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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Lorna Dueck

One-size prison chaplains don’t fit all Add to ...

When taxpayer money is used to promote religion, controversy is sure to follow. This brew has become a boiling cauldron following Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’s reaction to plans to add a Wiccan priest to federal jails in British Columbia. He promptly made part-time chaplaincy funding disappear and invoked new powers for the 80 full-time chaplains the government currently employs in the federal prison system. The Ottawa Citizen reported that all but one, an imam, are Christian chaplains.

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“The minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians … and has decided that chaplains employed must provide services to inmates of all faiths,” Julie Carmichael, director of communications for Mr. Toews, told The Globe and Mail. It’s an organizational power shift that appears to put Christianity at an advantage, something that all faith groups, including Christians, have objected to. It’s a difficult trick to conjure, something like asking New Democratic candidates to campaign for all the political parties. Or expecting the Parti Québécois to do a good job of drafting a Conservative budget. Beliefs do have tangible consequences.

The outcry over the move raises at least two questions: Should we be using tax dollars for prison chaplains? And can all religious traditions be serviced by one facilitator?

The humane treatment of prisoners means access to fundamental rights – and freedom of religion is one of those. Full-time chaplains approve and facilitate a complex web of legalities, protocol and relationships to open cell doors to some 2,500 volunteers providing religious services to Canada’s inmates. Those faith-based volunteers deliver the rehabilitation we don’t pay for: mentoring, coaching, family and parenting support, bereavement care, art therapy, literacy work and after-prison support, to name just a few. David Hale, a part-time prison chaplain assigned to community care, works with about 150 federal parolees in Kingston, Ont. All those people hope to make their lives a success – and they all began their contact with the chaplaincy inside prison. Rehabilitation requires inner change, and prison chaplains have a direct route to that mysterious destination.

“We see people in our faith-based transformation programs have their reoffending rate drop to 10 to 20 per cent, compared to 40 to 80 per cent in the federal and provincial system,” said Rev. Eleanor Clitheroe, CEO of Prison Fellowship Canada. The organization sends 2,000 volunteers into Canadian prisons and among prisoners’ families. We should thank them for the reduction in recidivism that their religious instruction brings to inmates.

Which brings us to our second question: Why not require a chaplain to provide spiritual services for all religions? Because it becomes an exchange that lacks authenticity and the facts needed for inner transformation. The Christian can only point to Jesus and forgiveness – deeply offensive to people in other traditions and utter nonsense to humanists.

“There are three parts we’re talking about here: spiritual issues, ethical issues and religious or faith issues. Faith is more than ethics. Ethical issues are around behaviour, and that’s important, but it has to be rooted in something for behaviour to change,” said Rev. Clitheroe. “When it is rooted in faith, we see the real transformation in people’s lives. It’s our view that Christian chaplains are not equipped to deal with languages, sacred writings and traditions of other religions. Because religious support is so effective, we would hope [Mr. Toews] could consider the distinction between ethical and spiritual support and faith-based transformation.”

Seems to me that chaplaincy is not only compassion for basic rights, but also good for public safety. At the very least, this new one-size-fits-all chaplaincy should be given the freedom to spend to hire minority faiths on an as-needed or requested basis, giving equal access for religious care in federal prisons.

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