Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News

Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News

Deborah Waters Gyapong has been a journalist and novelist for more than 20 years. She has worked in print, radio and television, including 12 years as a producer for CBC TV's news and current affairs programming. She currently covers religion and politics primarily for Catholic and Evangelical newspapers.

OTTAWA - Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth told journalists Sept. 17 his Motion 312 is not about abortion but whether Canada has lost its consensus on inalienable human rights and honest laws.

Woodworth admitted his private member’s motion has little chance of passing when it comes to a final vote Sept. 26 because the Prime Minister and chief government whip are on record that they will not support it because of promises they’ve made not to reopen the abortion debate.

On the opening day of the fall session of Parliament, Woodworth said Motion 312 “has much more important consequences than the abortion issue.” At stake is whether Canada has lost a consensus that the dignity and worth of every human being must be recognized, that rights are inalienable rather than granted by the government, that rights cannot be taken away through laws that deny basic human rights to a class of people by dehumanizing them and that laws must be honest, he said.

Motion 312 would strike a parliamentary committee to examine the 400-year-old definition of a human being in the Criminal Code’s homicide section concerning unborn children. For the purposes of the law, an unborn child is not a person with human rights until he or she leaves the birth canal. The committee would investigate whether this definition holds up in light of scientific evidence.

His motion specifically states the findings of the committee could not go against any Supreme Court of Canada decisions or the Constitution when it comes to women’s rights, he said.

Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson, who wrote the Morgentaler decision, was concerned about the rights of the unborn in later stages of pregnancy and left it open for Parliament to craft a law protecting them, and the courts have not closed the issue, he stressed.

Woodworth explained the motion, if passed, could undertake an investigation that may or may not settle the issue of when an unborn child is a human being.

“Even settling the issue of when a child should be a human being will not settle the issue of abortion,” he said.

Woodworth said one of the options of the committee could be to decide an unborn child is not a human being. His motion, however, is about universal human rights and he hoped the second hour of debate Sept. 21 would bring out that aspect.

Woodworth said he has been accused of “wanting to back to the Middle Ages,” or of opening issues that were settled by the courts. Opponents never talk about what his motion actually says, Woodworth said. No one has disagreed with the suggestion that unborn children might be human beings before birth.

“The first distraction is to talk about me, my character, my motives,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people have written their MPs in support of the motion, he said. And on Sept. 18, about 60 mainly religious and pro-life groups signed and sent a declaration in support of the motion to MPs. Among the 60 groups to sign “The Declaration of Support for Parliamentary Study of Canada’s Legal Definition of ‘Human Being’ ” were the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, the Knights of Columbus, REAL Women Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and various evangelical churches.

After the news conference, journalists scrummed NDP Justice Critic Francoise Boivin who said the debate on abortion is closed. She pointed out Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken the same view and Canadians have reached a consensus. The legal definition of a human being sees the pregnant woman as one person, not two, for the purposes of the law.

Surveys have consistently shown about two-thirds of Canadians would like some law restricting abortion.

The days may be numbered for union support of contentious political causes, something the Catholic Civil Rights League has been working towards for years.

While the league has been concerned about union support for same-sex marriage and other issues in opposition to Catholic teaching, the tipping point for political change may be the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s (PSAC) recent support for separatist candidates in the Sept. 4 Quebec election.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to the transport minister, promised to urge his cabinet colleagues bring in legislation that would allow employees to opt out of paying union dues.

“I cannot imagine how it could possibly be in the interests of a Canadian public servant for the union to back a separatist party,” Poilievre told the Globe and Mail. “And yet that is precisely what PSAC has done.”

The rights league became involved in the union dues issue back in 2004 when it fought for the rights of Catholic PSAC member Susan Comstock to have part of her $800 yearly mandatory dues diverted to charity because the union campaigned for same-sex marriage, contrary to her religious beliefs.

“We’ve always thought that, with good reason, union members should be able to put their request in writing so a portion of mandatory dues could be diverted to charity,” said league executive director Joanne McGarry. “The ability to opt out of the union is another possibility.”

At issue is “the ability of union members to have a say in how their money is spent so they don’t have to fund something they find morally repugnant,” she said.

Industry Canada employee Dave MacDonald, a former PSAC local president who represented Comstock in her grievance process, said the changes Poilievre proposes are “important because the PSAC, among others, have ceased to be an organization focused on improving workers’ rights and become a political organization.”

