Corrections Canada is shopping for a new national contractor to manage all federal prison chaplains, six months after Ottawa announced it would stop funding spiritual leaders who were only employed part-time.
That decision, which was announced last fall, meant most non-Christian contracts were not renewed, leaving 72 full-time Christian chaplains and two full-time Muslim chaplains responsible for most religious services in prisons across the country.
The government said at the time that the shift to full-time providers would ensure money was spent "wisely and appropriately." But many Christian and non-Christian chaplains worried that prisoners from minority faith backgrounds would lose access to relevant spiritual guidance.
Most of the 49 part-time chaplains who were previously employed by the Correctional Service of Canada have since seen their contracts expire, including 16 who represented non-Christian faiths. Only one part-time Buddhist chaplain and one part-time Jewish chaplain still have contracts in the Atlantic and Ontario regions, respectively, according to the Correctional Service of Canada.
Beginning this fall, the chaplaincy program will undergo another significant shift, with the federal government looking to contract all chaplaincy services through a single provider, a Corrections Canada spokeswoman said on Tuesday.
"Going forward, CSC will consolidate this contractual process under one national contractor," Sara Parkes wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. "In conjunction with CSC, the national contractor will ensure the provision of chaplains who are qualified, official representatives of their faith traditions and capable of ministry in the correctional environment."
In addition to using full-time chaplains and volunteers, CSC will "implement any interim staffing approaches" that may be required, Ms. Parkes added.
"Interim staffing options" have taken place in the Pacific and Atlantic regions so far, she said, but did not describe the nature of the arrangements. The CBC reported last week that at least four part-time chaplains had been offered an opportunity to go back to work.
Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, said providing chaplains from a variety of faiths is "an essential part of meeting the constitutional test of providing access to freedom of worship."
Mr. Sapers said he doesn't know the details of the planned contract, but was pleased to hear that the CSC was making changes again after eliminating part-time chaplains. "We'll be waiting for the details of this latest announcement to see how it's put into operation."
Rev. Bruce Cairnie, a full-time Presbyterian chaplain who has worked at the Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford, B.C., for the past three years, said chaplains in the region have so far been kept in the dark about the changes.
"I'm not sure that we all understand, but we certainly have got apprehensions about it, because we don't know who this new body would be, we don't know what their perspective would be," he said.
Mr. Cairnie said the loss of part-time chaplains from B.C. prisons in recent months has been a significant concern for the remaining full-time chaplains. "What we're seeing is most of the groups in the prison I serve have fallen inactive – so there's just a complete loss of religious community for the people who were members of that tradition," he said.
A spokeswoman from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews's office said on Tuesday that there are 2,500 volunteers who provide spiritual services to inmates from a variety of faiths, in addition to full-time chaplains. "The Government of Canada strongly supports the freedom of religion of all Canadians," Julie Carmichael wrote in an e-mail.