On Monday, John Ivison called out the 'normally garrulous' Minister Baird for his bashful dodge of the Charter of Quebec Values in a scrum following a meeting between Minister Baird, Ambassador Andrew Bennett, and Nigerian dignitaries. Ivison's grouse got more people agreeing: what about the hypocrisy of preaching religious freedom abroad, when we could use some of that gumption at home?
This is good gut-level integrity talk, and it's entirely wrong.
It's classic Canadian hand-wringing to make a hugely important conversation about the anchor state in sub-Saharan Africa all about us.
The Baird-Bennett duo (foreign emissaries, it should be recalled) are offering $1.2 million out of the Religious Freedom Fund for work in Nigeria, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and South Caucasus. Some may liken this to dredging our water to someone else's fire when our house is ablaze, but it's more like dredging water to a forest fire when we have a wastebasket smoldering under the watchful eye of a home sprinkler system.
Almost every single pundit has by now repeated that the Quebec Charter, such as it's been proposed, would run afoul of the Constitution and the Canadian Charter. Canada has lawyers, laws, politicians, and think tanks that can, and are, pushing on domestic issues of major importance like this. The real sadness of Ivison's argument is not that he called attention to the Quebec Charter, but that in doing so he missed the real story that needed to be told that day: the story of an internationalist Canada at work in the world on the bedrock issue of religious freedom.
Take Nigeria: Africanists know the crucial importance of Nigeria. As goes Nigeria, so goes sub-Saharan Africa, a truism that is all the more urgent for the major challenges it faces in governance and religious freedom. Nigeria isn't facing down a so-far fictional provincial charter that restricts public servants from wearing religious symbols. An oil-rich delta, not long ago under military rule, it has by far the largest population in Africa (over 130 million), with over 250 ethnic groups. In its constitution (1999) Nigeria has protections for religious freedom: Article 1 forbids federal and state governments to adopt any religion as State Religion; Article 38 guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and articles 15 and 42 forbid religious discrimination.
It's not a bad constitution on paper, but the proof is in the politics. Nigeria is evenly split between Christians and Muslims, with only about 10 per cent retaining traditional beliefs. Muslims are majority in the North, Christians in the South, and the two are mixed at the middle belt. Since 1999, sharia law has been imposed in many northern states. In July 2009, Boko Haram—loosely translated as "Western civilization is forbidden"—began violent attacks around the town of Maiduguri. The violence has spread to anyone, Christian or Muslim, who does not conform.
Thousands have died. Civil war and sectarian violence are a very real concern.
The scrum following the $1.2 million announcement wasn't about a bashful Minister Baird, it was probably something like incredulity. The Quebec Charter deserves its day in court, and when it finally shows up no doubt it will be heard. But Monday's headlines, and scrum, belonged to people like our underreported Nigerian friends, an important new partnership, and a major international issue.
Flogging our problems at home to the omission of our work abroad is an insular, adolescent spirit. Sure, we've got work to do at home, but God forbid those debates foreclose our role in the world. If we wait to be perfect, we'll never go.