“As a Catholic, I am offended that my union dues are used to fund court challenges on abortion and same-sex marriage, gay pride parades and similar causes which have no correlation to the workplace,” he said. “Moreover, the Comstock case showed the extent to which the leadership in the PSAC was hostile to their own members who did not endorse their extreme political agenda.”

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) built a war chest for Premier Dalton McGuinty, despite religious freedom concerns raised by the Ontario bishops and Catholic school trustees about the Ontario government’s policies that would impose Gay-Straight Alliances on Catholic schools. McGarry said she encountered Catholic teachers who insisted OECTA did not represent their point of view.

“I’m sorry, but they do,” she said. “That’s your money; they do represent you.”

Legislation is not the only way to make change, she said. She urged union members to become involved in the running of their unions so they have a say on policies. But McGarry stressed the importance of religious freedom and conscientious objection.  

“If someone’s in a position where union membership is a condition of employment, they should be able, for serious reasons, to divert their dues.”

MacDonald, who has a private immigration law practice outside his work for government, is concerned Poilievre’s proposals might end unions if everyone is able to opt out of paying dues altogether.

“I believe a good compromise, and one that I believe the Church agrees with, is to keep unions in line with the rights of charities (including churches) regarding political activities,” he said. “That is, they should be able to do some political activities providing they are related to the stated objectives of a labour union.”

Lobbying government on job security, wages, health and safety would be okay, as would communicating messages on these issues to members, he said.

MacDonald said reform would be welcomed by the vast majority of members because it would make “a union that was interested in protecting worker’s rights rather than espousing political viewpoints that are not shared by the majority of its members.”

Union leaders have reacted angrily against Poilievre’s proposal, with Canadian Labour Congress Leader Ken Georgetti accusing the Conservative government of trying to silence its critics.

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Russ Hiebert’s private member’s bill C-377 that would bring more accountability to how union dues are spent passed second reading last March and is now before the House of Commons finance committee.

OTTAWA- A letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to Pakistan's High Commissioner is among many interventions being cited for the release from prison of a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy.

International Christian Voice (ICV) chairman Peter Bhatti credits the bishops' letter, among other signs of international support, for the release of Rimsha Masih on bail Sept. 7. The 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome was imprisoned Aug. 16 after being accused of burning a Quran. Since her arrest, a Muslim cleric was detained Sept. 2 on suspicion of fabricating evidence against Masih.

"She just came out from bail," said Bhatti, the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, the assassinated former Minorities Minister and first Christian in the Pakistan government's cabinet. "Her case is not finished yet, and we're not sure how long it will go."

In the meantime, she and her family continue to need protection from extremists who have threatened to burn the family alive and also threatened her 1,500-member Christian community, most of whom have gone into hiding, he said.
"I would like to thank the Canadian Catholic bishops' conference for intervening in this issue," Bhatti said.

The CCCB's human rights committee chairman sent a letter Aug. 31 to the High Commissioner of Pakistan expressing concern for Masih.

"This serious situation has prompted the President of Pakistan, His Excellency Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, to call for an investigation," wrote Bishop Francois Lapierre to High Commissioner Mian Gul Akbar Zeb. "We welcome this gesture, given the circumstances not only of the girl herself but also of Pakistan's religious minorities, including Christians, who are regularly the target of fundamentalist groups, in particular regarding anti-blasphemy laws.

"This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption by all States in 1992 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons from National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities," Lapierre wrote on behalf of the human rights committee. "In view of this declaration and the initiative of the president of Pakistan, we ask your government to take the necessary measures to find a solution that ensures this girl's freedom, peace and security."

A copy of the letter was sent to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who has also publicly expressed concern for the girl's plight as well as those of others targeted through the blasphemy laws.

Bhatti said he was thankful for the interventions not only of the bishops and Baird, but also Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and many other Members of Parliament who have continued to put pressure on Pakistan to repeal its draconian blasphemy laws.

Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws and now his brother Paul Bhatti, an eye surgeon, has been serving as National Harmony Minister in Pakistan's government as well as chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, which put up the bail for Masih.

