How respectful and inclusive will Canada be of different belief systems?
BRUCE J. CLEMENGER
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at www.TheEFC.ca/Donate or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.
Judaism, Islam, evangelical Protestantism, the Catholic Church and the ideology of human rights. These are what French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls the five great spiritual masses or forces within Western society.
In January I was one of 90 Canadian faith leaders representing those first four forces who came together to object to a new federal government requirement that pushes a narrow interpretation of the fifth force (human rights).
The issue was an attestation required this year for Canada Summer Jobs grants, normally a well-received program supporting a wide range of groups including 1,300 evangelical churches, camps and ministries. In 2016 those evangelical groups received grants for 3,500 of the roughly 70,000 summer jobs supported by the program per year.
The new attestation sets a bad precedent of withholding a government benefit from groups that don’t pass what is in effect a values test. This is widely opposed, not only by religious organizations but also by many national columnists and editorial boards.
The attestation states, "Both the job and my organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedomsas well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression."
Much of the public discussion was on the inclusion of reproductive rights, and many noted the Supreme Court never decided there is a right to abortion in Canada. Just because something is not illegal doesn’t mean it is a right. It’s more accurate to say we are in a legal vacuum due to a lack of political will to legislate.
But there’s another troubling aspect of the attestation – the phrases "underlying values" as well as "other rights." What are these values and other rights to which we are being asked to attest? Where are they listed? Who decides which values and rights are on the list?
Increasingly the Charter, though it is constitutionally a limitation on the power and reach of government, is being held up as a defining feature of Canadian society in a way the British North America Act, 1867 was not. What was meant to be a shield protecting us from government over-reach can become a sword imposing values and shaping Canadian identity.
"Charter values" are being increasingly referenced by lawyers and judges to ascertain the meaning of phrases cited in the Charter but for which the Charter offers no definitions or explanations.
Section 7 speaks of "life, liberty and security of the person," but does not say what these mean. Section 1 allows freedoms and rights to be abridged if doing so is "reasonably justifiable in a free and democratic society." How do courts decide what is justifiable, and determine what is free and democratic?
The standard interpretation of the Charter is that no freedom or right is given primacy or priority in the Charter, but then by what standards do judges balance competing freedoms and rights?
The Charter does not self-interpret, evidenced by the number of times panels of judges have not been unanimous in their interpretation of it. Since judges accept that Charter interpretation is a "living tree" which grows over time, what is the standard by which the growth is determined?
What are the norms and principles which guide the interpretation? What are the beliefs, affirmations, doctrines, philosophy, ideology or combination of all these that guide the application of the Charter? These are crucial questions when the Charter is held forth as the definer of what it means to be Canadian.
Will the interpretative framework used to interpret the Charter be informed by the various traditions that make up our society? Or will one tradition become privileged and determinative?
Historically our government sought to be non-sectarian. It avoided championing one group’s set of values. This is what it meant for government to be secular.
The objection to the attestation by leaders from various religious communities was a protest of the government becoming sectarian in providing a public benefit.
In a pluralist society the principles that guide deliberation and action in the public square, that inspire governments and shape the collective understanding of justice and fairness, should not be imposed. Rather, they should be rooted in the philosophies and faith traditions of those who contribute to the public good.
As Christians our task is to encourage this conversation and participate, bringing to the debate through our words and actions a constructive application of the teachings and principles of Scripture. This witness is our contribution to the dialogue about what dignity, freedom, equality and justice mean.