(Cardus senior fellow Janet Epp Buckingham was among the guests in Vaughan, Ontario today for Prime Minister Harper's announcement naming Andrew Bennett as Canada's new ambassador for the Office of Religious Freedom. Epp Buckingham, a Trinity Western University professor who researches religious freedom issues, was part of the consultations to create the ORF. She spoke to the Cardus Daily immediately after the announcement.)
Cardus: The big news this afternoon was Andrew Bennett's appointment as ambassador for the new office of religious freedom. Were you aware that he was the one who was being named? Had you heard the word from inside?
Janet Epp Buckingham: No, it was a surprise to me. I know Andrew. He's very thoughtful and very principled. He will bring a great deal to the position.
Cardus: He's worked for CIDA before. He knows the world from that particular perspective. But what else does he bring to such a brand new position?
Janet Epp Buckingham: It's very valuable to be able to be a bridge between the bureaucracy, the political and academic worlds, and the actual faith communities. I think that role will be great for him. He's not just an ambassador. He will be an ambassador to a variety of communities within Canada and externally.
Cardus: Tell me about the event itself. I was getting information from people who were there, and it sounds like some of the comments that were made, particularly from the prime minister, were very powerful. There was no holding back. Was that your impression?
Janet Epp Buckingham: That was very much my impression. This is definitely a priority of the whole government. It is a priority rooted in the Canadian values of freedom of belief and worship.
Cardus: It seems to say something when the prime minister himself sort of lifts it from the hands of his foreign affairs minister and makes the announcement. How significant a signal is that?
Janet Epp Buckingham: It's a very significant signal that this was done by the prime minister and also that there were cabinet ministers and MPs present in significant numbers. I'd say there were 10 politicians there, and that demonstrates that it's not just an initiative of one minister or even the prime minister. It is very broadly supported by the whole government.
Cardus: I got a message from someone who said 'okay, great, now when are we going to have an office for religious freedom within Canada to deal with some of the anti-faith things that go on inside this country?' Do we need an internal office like that? Or does the government support send a sufficient signal about the importance of religious freedom inside as well as outside Canada?
Janet Epp Buckingham: This office is absolutely focused on foreign affairs and on religious freedom for the international community. The prime minister and Minister (Jason) Kenney made a very sharp distinction between the freedom that we enjoy in Canada and the freedoms that we would like to see enjoyed in other countries. There are many different mechanisms supporting religious freedoms in Canada. I'm not sure adding another one would be of assistance. We have a good range of legal mechanisms already.
Cardus: But you are in a situation where you are working hard to establish a law school at Trinity Western University and are running into opposition primarily because it is perceived as a religious initiative. Does this send the signal—not with regard to that specific initiative necessarily but more broadly—that citizens in Canada who have religious faith actually do have a voice in public life?
Janet Epp Buckingham: I think that the prime minister's affirmation of religious freedom as an important Canadian value will be valuable to all religious communities that are feeling that their freedom is being violated. The prime minister responded very strongly to the recent attack on Crossroads for the position they have taken on homosexuality in the past. He said we have religious freedom and all of us need to be respectful of diversity of views. Those kinds of statements are very positive and remind all of us that human rights are important in Canada.
Cardus: Human rights and human respect. Was there a sense in the room today that regardless of how much negative coverage this announcement might receive from the media, the office is going ahead and will continue to be supported by, as you put it, the whole government?
Janet Epp Buckingham: Well, the room was full of a broad diversity of religious adherents and many of them were wearing distinctive garb. There were priests. There were Buddhist monks. There were women wearing the hijab. There were people wearing Crosses. And we were in a Muslim community centre. So, it was very apparent that there was a good cross-section of Canadians, and everyone was extremely supportive of the initiative. They clearly felt it could provide positive support for a wide variety of religious minorities. There were a number of different religious minorities mentioned—Baha'i and Christian and Muslim groups that are persecuted around the world—to indicate this is not something that is just for one religion. It is for the diverse array of religions. And the religious minorities were present being seen to be supporting it.
Cardus: Do you care to speculate what the headline will be in the Toronto Star tomorrow on the prime minister's announcement of Andrew Bennett's appointment?
Janet Epp Buckingham: (Sighs.) It's hard to say because this announcement was made in Vaughan, a very diverse religious community. And Toronto itself is a very religiously diverse community. So the Toronto Star must be aware that there are serious issues of religious persecution around the world, and that people in Toronto care about them. What particular slant the Toronto Star is going to put on it is a good question.
Cardus: Of course I am using the Toronto Star as a stand-in for a particular mentality within Canadian society that will always look at something like that and say "bad idea; it gives too much encouragement to those religious fanatics."
Janet Epp Buckingham: Well, there will always be people who will say we should be spending this money on something else, that we should be spending the money on democratic development, that we should be spending it on all human rights, on international development and so on. But the reality is that people are facing violence and death for having a particular faith. So, democracy doesn't necessarily help them. It's not helping them in Nigeria. It's not helping them in Egypt. There needs to be something that will be a voice for the voiceless.
Cardus: Speaking of spending the money elsewhere, by any standard of contemporary government it's not a particularly large budget. It's $5 million, I think. Is Andrew Bennett going to be able to get started what needs to be started with that budget? Or is he going to have to use the considerable skills that he learned from his days within government to eke a little more out to make it worthwhile?
Janet Epp Buckingham: He is certainly going to have to be prudent. But we have to recognize it is a challenging economic environment for the government these days. We're all aware of cutbacks. The Economic Action Plan was followed by the Economic Austerity Plan. So there simply may not be more funds available. I think there's considerable good work that he can do with that amount of money, and I will be very interested to see how he can use it to best advantage. It will certainly continue to raise the profile of religious freedom within the foreign affairs department. I think that will be very positive for the protection of religious minorities.
Cardus: If he asked you, what would you advise his top three projects should be?
Janet Epp Buckingham: One real priority is to improve the sensitivity and awareness within foreign affairs of different religions and the role that religion plays in various conflicts, highlighting the ways that religious minorities are facing violence and persecution. The awareness-raising and education function within foreign affairs will be very important.
A second priority will be to create some means for religious ex-pat communities—people in Canada that are connected with those who are being persecuted internationally—to be given a voice into foreign affairs. The office could be the information collection centre, the place where people can go with their information on religious persecution.
And a third priority would be developing the capacity to analyze religious conflicts and be able to advise the minister of foreign affairs on the role religion is playing in various conflicts around the world.
Cardus: Did you get a chance to talk to the new ambassador at all today? Were you able to give him some advice?
Janet Epp Buckingham: I got to say "congratulations" and then he was hustled off by the handlers.
Cardus: Did he look like a deer in the headlights or a man striding confidently into the future?
Janet Epp Buckingham: Definitely a man striding into the future. He looked very confident and very prepared. He looked ready.