ICV is holding a fundraiser in Toronto Sept. 14 to raise money for Masih, her family and members of their community. For information e-mail

OTTAWA - Fr. Joe LeClair, a popular Ottawa priest who has been charged with theft, fraud and breach of trust, had his first court appearance postponed until Oct. 17 after one of his lawyers asked for more time to examine the evidence.

Defense counsel had only received disclosure of evidence in the previous week and also wished for pre-trial consultations with the crown, the lawyer told the court on Sept. 5. LeClair was not present.

LeClair was charged July 3 with one count each of theft, fraud, criminal breach of trust and laundering the proceeds of crime after a lengthy Ottawa Police Organized Fraud investigation that was launched more than a year ago following a complaint from the archdiocese of Ottawa about missing funds from Ottawa's Blessed Sacrament parish.

Over a review period from January 2006 to May 2011, police found $240,000 in parish cheques were misappropriated and $160,000 in cash that was not accounted for.

LeClair, who has served in the Ottawa archdiocese for 25 years, was largely credited with the revival of Blessed Sacrament parish in the Glebe neighbourhood. In the spring of 2011, he admitted to a gambling addiction after the Ottawa Citizen ran a series of articles revealing huge credit card debts and cash advances. The priest denied ever misusing parish funds to feed his gambling habit.

The archdiocese of Ottawa asked for a forensic audit around the same time the newspaper began its reports. After the audit was completed, the archdiocese filed the complaint.

OTTAWA - The family and community of an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was arrested under Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws face threats of mob violence and burning, warns International Christian Voice (ICV).

ICV founder and chairman Peter Bhatti said Rimsha Masih's family and much of her 1,500-strong Christian community is in hiding because extremists have said that because the girl burned pages of the Koran her whole family must be burned.

"We request that the rest of the Muslim community come forward to help the Christians of Pakistan," Bhatti said. He also appealed for financial assistance for the displaced families.

Bhatti is the older brother of Pakistan's assassinated Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the first Christian to hold a cabinet post in the Pakistan government. He was the second prominent political leader in Pakistan to be assassinated by extremists after publicly speaking against the blasphemy laws. His brother, Dr. Paul Bhatti, is now acting as an advisor to the Pakistan government on religious minorities.

Shahbaz Bhatti was ambushed by gunmen on March 2, 2011, only two months after the slaying of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.

Masih was charged under the blasphemy laws and put in jail, a move that drew condemnation from Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

"I am deeply troubled by reports that a young girl with developmental disabilities has been arrested for alleged blasphemy in Pakistan and that her family faces threats of violence," Baird said in a statement. "Canada is concerned about the safety of the girl, her family and their community. We have learned that local religious leaders are working together with authorities to calm the situation.

"We urge Pakistan's political and religious leaders to continue to co-operate to protect the family and community," he said. "Canada strongly condemns any act of religious persecution. We urge Pakistan's government to ensure equal rights for all Pakistanis, including members of minority communities."

ICV, founded to provide support for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, is holding a fundraising dinner Sept. 14 to raise money for the persecuted community.

Bhatti also expressed alarm over the brutal slaying of a 14-year-old Christian orphan from Faisalabad, a city 255 km south of Islamabad. Suneel Masih's mutilated body was discovered Aug. 21 with his nose, ears and tongue removed and acid splashed on what remained of his face. His limbs had been pulled off. Internal organs, including his liver and kidneys were also removed. The boy had gone into a local market to buy a shirt when he disappeared.

Christians are not the only vulnerable minority in Pakistan. Hindus and some Muslim groups outside the mainstream are also targeted, according to news reports.

OTTAWA - A religious freedom expert warns the Parti Quebecois leader's proposed Charter of Secularism should the PQ win Quebec's provincial election Sept. 4 would violate the Charter and push many religious believers out of public service.

"Religions in Quebec have rights and one of these rights is not to be forced out of the public sphere by the beliefs of atheism and agnosticism dominating the public," said Iain Benson, a constitutional lawyer and international religious freedom expert.

Benson said he was "startled" by PQ Leader Pauline Marois' proposed Charter of Secularism that would prohibit government employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, kirpans (ceremonial daggers required by baptized Sikhs), turbans and kippahs (or yarmulke, the skullcap worn by Jewish men). It would allow the wearing of an unobtrusive crucifix. Marois' Charter later clarified the crucifix in the National Assembly could also remain because it is part of Quebec's heritage, explaining moves towards ensuring state neutrality do not mean Quebeckers have to deny who they are.

