The mandate of Andrew Bennett and the Office of Religious Freedom will come to an end at the end of the month. The Liberal government has refused to extend its mandate. Photo by Michael Swan

Canada's Office of Religious Freedom mandate comes to an end

  • March 23, 2016

OTTAWA - The Liberal government kicked off Holy Week on March 21 by giving the boot to the Office of Religious Freedom.

The Office will close at the end of the month after the Liberals defeated a Conservative motion in the House of Commons to extend the mandate for another term.  

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said the government will seek other ways to “enhance and strengthen Canada’s fight for religious freedom everywhere” and that it is “determined to fight tooth and nail for religious freedom around the world.”

Dion gave no indication how the Liberals intend to take up that fight other than to suggest that religious freedom would become one part of an overall strategy to promote human rights.

The Office of Religious Freedom was a Conservative initiative launched in 2013 under ambassador Andrew Bennet. He was given a $5-million budget and a mandate to protect and advocate for religious minorities who face threats, to oppose religious intolerance and promote Canadian values of pluralism. 

Conservative MP Garrett Genuis brought forward the motion to have the mandate of the Office extended for another term. But it was voted down 226-90, with the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green Party siding with the Liberals.

Genuis called the outcome “very disappointing.”

“This vital work is needed now more than ever,” he Tweeted.

During the Commons debate he said it made no sense to close down an office that had been effective.

“Why in the world would they blow it up and try something different?” he said. “Just let the office continue to do the good work that it’s doing.”

Under Bennett, the Office helped fund several overseas initiatives to promote religious tolerance and education. For example, through a $226,630 grant to the Canadian office of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a successful project was launched in Ukraine to promote religious freedom and tolerance between eastern and western Ukrainian youth.

In a statement, CNEWA expressed “disappointment” in the decision to close the Office of Religious Freedom.

“Protecting religious freedoms around the world is an important priority for Canadians and, moving forward, our hope is that the government reflects this in its foreign policy in some other specific way,” read the statement.

Canada’s religious freedom project was never endorsed by the Liberals and speculation regarding its eventual closure began soon after the Conservatives lost last October’s election.

That speculation ramped up earlier in March when Bennett joined the think-tank Cardus as a volunteer. 

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