Opposition Motion (CPC) Office of Religious Freedom
Religious freedom of course includes atheists. It includes the right not to believe. In fact, atheists have direct representation on the Office of Religious Freedom's external advisory committee. The right to believe as a non-believer is frankly one of the most threatened expressions of religious freedom in the world today. Canada's Office of Religious Freedom advocates for atheists in countries like Bangladesh, where they are particularly vulnerable.
Freedom of religion is not a strictly religious idea. It is recognized in article 18 of the UN charter. It states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
If not about religion as such, what is freedom of religion all about? The UN charter has it right. Freedom of religion is fundamentally about freedom of thought. It is the freedom for people to think about their fundamental purpose, their place in the universe, and then to act that out how they see fit. This freedom of thought is clearly essential to the human experience. Freedom of religion is about so much more than the phenomenological elements of religion. It is in fact something entirely different in kind. Again, the office exists to promote religious freedom, the kind of freedom of thought identified in the UN charter. It is not about promoting religion.
A second objection we have heard is from those who say that human rights are universal, interdependent, and indivisible, and therefore they do not see a need for a separate office of religious freedom.
Of course, we can all agree that rights are interdependent and indivisible. However, we are also well served by centres of excellence within government and within the Department of Global Affairs, which focus on specific areas.
To name another example, we have a department for the status of women. Certainly, human rights are universal, interdependent, and indivisible, but we still have and we should have, a department that focuses specifically on the status of women.
Why is it important that we have these types of centres of excellence? It is because they have all types of rights lumped together and risk a situation in which no one is focused on individual specific areas of rights and rights violations. Without specific centres of excellence individual areas that need attention could risk getting lost in one murky interdependent and indivisible soup.
Interdependence and indivisibility have never before been used as arguments against some degree of specialization. The natural sciences are interdependent and indivisible, yet we are still well served by having those who specialize in chemistry, biology, physics, and in subparts of each.
A third objection we have heard is from those who say that this is merely a political ploy, that the creation of the office was designed for so-called pandering to ethnocultural diaspora communities in Canada. A writer for iPolitics said this in 2013.
Diaspora politics can become a double-edged sword if left in the hands of politicians. As evidence, look no further than the new Office of Religious Freedom — a policy outcome one might expect when parties curry favour with particular ethnic constituencies.
There was something very dark about these kinds of arguments. So-called ethnic constituencies have as much right to expect that their priorities are reflected in government policy as anyone else. It is true that new Canadians, who are more likely to have ongoing personal and familial connections to those facing religious persecution in other countries, tend to be particularly supported of the office. However, to describe policies that reflect the priorities of new Canadians as pandering is unnecessarily pejorative and it is a unique kind of pejorative tone often used to denigrate policies that are important to new Canadians. It is certainly also true that this policy is not just important to new Canadians. Members of diaspora communities, which have been in Canada for generations, and really all Canadians, can see the value of the work that is being done here.
A fourth objection we have heard is from those who suggested the office is supposedly just about Christians and the preferencing of Christian concerns in international affairs. Of note should be the fact that this objection and the previous objection are in fact mutually exclusive and yet are often made simultaneously by the same people. The office could not possibly be both about focusing on Christians and also aimed at new ethnocultural communities. However, it would be evident to anyone who looks at the list of projects the office supports that it works with and for a wide range of different communities.