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Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman
Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman

Faith Exchange

Religion, the original NGO? Add to ...

Guy Nicholson: I’d like to change tack here a bit. I have read that new Canadians send $9-billion a year to families and friends, mostly in the global south. Although this is clearly very generous, I’m not sure these remittances should count as philanthropy in the usual sense. (Any thoughts on that, panelists?) In any case, are places of worship engaged in this practice? Are these new Canadians taking motivation from their faith, or from a traditional sense of family duty, with their church or mosque serving as a conduit?

Howard Voss-Altman: The latter seems more likely, Guy. New Canadians are engaging in a centuries-old tradition of sending money back to the old country – first, to ensure a better life for family back home and, second, so they may save up their dollars to come to the new world. The Jewish immigration story contains thousands of instances of new arrivals in New York or Montreal sending hard-earned wages back to Budapest or Belgrade in order to bring over wives, uncles or cousins. This is not philanthropy, per se, but the desire for a better life in the West.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I can only speak from my own perspective. I know that many new Canadians remit money back to family members who are dependent on these remittances for their livelihood. I do not consider this philanthropy because the motivation is the welfare of the kith and kin. To me, philanthropy is when one gives without any personal interest or motive. There are also remittances to temples, religious and charitable organizations, which I will consider as philanthropy, as long as there is no ulterior motive. I am not personally aware of any Hindu temple being a conduit for money transfer to the home country.

Sheema Khan: Interesting question. In Islam, charity begins at home, in the sense that one should first give charity to those family members in need, then expand outside that circle. The sense of familial duty also finds origins in religious teachings. My father, who came from India, would always send remittance to his family there, and we three kids were encouraged to do the same. We were reminded of all the bounties here and how, as an expression of greatfulness, it would be good to help pay for the education of a cousin or the building of a village school.

Such practices are not confined to Muslims. My father’s many friends from India (Hindu, Sikh, Parsi) did the same. Similarly, when a child is born, it is a recommended practice to sacrifice an animal and offer a portion to the needy. So, for all three of my children, we have had the slaughter performed overseas, and the meat distributed there.

I also forgot to mention that, as we speak, millions are performing hajj, which will culminate Sunday with Eid ul-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. At Mecca and throughout the world, Muslims will commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismail by offering their own sacrifice of an animal. The meat is distributed to the poor.

Lorna Dueck: Certainly, many of those new Canadians are inspired by their Christian teachings to care for the poor, in this case, their own families abroad. They are responding out of their faith, calling to a higher sacrifice than Western mindsets are used to. I’m stunned by the research at Globalphilanthropy.ca that shows that the most generous Canadians are those who give with no tax credit. The nannies, cleaners and others who are often on the bottom end of earning send billions home in remittances, outgiving us all in sending “foreign aid” to their families. We really need to hit pause and sit for a while on that truth. The place of worship is an inspiration for them, but they still have to go through Western Union or some banking tool that penalizes them for generosity and skims off a percentage of what should be going back to care for the elderly, to send relatives to school, or simply to provide food. The Somalian Canadian Congress recently told our program that Somalia received $1.5-billion in remittances from Canada last year, and that it otherwise would not have survived – now that is true philanthropy.

Sheema Khan: I think there is an additional caveat to charitable giving that has affected Muslims, in particular, since 2001. It has to do with charities being charged with affiliation to terrorism. A number of charities were shut down in the United States after 9/11 for questionable money transfer practices. This put a chill on many Muslims giving to established charities, for fear of what may transpire. Many Muslims also sponsor orphans overseas, as is highly recommended in the faith, and some legitimate charities with clean records saw their input fall due to donor fear. Those who suffered were the orphans. But things are back to normal now, or pretty much so.

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