk. His observations can be found by searching his blog, found on the Sun website.

Laurie Throness. Throness, with a Cambridge Phd and a thesis on the history of prison systems, is closely linked to the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. He served several years in Stephen Harper’s research department and was, for a time, an elder in the Ottawa congregation which Harper considers to be his home church. Throness was elected a Liberal MLA in Chilliwack-Hope this past week.

Simon Gibson. Gibson has been a long time city councillor in Abbotsford. His thoughtful faith stances are well-known in the community. He was elected Liberal MLA in one of the Abbotsford ridings.

Peter Fassbender. Long time popular and effective Langley city mayor, Fassbender was elected a Liberal MLA in Surrey-Fleetwood. (Full disclosure: He was my “boss” in the 80s, when I was editor of what became BC Christian News and he was board chair of Christian Info Society, BCCN’s publisher.)

Mary Polak. Polak is a longtime BC Liberal cabinet minister with deep Catholic and moderate social conservative convictions. Her chief claim to faith in this election was that she defeated John Cummins, the BC Conservative leader and an equally-devout Catholic and equally-moderate social conservative.

Marvin Hunt. Hunt is a long city councillor in Surrey, BC’s second largest city. He will move onto the provincial scene, now, as one of the BC Liberal MLAs from Surrey. Before become a de facto full time municipal politician, he was a senior minister at one of Surrey’s largest evangelical churches. Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts relies on Hunt for counsel on matters relating to the faith-political interface.

Chuck Strahl, Stockwell Day, Reed Elley and John Cummins. These four men were supportive of either the BC Liberal or BC Conservative parties, following their longtime involvement as federal Conservative MPs. Strahl, Day and Elley are evangelical Christians and Cummins, as previously mentioned, is devoutly Catholic. Strahl and Day, former senior federal Conservative cabinet ministers, were supportive of the BC Liberals and played advisory roles. (Strahl, it should be noted, had to become more poltically neutral, after being appointed chair of the body that monitors the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS).) Elley, a Baptist minister of some note on Vancouver Island before and since his time in politics, was supportive of the Conservatives and of Cummins.

Adrian Dix. Yes, there is a faith influence there, too. Douglas Todd talked in one of his blogs relating to faith influence on leadership. Dix, the NDP leader, noted that much of his thinking about social justice and other faith-related values came from his late father-in-law, Vasant Saklikar, who was a United Church minister for many years in New Westminster.

This list is far from comprehensive. But the “tidbits” it contains help to provide a setting for some of the things that politics in British Columbia can model for other parts of the country.

And in Saskatchewan

Just to demonstrate that the west coast is not in splendid isolation in these matters, it should be noted that, for many years, the New Democrats reigned in Saskatchewan. The last NDP premier was Lorne Calvert, a United Church minister of the social justice vintage of Tommy Douglas. Brad Wall, a serious Mennonite Brethren Christian built up a centre-right coalition under the Saskatchewan Party label which displaced the NDP in that province in 2007. Wall completed the work started by a former Reform MP, Elwin Hermanson, also a serious evangelical, who had been the founding leader of the Sask Party.

Remembering Bev Shea

George Bevery Shea and Billy Graham

George Beverly (Bev) Shea, who always prefaced Billy Grahams sermons with a simple gospel song, passed away last week at the age of 104.

Shea, more than anyone on the Billy Graham team, had strong and continuing links to Ottawa and its environs. He was born in 1909 in Winchester, a 30 minute drive south of the capital. His father, Adam Joseph Shea, was the minister of Winchester Wesleyan Church, at the time. There were eight children in the Shea family: Bev was the fourth.

Later, during Bevs teen years, the senior Shea and his wife, Maude Mary Theodora, moved into Ottawa itself, where he took over the pastorate of Sunnyside Wesleyan Church, still a strong congregation just a few steps away from Carleton University. Many students including numbers enrolled in the universitys landmark journalism program worship at Sunnyside.

But I digress.

Behind the podium, Shea was both simple and professional. In person, he was friendly, self-effacing, outgoing and a great story teller.

I’d rather have Jesus…

One of his favourite stories recounted how his mother left the words of a poem on the piano, where she knew her son would see it. Shea was at a point in his life where he needed to make some decisions.

The poem began with the words Id rather have Jesus… They had their impact on the young singer. He took them to heart and, later, set the words to music. And, after going to work for Graham, he sang those words thousands of times. They were used to prepare Grahams listeners for the gospel the evangelist wanted to communicate.

