Former religious freedom ambassador Andrew Bennett said if religious freedom in Canada is diminished, there will be a “trickle-down effect” on other freedoms. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Religious freedom waning: ex-ambassador

  • July 5, 2016

OTTAWA – Canada’s recently departed Ambassador of Religious Freedom believes his former office has been “diminished” under the current government and he expressed alarm at a general waning of respect for religious freedom and conscience rights.

Speaking on the topic for the first time since he left office, Andrew Bennett called this “a trend that all Canadians should be concerned about.” 

“I think it’s notable that religious freedom has not only gone from having its own stand-alone office with an ambassador, with its own programming fund — the religious freedom fund —but it’s been diminished down to a division under a director general,” Bennett said.

Bennett served three years as religious freedom ambassador until the end of March. He ceased working at Global Affairs Canada in June.

Under the Liberal government, Bennett’s role was replaced by the Office of Human Rights, Freedom and Inclusion, which basically took the former Bureau of Human Rights and added “a new division on inclusion and religious freedom,” Bennett said.

“I don’t know what inclusion is and I don’t know what its relationship is to religious freedom,” he said. “I think that a lot of different faith communities, when they see the diminishment of focus on religious freedom by the current government and the lumping of it in with this rather nebulous concept of inclusion, a lot of eyebrows will be raised and are being raised.”

Under director general Richard Arbeiter, the Office of Freedom, Human Rights and Inclusion oversees three divisions: Human Rights and Indigenous Affairs, Inclusion and Religious Freedom, and Democracy. Its annual budget is $15 million, triple that of the former Office of Religious Freedom.

Giuliana Natale heads up the Inclusion and Religious Freedom division. Bennett calls her “very capable, a very good public servant” who is “committed to an idea of advancing religious freedom.” But Bennett believes it is a “challenge” to show how religious freedom and inclusion are somehow linked.

“It’s a very confusing partnership, I would say,” Bennett said.

Inclusion is “a broad euphemism for a whole series of things, unlike religious freedom which is a core human right, the very first right in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Bennett said.

“In international law and human rights law there’s a very clear understanding of what religious freedom is,” he said.

Religious freedom is inextricably linked to other fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression, of assembly and of association, Bennett said. If religious freedom is diminished, as it is “in much of the world, and increasingly in Canada and the United States,” there will be a “trickle-down effect” on other freedoms.

Bennett says there is already evidence of religious beliefs being challenged. He cites the policy of the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons to “violate the conscience rights of doctors” on the matter of referrals for assisted suicide, as well as the policies of law societies in Ontario, Nova Scotia and British Columbia to deny accreditation to Trinity Western University’s proposed law school due to dislike of the private evangelical Christian school’s community covenant. 

Actions like these are “clearly discriminatory,” Bennett said.

Bennett said advancing human rights must be distinguished from advancing a particular political agenda.

“When we advance human rights it must be based on advancing the dignity of individual human beings, living in community and society,” Bennett said. “However there are certain issues right now, whether its same-sex marriage or rights of adoption for same-sex couples,  that have been included as being central to this human-rights agenda. That’s where we come up against fundamental questions such as freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.”

Bennett has taken on a role as senior fellow at Cardus, where he is overseeing the think tank’s Faith in Canada 150 program. He will also teach Church history at Augustine College in Ottawa this fall and is looking for other academic opportunities to write and teach in the area of religious freedom.

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