Andrew Bennett, Canada's former ambassador of religious freedom, told a Senate committee that Canada’s focus on religious freedom has “diminished.” CCN file photo

Canada’s focus on religious freedom has diminished, says former ambassador

By 
  • December 12, 2016

OTTAWA – Canada's former ambassador of religious freedom told a Senate committee that Canada’s focus on religious freedom has “diminished” since the Office of Religious Freedom was closed in May.

“To argue that the Government of Canada should not give priority to freedom of religion when that freedom is so gravely threatened in our world today is an untenable position,” Andrew Bennett told the committee on Dec. 7. “To prioritize freedom of religion is not to deny attention to the advancement of other human rights.”

Bennett said that although religious freedom is linked to other human rights, “we have to remember … it is a distinct right in and of itself, not to be confused with freedom of assembly, or freedom of speech or demoted to mere freedom of worship,” he said.

Bennett served as religious freedom ambassador from the time the office was established by the former Conservative government in 2013 until it was closed as a stand-alone entity.

“There’s certainly been a diminution of focus when you go from a stand-alone office to a division” of the Global Affairs Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion, Bennett said in an interview.

He said the new office includes “a rather nebulous concept called inclusion, juxtaposed to an internationally recognized human right” found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter.

“Religious freedom is a right that has been recognized in western civilization as far back as the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D.,” Bennett said. “When you juxtapose it to an ill-defined concept of inclusion, it confuses faith communities,” he said.

Instead of an office dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the Liberal government launched an Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion, which includes oversight of religious freedom in a broad mandate.

New director general Richard Arbeiter told the committee his office “is accountable for developing and implementing Canada's international policies and advocacy efforts related to human rights, pluralism, respect for diversity, inclusion and democracy.” He cited several cases of advancing LBGTI rights on the world stage as examples of accomplishments.

Bennett, however, said "inclusion" is a vague concept which can be used in many different ways.

Words like “inclusion” and “diversity” and “pluralism” are “really empty shells that can be used to advance a whole range of different ideas,” said Bennett, now a senior fellow with Cardus, a Christian think tank.

“When you have terms with no clear definition they can become highly politicized. This leads to confusion, to vagueness” when these terms are used in conjunction with “well understood” and internationally-defined human rights.

That can lead to politicizing issues and labelling people "either on the right side or on the wrong side,” he said. He warned that those on the wrong side politically can be subject to “demonizing” and become "anathema.”

“Human dignity needs to be the touchstone for how we engage in our common life,” he said.

Politicizing these debates can impact the common good "because the common good is rooted in human dignity.”

Arbeiter told the committee the work of his office follows three grand tenets. The first is assessing human rights in Canada, starting with how well Canada meets its obligations to First Nations’ treaty rights and the rights of people with disabilities. The second involves work to strengthen the international human rights system. The third is "a drive to move the yardsticks” in areas of inclusion.

“To cite a few examples of the office's recent work, Canada was among the first countries to sign on to the founding principles of the Equal Rights Coalition last July," he said. "This new intergovernmental coalition seeks to advance the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.”

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Andrew Bennett did an outstanding job in his role as Canada's former ambassador of Religious Freedom. The Liberals under the direction of Justin Trudeau made it clear that their dismantling of the RF office was to push forward their LGBT agenda...

Andrew Bennett did an outstanding job in his role as Canada's former ambassador of Religious Freedom. The Liberals under the direction of Justin Trudeau made it clear that their dismantling of the RF office was to push forward their LGBT agenda in Canada and the world.

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