For a journalist, Sheas story-telling made him a good interview subject. But, more than that, he was humble and self-effacing. He had a way of making those he was talking with feel better about themselves, because he genuinely was interested in their lives and what they were doing.

An evening in Winchester

The last time Edna and I saw Bev Shea was in the little Wesleyan Church in Winchester, where his father had been the pastor. He was 101 at the time, as I recall, and the town of Winchester had just honoured him by identifying itself as his birthplace. Signs pointing out that fact had been installed beside all roads leading into town.

The little church was packed and crowds poured out onto the lawn and sidewalk outside. A Skype link had been arranged with a Salvation Army band camp in Maine where gospel ‘booming baritone’ Wintley Phipps, a great admirer of Shea, was poised to exchange memories with him.

At the same event, representatives of the RCMP Pensioners Fund presented Shea with an honorary membership.

What was that all about?

When he was a teen, Shea wanted to be a Mountie. He recalled, with a sheepish grin, that he switched his vocational aspirations to gospel singing when he found out that being an RCMP officer might require him to take a first posting in the frigid Arctic.

Upon receiving the Mountie honour, he asked, with a good-natured growl: Where is my red coat?

Family links

Most summers, the Sheas would spend time in West Quebec, where they had a lakeside cottage.

His first wife, Erma Scharfe, was an Ottawa valley girl. She died when he was in his sixties and, a decade later, he married North Carolina native Karlene Aceto.

You dont have to be around Ottawa long to learn that hundreds of Scharfs dot the city and valley. A cousin of Ermas, Diane Scharf, (different spelling, still a relative) has been a leading legislative assistant to Liberal and, later, Conservative parliamentarians for decades. In her spare time, she mentors dozens of younger Hill staffers in the ways of Christian servant leadership.

Other passages

It seems that a number of other passages took place around the same time as Sheas, among them Margaret Thatcher, Al Neuharth and Bob Wright. All three died in their 80s. Here are paragraphs about each:

  • Thatcher, the late prime minister of Great Britain, came from devout Methodist background, a point acknowledged at her Anglican funeral, where the main congregational hymn was Charles Wesleys Love Divine All Loves Excelling. One of her most significant statements regarding her beliefs about the roles of faith and politics were contained in a speech she gave to a Church of Scotland general assembly in 1988. The text of that speech can be found at
  • Neuharth headed the Gannett newspaper chain until 1989 and founded its flagship national daily newspaper, USA Today, in 1982. Some of his research into the feasibility of that newspaper became available to me when I was working on my MBA thesis at Simon Fraser University in the 80s. That thesis, in turn, helped in the decision-making processes in the early years of what became BC Christian News, which published from 1982 to 2011.
  • Wright was the founder and head of Oak Bay Marina, a waterfront tourist magnet in the Victoria suburb of the same name. Before he developed that business, he was a district advisor in the Victoria Times circulation department, where I was a teenage carrier-salesman. In that role, he taught me much about the role of the newspaper and how to put its best face forward. Later, I moved to Vancouver for my first job and education. Returning home one weekend, my father took me to see Wright, who had just taken over Oak Bay Boathouse, a primitive little facility. We sat on apple boxes in his office cubbyhole while he showed us sketches about what he hoped Oak Bay Marina would become. He was a colourful, sometimes controversial community leader and vision-caster. And, because he made his money from the ocean, he contributed $11 million, a few years ago, to the University of Victoria to develop the Bob Wright Centre for Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Some Seismic Shifts in Ottawa

As promised last week, I would like to use OttawaWatch, the next few weeks, to look at some ideas that might be radically conflict-resolving and that might take a few years or even decades to implement.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau

This past weekend

As a result of the political activities of the past weekend we have a new ball game, at least insofar as the two opposition parties are concerned. At their convention, last weekend in Montreal, the New Democrats moved to emphasize social democracy more and democratic socialism less than they have done before.

And Justin Trudeau, at 41, has taken over the reins of the Liberal party.

Both parties show few signs of uniting the left, in a mirror image of what happened in the Conservatives almost a decade ago. That was when the five or six different streams of conservative policy came together under Stephen Harper, with a little help from Peter MacKay.

So, in the run up to the 2015 federal election, it is likely that the struggle will be twofold. On one hand, the Mulcair NDPers and Trudeau Liberals will duke it out for control of the ‘Laurentian elites.’ On the other, the Conservatives will continue to broaden their base both centreward and rightward.

