Peter Stockland: PM taking a knee strikes hollow note

  • June 14, 2020

It’s hard to reconcile continued restrictions on kneeling in church and last week’s images of Prime Minister Trudeau kneeling on Parliament Hill to protest racism in Canada.

The juxtaposition can’t help but provoke a sense of injustice at sides being picked, of the faithful being punished for their failure to be the fashionable cause of the moment.

That’s not to dispute the prime minister’s sincerity in attending the specific protest in Ottawa on June 6. It’s not to deny his authentic support for the anti-racism movement that has filled North American city streets since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25.

There are those who come bearing evidence that our PM is motivated exclusively by photo opportunities. They note, to take an immediate example, his careful shifting of a Black Lives Matter T-shirt for maximum display in a video clip of him during the Hill event. Indeed, a recent column by Scott Stinson in Maclean’s argued that Justin Trudeau is a different quality of actor from Donald Trump, but no less a politician for whom every word and gesture is just part of the act.

I don’t agree with that. If anything, this prime minister’s failing is a kind of hyper-sincerity that leads him to elevate to ultimate importance the causes that move his heart while leaving him blind and tone deaf to the unintentional exclusions that result. We’ve seen this time and again, from his edict barring pro-life candidates from federal Liberal support to the egregious Canada Summer Jobs debacle in which people of faith were blocked, by fiat, from applying for public works funds unless they subscribed to a loyalty oath.

Just so, he plunged into a crowd of hundreds in Ottawa to lend the weight of his office and his personal charisma to a laudable mass demonstration against the social evil of racism without bothering to weigh what that might mean to, oh, say, tens of thousands of Catholics who’ve been prohibited from attending Mass at their parish churches for almost three months.

Doubly galling was his impetuous encouragement of violation of COVID-19 lockdown protocol mere days after an official with the national special advisory committee on overseeing the fight against the pandemic warned, as The Catholic Register’s Mickey Conlon reported, that it could be another year before churches are allowed to have their full congregations under their rooves at the same time.

Catholic churches in Alberta and B.C. are limited to 50 congregants — or less depending on the size of the building. Saskatchewan parishes can admit only 30 worshippers. Quebec churches are shuttered through June while Ontario will let them open to 30-per-cent capacity.

I’ve argued that Catholic bishops, and leaders of all faith traditions, were right to fully co-operate with secular authorities on the closures. Their prudence deserves continued support even as we emerge from the worst of what we’re being warned is only the first wave of the virus.

That said, both Church leaders and lay faithful are entitled to press for basic equitable consideration from political representatives. The bizarre decree that worship of God in communion with others isn’t an “essential service” on a par with, say, liquor stores is too entrenched to waste time protesting. But it is not too much to demand that all politicians, including the prime minister, respect that forced closure of places of worship represents a sacrifice well beyond what all Canadians have been asked to make.

It is true each of us has been obliged since mid-March to endure intrusions of the state into the minutiae of our lives in ways we would have considered unimaginable even six months ago.

People of faith have accepted that burden as a mark of citizenship and also as an extension of the love of neighbour that is essential to demonstrate love of God. The prime minister might benefit from a reminder to that effect, if only so that where and when he chooses to kneel seems a little less unjust.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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