Skip to main content

It is unknown whether the Office of Religious Freedom’s mandate will be extended after Andrew Bennett’s term ends.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Andrew Bennett, Canada's religious freedom ambassador, has joined a leading Christian think tank as the Liberal government debates the future of his office.

Mr. Bennett was appointed as the first ambassador to the controversial post in February of 2013, but the fate of his office is unclear as its mandate expires at the end of this month. Mr. Bennett's three-year term was originally set to end in February, but the Liberals extended it to March 31 to coincide with the expiration of the office's mandate and $5-million in annual funding.

Speaking to the Senate in February, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion indicated that the Liberals may not renew the office's mandate.

"However, the issue here is determining the best method for defending religious freedom. Is it through this office or through other means? Prime Minister Trudeau talks a lot about gender equality or gender equity. However, it would never occur to him to create an office to address these issues," Mr. Dion said.

The minister went on to say that rights are "indivisible, interrelated and interdependent," and that this will be the government's thinking in determining how to best defend various rights.

The Conservatives first promised to create an Office of Religious Freedom during the 2011 election campaign. The office's mandate is to "speak out and to protect and promote religious freedom around the world." While the Conservative initiative was criticized for mixing politics and religion, certain religious groups supported it. In a letter to Mr. Dion in January, Jewish, Sikh and Ahmadiyya Muslim organizations asked the Liberal government not to scrap the office.

"The Office of Religious Freedom, under the capable stewardship of Ambassador Bennett, has proven an effective advocate in highlighting the issue of religious persecution, partnering with diaspora communities in Canada, and raising our country's profile as a world leader in human-rights promotion on the international stage," the letter read.

Mr. Dion's press secretary, Chantal Gagnon, wouldn't say whether the Liberals will renew the office's mandate, but did say Global Affairs Canada looks forward to continuing to work with Mr. Bennett as it develops the "most effective and appropriate options going forward."

Effective immediately, Mr. Bennett has accepted a position as a senior fellow at Cardus and chair of the think tank's Faith in Canada 150 program while he completes his term as ambassador. His new position is voluntary and unpaid with "full support" of Global Affairs Canada, according to Ms. Gagnon.

"This in no way affects his work with us as we consider how best to preserve and protect all human rights, including the vital freedom of religion or belief. Indeed, Dr. Andrew Bennett has shown remarkable ingenuity, sensitivity and competency in serving as head of Canada's Office for Religious Freedom," Ms. Gagnon said in a statement.

Global Affairs Canada did not respond to a request for comment from Mr. Bennett.

Mr. Bennett, a former public servant and Christian college dean, will continue his work promoting religious freedom in his role at the think tank. Over the next 18 months, he will lead the think tank's efforts to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation by bringing together religious communities in "celebrating and encouraging the importance of faith in our common life."

"There's no one better really than ambassador Bennett to pick up the baton, not just as we celebrate our country's anniversary, but he has a deep understanding of how we can live together in difference in faith," Cardus director of communications Marisa Monnin said.

Cardus describes itself as a "a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture," which draws on Christian thought. It is based in Hamilton, with offices in Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver and Los Angeles. It is opening a location in Ottawa, where Mr. Bennett will work.