The Big Shift

They hope to build on the ‘The Big Shift,’ which was outlined in some detail earlier this year by Globe & Mail columnist John Ibbitson and pollster Darrell Bricker, in a book by the same name.

That tome suggests influence in Canada has shifted from those aforementioned Laurentian elites, so named for that belt of rocky hills and lakes that became the Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal axis. Ibbitson and Bricker acknowledge that it was around this axis that the nation was built, but point out that the influence in the last few decades has been toward the growing west and the large immigrant populations settling both there and in the suburbs of Toronto.

There is much more to this discussion, of course, and a look at The Big Shift will help to bring some focus to the complexities of these fairly seismic changes.

But the radical conflict resolution discussion I would like to encourage among OttawaWatch readers goes well beyond the effect of these seismic shifts.

One sidelight in Ibbitson’s and Bricker’s thinking that might hint at the hesitancy on the part of the Liberals to simply move in with the NDP is the existence of what they call the ‘John Manley Liberals’ those in that party who would sooner co-exist with the centre-right than with the centre-left.

The adversarial arena

The aforementioned seismic conditions go to the issue of the adversarial political arena that the shifts tend to amplify, rather than reduce.

Simply put, the job of the government is to govern and ensure that its governance is understood. The job of the opposition is to oppose and to ensure that voters know it is a government-in-waiting. Throughout 45 years of observing this setup, I have often tried to concoct scenarios that would enable people charged with governance and opposition to find ways to conciliate and collaborate.

The respective roles of government and opposition get complicated, however, when conflict-creating objectives almost hijack the debate or discussion process.

Safe discussions

My thesis, at this point somewhat oversimplified, is to encourage quiet, safe discussions in places that bring together the antagonists and their ‘handlers,’ to talk about the conflicts in ways that diffuse harm and engender understanding. It may be that doing this as a way of life might take a generation or two, just as it took about 40 years for William Wilberforce to end the British slave trade in the early 19th century.

And it may be, as well, that we are looking beyond the present political leaders to change the ways in which politics and governance can be done. ‘Radical’ innovations can be discussed in the kinds of safe places that are being proposed.

They could include such things as:

  • Increasing use of early mediation to shortcut disruptive advocacy ‘theatre’ in the parliamentary arena.
  • Convening of citizens’ assemblies to explore, in depth, parliamentary reforms that would diminish the destructive aspects of party discipline. Such an assembly occurred in British Columbia in the early 2000s. Its recommendations, tested in a referendum held in conjunction with the 2005 provincial election, fell just short of approval.

Bridging the divide

All of which brings us to something that is happening soon, in Montreal, that could start to encourage the kind of discussion to which I am referring.

Dubbed Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse, this McGill University event will take place May 27 and 28. It will bring together several Canadian leaders and thinkers who are involved in faith-political discourse. Included are such people as:

  • Mark Adler: Conservative MP and co-chair of the All-Party Interfaith Fellowship.
  • Andrew Bennett: Ambassador of Religious Freedom, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
  • Janet Epp Buckingham: Director, Laurentian Leadership Centre of Trinity Western University.
  • Bill Blaikie: Former NDP federal deputy leader and director of The Knowles-Woodsworth Centre for Theology and Public Policy.
  • Wes McLeod: Former director of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy’s Navigating the Faith-Political Interface initiative.
  • Lori Ransom: Senior advisor for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
  • Joe Comartin: NDP MP and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons.
  • John McKay: Liberal MP and former National Prayer Breakfast Chair.
  • Lorna Dueck: Host of Context with Lorna Dueck television documentary feature show.

These are the names that I believe might be most familiar to OttawaWatch readers. They will be interacting with others from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, native spirituality, Baha’i, Buddhist and Sikh backgrounds, all of whom have experience in interfacing with thinkers, communicators and policy-makers in other traditions than their own.

This next paragraph is taken from the description of the McGill conference, which is available at

This conference will explore the role of religion in Canada’s public discourse, in terms of both thought and action. To many observers it appears that our national discourse is increasingly polarized and the civility of democratic deliberation is eroding. Fundamentalisms of many stripes ideological, religious and secular can drown out the more moderate and considered voices. Within this context, how should perspectives that draw from religion inform the national conversation? How do we judge the legitimate and illegitimate role of religion in our public discourse? How can engagement by religious voices make positive contributions to our pursuit of the common good for all Canadians? Where does responsibility rest for changing the current state of affairs? These are questions that call for reflection on both values and practice, as we explore together how to bridge the secular divide.