"It would mean that only those who do not have an orthodox traditional view of their religious tradition could work in a public sphere setting while maintaining their beliefs about religious garb and that doesn't seem fair," Benson said. "We just need to get over the secularist prejudice that only religious people believe things. Everyone is a believer and not wearing religious symbols is an indication what one does not believe as much as wearing them indicates what one does."

Marois is not alone in her support for the crucifix or other Christian symbols as a nod to Quebec's past. Other leaders also chimed in to support it, including Liberal Leader and Premier Jean Charest.

Previously the Quebec National Assembly voted unanimously to keep the crucifix over the Speaker's chair despite recommendations it be removed by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission that investigated religious accommodation in the province.

Quebec's Catholic bishops will not be weighing in on the election, if at all, until later in September. The Quebec bishops have the matter on the agenda for their upcoming meeting, said a spokesman for the Assembly of Catholic Bishop of Quebec and no statement will be coming out before then. Assembly president Archbishop Paul-Andre Fournier has issued a pastoral letter urging Catholics to exercise their right to vote and to reflect seriously on the issues in light of Gospel values.

"The Catholic bishops have a difficult time in Quebec owing to historical over-reach by certain Catholics in the past when the Church was so dominant," said Benson. "This has left a very deep and lingering resentment in that province."

Benson urged religious leaders of all faiths, however, to be more vocal in defense of religious freedom and critical of secularism as "an anti-religious ideology."

"Quebec seems confused about the fact that the better understanding of 'secular' or 'public' is that it is or ought to be inclusive of all citizens, religious or non-religious," he said.

Benson said this confusion over definitions means that the anti-religious secularism comes up in the middle of the confusion and takes over.

History has shown iconoclasts have always tried to tear down the religious relics of previous eras, and the importance to cultures of various symbols will come and go, he said.

"The attempt by contemporary secularists in Quebec to keep religious icons emptied of their significance may be seen for what it is — a vain attempt to believe the crucifix empty of its deeper meanings just because they themselves don't believe them," he said.

Benson, who divides his time between France and Canada, notes Quebec seems to be following the policy of laicism in France where religious symbols are banned from the public service.

He does support bans on partial or full face-coverings for those dealing with the public or receiving public services.

"Where we are involved in working in the public sphere I believe all citizens have a right to see the face of other citizens," he said. "They don't have the right to demand that a person remove a turban or headscarf or yarmulke or cross but they can demand that they can see who they are dealing with."

OTTAWA - Twelve Crossroads walkers who hiked through Canada for the past three months wearing "Pro-Life" t-shirts ended their trek in Canada's capital convinced public opinion is turning against abortion.

"We have such a great country," said Patrick Wilson, 21, the leader of the Canadian Crossroads group that ended its cross-country trek Aug. 11. "We had a lot of positive support. I think the tide's turning."

"There was so much encouragement in the most unexpected places," said Lindsay Richey, 20, of Armstrong, B.C. "People that we expected would be angry or aggressive ended up being pro-life."

Richey said at one point a man driving his car past them on the highway turned around to come alongside them again to tell us "how proud he was to see people of his generation standing up for pro-life."

"It inspired him and made him happy," she said.

And in Winnipeg, a man driving a souped-up sports car pulled up near the group at a stoplight and asked Wilson what the group was doing. "Why are you pro-life and not pro-choice?" he asked.

"He looked like a complete dude," Wilson said. "I just liked his car."

But then the man stunned him by saying, "I'm adopted and if it wasn't for people like you I wouldn't be there today."

"He was just so touched," Wilson said. "This came at a time when we were encountering a lot of opposition."

Wilson said these hopeful signs would happen just when the walkers were feeling a little discouraged and wondering if they were doing any good.

The opposition they encountered included "a lot of middle fingers flashed at us, long glances and people yelling at us to go home," but what Wilson said bothered him the most was apathy.

"I'd almost prefer people take a stand, stand for something instead of living in la la land, with no sense of morality, and have no reaction at all."

For Richey, her most discouraging moment came inside a Catholic Church in Toronto when a parishioner told her he was pro-choice and didn't like what she was doing. She asked how he could be pro-choice and Catholic at the same time. "I'm a realist," was his response.

