The federal government has announced that it is terminating the contracts of part-time chaplains in Canada’s federal penitentiaries. Full-time prison staff — who are overwhelmingly Christian — will now take over the responsibility of providing religious services to inmates, regardless of their faith.
The announcement of these cuts should hardly come as a surprise in light of the government’s pattern of pursuing cuts wherever they may be found and regardless of their prejudicial consequences for minority communities.
However, the government’s disregard for the principles of religious freedom and equality before the law — values enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — is as inexplicable as it is unacceptable. Simply put, this move will have an adverse effect on the rehabilitation and reintegration of Canadian inmates and will infringe Charter rights, while at the same time contradicting the government’s own agenda of religious freedom.
With respect to the rehabilitation of offenders, it is clear that access to services and guidance of a religious character is essential. Regrettably, the government has demonstrated, yet again, that it is primarily concerned with the punitive aspects of the criminal-justice system, ignoring that those who are incarcerated will eventually be released and need assistance in their integration back into society.
Moreover, the denial of such services raises questions of respect for freedom of conscience and religion — as enshrined in Section 2 of the Charter — as well as the principle of equality before the law, guaranteed by Section 15. Section 15(1) expressly provides that every Canadian has the “right to equality before the law and to equal protection of the law without discrimination because of … religion.” The minister’s decision to cut funding to part-time non-Christian chaplains, while maintaining a full-time chaplaincy that is almost exclusively of the Christian faith, invites scrutiny.
The parliamentary secretary to the minister for public safety offered a tepid defence of the cuts during Question Period, on the grounds that voluntary services will still be available to non-Christian prisoners on a by-request basis, and that Christian chaplains will be able to provide spiritual counsel to the general population. Yet a full-time chaplaincy consisting of primarily Christian clergy will deny non-Christian inmates guaranteed access to religious guidance from a clergyperson of their denomination. This type of picking and choosing does not accord with Section 15’s equality guarantee — nor is it clear what will occur when voluntary chaplains of a particular faith are unavailable.
Furthermore, Section 2 of the Charter enshrines “freedom of conscience and religion” as “fundamental freedoms” that belong to all Canadians (which former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Brian Dickson termed the “firstness” of our freedoms) and that form a core Canadian value. By denying guaranteed access and declining to find chaplains of the inmate’s faith, the government is infringing upon this critical protection.
This government, to its credit, has emphasized the importance of preserving and upholding religious freedom abroad, with Foreign Minister John Baird stressing that “when you have religious freedom, other freedoms follow.”
Yet the promotion of religious freedom abroad is not being reflected in domestic policy decisions, such as the cutting of contracts for non-Christian prison chaplains. Why is the government promoting the right to one’s religion in the context of Canadian foreign policy while breaching that very right for non-Christian inmates in Canadian prisons as a matter of domestic policy?
When asked about this in the House of Commons, the parliamentary secretary referenced the chaplaincy service of the armed forces. But members of our armed forces serve voluntarily and have the ability to return to their communities during their tenure. Canadian inmates do not have this luxury. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that their fundamental Charter right to freely practise their religion is provided to them at the place of their incarceration. Such services must be provided without discrimination and without privileging certain faiths over others.
The government would do well to reverse this discriminatory and unnecessary decision, uphold the values of religion, conscience and equality as enshrined in our Charter, and take concrete measures to ensure that freedom of religion is not just a phrase bandied about abroad, but something that is respected, implemented and affirmed here at home.
Irwin Cotler is the federal Liberal Party’s justice and human-rights critic and MP for Mount Royal riding. He is a former federal justice minister and attorney-general, and a professor of law (emeritus) at McGill University.