In case the point is missed, my reason for including this information in a column about reducing political tensions is that frequently religion or faith is seen as both a divisive and a reconciling factor in public affairs. I hope this might be seen as one way of highlighting faith’s reconciling effect.

The role of pluralism

And, one last point: for those who believe that too much inter-faith or inter-ideology talk is to be avoided, I would recommend a reading of Canadian Brian Stiller’s recent blog on an understanding of pluralism, available at The blog is entitled Reminding those who debunk pluralism: What it really is.

Stiller is currently global ambassador for the World Evangelical Fellowship, a role he took on after years as president, first, of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, then of Tyndale University College and Seminary.

Wilberforce revisited – a conflict resolution study

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

The faith-political approach of British politician William Wilberforce –- who fought the British slave trade in the early 1800s -– might have a 21st century counterpart in Langley MP Mark Warawa.

Vancouver Sun Ottawa reporter Peter O’Neil figured that out when he wrote a March 28 story which suggested Warawa was an unlikely candidate to buck the prime minister’s alleged “iron rule.”

O’Neil saved the good stuff for the last few paragraphs. There he reports on some comments from Tim McCarthy, one of Warawa’s pastors at North Langley Community Church, where the MP and his wife, Diane, attend.

Notes O’Neil:

“I think he’s taking a very courageous stand,” McCarthy said, comparing Warawa’s position to that of English politician William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian who battled slavery in the early 1800s.

While he has his doubts the anti-abortion movement is close to a breakthrough in Canada, which has been without a law on abortion since a 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, he said Warawa’s battle is worth fighting.

“Even if nothing were to change, my perspective is that we’re not only accountable to history or even to constituents. We’re accountable to God and to doing the right thing.

“Knowing where Mark stands on his faith, and I don’t mean this in the abortion sense but in the integrity sense, if you are given these convictions you have to live with yourself and your relationship with God, according to the choices that you make.”

Warawa’s recent actions have zeroed in specifically on gender-selection abortion, practiced in some cultures because of the inclination of parents to favour male progeny.

He was asked to stand down on giving a member’s statement on the subject in the House of Commons. As well, his Motion 408 on the same subject was ruled ‘non-votable’ by the House parliamentary procedure committee.

Much media coverage has attempted to create a rift between the prime minister’s office on one hand and Warawa and other social conservatives on the other. That contention is based on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s promise, in the 2011 election, not to allow the abortion debate to be returned to the public arena.

From this ‘perch,’ O’Neil’s Wilberforce reference is a fairer assessment, because it tends to play down a governing party’s internecine struggle.

I agree that Warawa is in this for the long run. So he must keep a balance between the need to speak his conscience and his constituents’ wishes on one hand, and the need to understand that debate on the subject can be shrill at the best of times and ferocious at the worst.

It is instructive to note that Harper does not try to ban discussion on abortion. Rather, he tries to keep in check the kind of debate that would turn the House into more of a bear pit than it already is.

In fact, late last week, a joint PMO-Conservative caucus statement announced that a sub-committee would be formed to keep the peace while giving members the free reign they need.

The difference between discussion and debate is essential to understanding what is happening here.

Saint Paul: Reg Bibby

The other two items for this week’s OttawaWatch involve St. Paul University, a Catholic institution a few blocks from Parliament Hill, on the banks of the Rideau River.

Last Thursday, Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist who specializes in analysis of Canadian religious trends, was at St. Paul to talk about what he dubbed “the resilience and restructuring of religion in Canada.”

Speaking mainly to Catholics in the crowd, Bibby noted that Catholics and evangelicals are benefiting from immigration trends in Canada, while mainstream Protestants are not.

Much of the material in the lecture is contained in A New Day: The Resilience & Restructuring of Religion in Canada, a slim volume that he says is more optimistic – and realistic – than some of his earlier studies ( Readers wanting to get a complimentary e-copy can go to

Saint Paul: Dispute Resolution

Two evenings later, I returned to St. Paul with Edna, to attend the 25th anniversary gala of the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution (), a group that specializes, among other things, in short term courses and workshops in Third Party Neutral (TPN) and Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR).