"It was very challenging, but at the same time so fulfilling," Richey said. "I could offer up all the hardship and difficulties for the cause of pro-life."

The Ottawa pro-life community welcomed the walkers.

"We're proud of you," Wanda Hartlin, Campaign Life Coalition communications co-ordinator, told the walkers upon their arrival on Parliament Hill.

Pro-life activist Frank Barrett presented each of the walkers with a certificate of appreciation from Conservative MP Pierre Lemieux, a pro-life MP who was unable to attend in person.

Crossroads groups began their walks in the mid-1990s. The Canadian group was one of five that began walks on May 13, leaving from Vancouver.

OTTAWA - Groups opposing euthanasia have expressed alarm over a B.C. judge's recent ruling that allows Gloria Taylor, a B.C. woman dying of a degenerative nerve disorder, a constitutional exemption to an assisted suicide should her symptoms worsen in the next year.

Taylor, one of the plaintiffs in the controversial Carter case decided last June, had been granted the exemption when B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith struck down Canada's laws against assisted suicide and euthanasia as unconstitutional on Charter grounds. Smith ruled the laws would be kept in force for a year so Parliament can react with new legislation, but allowed Taylor the exemption while the law is still in force.

In July, the federal government appealed the Carter decision, including the constitutional exemption.

On Aug. 10, B.C. Justice Jo-Ann Prowse, however, ruled removing the exemption would cause Taylor "irreparable harm" by taking away the solace and peace of mind of knowing she could obtain an assisted suicide and by removing her ability to have one before her symptoms became unbearable.

"The suggestion that denying Ms. Taylor the exemption would have caused her irreparable harm is absurd," said Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) assistant director Peter Murphy. "Surely to kill or to facilitate killing is to do irreparable harm.

"Do we really want to live in country where individual judges hold the keys to life and death?" he asked. "The value of human life can never be measured by some subjective notion of its quality."

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) executive director Alex Schadenberg questioned whether judges were "overstepping" their bounds. He pointed out the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Parliament's laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide in the 1993 Rodriguez case. Sue Rodriguez, who also had ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, found an anonymous doctor who helped her end her life in 1994.

"It appears to me that judges are trying to make decisions that fit what they want rather than the law and judicial precedence," Schadenberg said. "They're writing their laws, their own script, and it's very concerning to me."

The Carter decision will be argued before the B.C. Court of Appeal March 4-8, 2013 and many have argued the constitutional exemption is an exception only for Taylor. But Schadenberg pointed out that others may seek exemptions under the principle of equality before the law.

"Other people who fit the criteria would have to be taken seriously," he said, noting he expected lawyers in the Ginette LeBlanc case to be argued in Quebec this December to ask for one. LeBlanc also suffers from ALS.

"Technically, the law has not changed. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are still completely illegal. Rodriquez is still upheld," Schadenberg said.

"But a judge is saying it is okay in this circumstance, the laws do not apply. It's not about Parliament, not about the Supreme Court, it's about a single judge. We're putting the power of life and death in the hands of a judge or a doctor."

Schadenberg said the federal  Attorney General can appeal this latest ruling on the constitutional exemption and urged Canadians to let Justice Minister Rob Nicholson know they want him to do so.

Schadenberg said that assisted suicide is the intentional killing of a human being.

"That's homicide," he said. "We are creating an exception to murder."

OTTAWA - The Holy Father may have moved to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, but that has not stopped announcements of new episcopal appointments as the Catholic Church in Canada enjoys the dog days of summer.

On July 16, the Pope also accepted the resignation of Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie and appointed Fr. William Stang as apostolic administrator. Stang has been serving as vicar general and chancellor of Keewatin-Le Pas and confirmed that health reasons are the reason behind Lavoie's resignation.

OTTAWA- The federal government has announced it will appeal the June 15 British Columbia Supreme Court Carter decision that struck down Canada's laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide.

"After careful consideration of the legal merits," the Government of Canada will appeal the Carter decision to the British Columbia Court of Appeal and seek "a stay of all aspects of the lower court decision," said Justice Minister and Attorney General Rob Nicholson in a July 13 statement, released on a Friday afternoon shortly before the July 16 deadline for filing an appeal.