CICR was founded by St. Paul, with a fair amount of initiative from Vern Neufeld Redekop, a Mennonite who heads the university’s conflict studies program. The CICR director for the past several years is Brian Strom, a Nazarene by persuasion and a western-rooted son of a former Alberta premier, the late Harry Strom.
Faith-based conflict resolution

There was a method in my selection process for today’s piece. There is much going on in Christian circles these days – especially among Catholics, Mennonites and evangelicals -– that relates to getting serious about conflict study, management and resolution. And it is mostly quite biblical, as well as being sociologically and psychologically healthy.

There is more that is common in relating the lead item to the other two. (Hint: North Langley Community Church is a Mennonite Brethren congregation.)
Stay tuned. You may find in the next few weeks that your humble scribe will offer some interesting prescriptions for parliamentary and societal reform in Canada, based on faith-based conflict resolution concepts. And maybe some comments on how the late Margaret Thatcher fits into all this.

OttawaWatch: Somebody’s place in Ottawa

Canadian Parliament Buildings Ottawa

From my perch, here in Ottawa, one can catch a glimpse of something new emerging in the field of faith-political interfacing. Its working name is “My Place-Chez Moi.”

It may well be Ottawa’s best-kept secret and not because its encouragers are trying to keep it under wraps. Rather, it is because those giving leadership to the idea are trying to lay their groundwork carefully, so that it can emerge into usefulness sometime between now and Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017

Perhaps the best way to introduce the idea to OttawaWatch readers is to link you to Have a look at it. I am certain some readers will say: “This is an idea whose time has come!” Others will scratch their heads.

The catalyst for My Place-Chez Moi is Wes McLeod, who has served quietly over the past two decades as parliamentary assistant to several MPs. Among them were the first ever Reform MP Deb Grey and former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl. After they both departed the political scene, he directed the Manning Centre for Building Democracy’s Navigating the Faith-Political Interface initiative. Under those auspices, he set up several successful events, across Canada that, among them, brought together hundreds of people to explore that complex issue.

Out of that and several other networking activities that brought together an eclectic range of mostly Christian believers, My Place-Chez Moi began to germinate.

Much of the work done so far has been in the form of brainstorming. Pretty soon, I would guess, some structure will start to form up.

Even without formal structure, MP-CM recently pulled together a series of breakfasts near The Hill, dedicated to providing training in governance and vision for leaders of small faith-based ministries and groups. The commonality of these groups is that they need to interact from time to time with the body politic, in order to do good things to meet human need.

What they do grows out of their Christian commitment. The challenge, on one hand, is to identify how what they have can best be adapted to meet those needs and, on the other, how they can form partnerships with others to bring the necessary resources to bear.

McLeod, in planning the breakfasts, as well as looking ahead to what MP-CM might become, works with a list of over 100 Christian ministries and groups whose leaders have one reason or another to be in touch with Ottawa politicians and bureaucrats. (Full disclosure: This list originated about six years ago, from rudimentary research done by your humble scribe. At that time, there were just over 30 names in the line-up including such familiar organizations as Mennonite Central Committee, Salvation Army, World Vision and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.)

From this perspective, the genius of MP-CM will be to bring together from across Canada, across denominational structures and across generations, informed and well-prepared people. The need to develop such partnerships and leaderships rests in the fact that the human needs they can meet are, as it stands, much greater than they have capacity to provide.

Sometimes, around this place, I have heard the expression that Christians become “so heavenly minded they are of little earthly good.” Over against this is the emergence of what is sometimes call “social enterprise”. That expression defines the task of meeting needs from the motivation and actions of community, corporate and faith-based enterprises. It creates an opportunity for Christians to enhance the “earthly good” side of the equation.

I would encourage readers to keep an eye on My Place-Chez Moi, and will do what I can from time to time to highlight its progress.

Trinity Western University’s law school and the battle over free thinking

Trinity Western University

Trinity Western University

It is clear that the debate over Trinity Western University’s proposal for a law school is no longer a debate over homosexuality and religious freedom, but a debate over intellectual competency.

Take the recent article in the National Post from legal scholars who oppose TWU’s proposal for a law school as an example. While arguing for increased Chartered protection for gays and lesbians, they are also very clear in stating that the real issue is TWU’s ability to teach law:

“The crux of the issue is how the discrimination and institutional environment at TWU impacts the ability of the school to teach law. In order to permit entry into a provincial or territorial law society (as determined by the Federation), the law degree program must meet national standards in its curriculum. Those standards require critical thinking about ethical and legal issues. No person can truly think critically from one pre-determined lens, in this case, a lens mandated by TWU.”

Furthermore, look at how Don Dutton, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, responds to not only TWU’s proposal for a law school, but its status as a university in a letter to the National Post:

“[TWU] should not only not have a law school — it should not be called a university. Universities in Western tradition support free inquiry. Hence, at a university one could study archaeology and learn, through carbon dating, about human hunter gatherers or early settlements that predate the Christian view in Genesis. One could study anthropology and learn of myriad religious beliefs or study social psychology and learn that these other belief systems had as much grounding in empirical evidence as has Christianity — none. A school that demands faculty believe a certain dogmatic way is incompatible with free inquiry. Not a law school, not a university.”

The ironic part about this whole debate is that opponents of a TWU law school end up appearing much more narrow-sighted in their dogmatic beliefs than TWU’s religious beliefs ever did.

The opponents of TWU argue that a law school should not be “hindered” by religious beliefs that are, in their estimation, merely dogmatic beliefs that cannot be supported on neutral, or as Dutton said, empirical grounds. My question, and the question that many have asked, “is where is the neutral or empirical ground that everyone keeps referring to?” I haven’t found it, and I don’t believe the people who claim to stand on such ground have either.

John Carpay, a Calgary lawyer and President of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, argued in the Vancouver Sun that this neutral ground that Dean Flanagan and other opponents claim to stand on is actually a “government-enforced ideology” that is the opposite of a free society. A free society, Carpay argues, is one that,

“protects atheists and agnostics from government coercion as much as it protects theists. To insist that all law schools (or other institutions) must subscribe to a particular set of beliefs about sexual behaviour threatens the freedom of everyone — including Flanagan’s freedom.”

Similarly, Barbara Kay points out that we can’t find this neutral ground because it simply doesn’t exist. Religious beliefs function in the same way as a secular beliefs – namely, that they do not discourage free-thinking or free inquiry because they is no neutral ground on which such thinking can take place. She says,

“If what these legal scholars say were true – if a “pre-determined lens” actually shuts down the ability to think critically, and that is the rationale for disallowing TWU’s law school – then by the same logic, pretty well every law school in Canada should be closed.”

Identifying our pre-determined lens is half the battle in pursuing free inquiry and free thought. To not even acknowledge that you have a pre-determined lens – whether it is biblical or not – is to be an unwitting slave to that worldview, and an unwitting slave is certainly not the model for free inquiry and intellectual competency.

This is why, as Barbara Kay quipped, “I am betting TWU students will be taught the actual law more objectively than many other schools in Canada.”

Opposition to Trinity Western Law School because of anti-homosexual rules


Janet Epp-Buckingham

As reported in the Vancouver Sun, the Council of Canadian Law Deans oppose Trinity Western University’s (TWU) proposal for the country’s first religious law school because of the university’s long-standing requirement that faculty and students abstain from homosexual relationships.

According to Trinity Western community covenant, any sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman could lead to disciplinary measures that include expulsion.

Bill Flanagan, president of the Canadian Council of Law Deans, considers this a “matter of great concern” because “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unlawful in Canada and fundamentally at odds with the core values of all Canadian law schools.”

According to Douglas Todd at the Vancouver Sun, Jonathan Raymond, President of TWU, responded to Flanagan’s concerns in a Nov. 29th letter in which Raymond said that forbidding homosexual relationships and sex outside marriage is “consistent with federal and provincial law.” Raymond noted the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2001 which stated that a religious school can be exempt from indictment for homosexual discrimination.

Attention regarding TWU’s position on homosexual relationships will no doubt increase scrutiny in other areas for this evangelical Christian university. Flanagan even questioned whether TWU fosters real intellectual freedom because the faculty are required to agree to particular Bible-based standards instead of open inquiry.

Janet Epp-Buckingham, associate professor at TWU and one of the leaders in developing the law school proposal, remains positive that TWU will eventually receive accreditation for a law school.

In a previous article for this site that detailed the motivation for establishing a Christian law school at TWU, Epp-Buckingham explained that faith is often and unhelpfully left out of the classroom. Students of faith are often advised by Christian lawyers to “keep your head down and your mouth shut” when entering secular law schools because if you do otherwise, as evidenced here, the powers that be will not be pleased.

How TWU and the Council of Canadian Law Deans move forward on this issue in the coming months will be a good indicator of the current role of religion in the Canadian public sphere. A conversation that is certainly worth following.