Last week's Throne Speech minted for Canada an Office of Religious Freedom, an election time carrot for the Conservative base but also a prudent first step to studying and applying the many lessons of the global resurgence of religion to Canadian policy making.
It's a good political step. But two questions loom in its implementation: who will control it, and how broad (domestic or foreign) will its mandate be?
The first is a mirror to concerns over its sister-America based Office of Religious Freedom, where critics alleged that "religious freedom" had evangelical undertones or—at the more extreme end—was basically a mirage for conditioning societies for proselytization. Canada's obsessive politics of multi-culturalism, especially in the Department of Foreign Affairs, will almost certainly make this a non-issue, but it will be important for the new office to express its independence from politics of the day quickly. This may mean justified criticisms of allies as well as easier, politically expedient, criticisms of others. Religious freedom is too important to be a political toy.
Which means, secondly, that the Office of Religious Freedom should spare a desk for Canada itself. The irony should not be lost on observers watching this office that Canada has come under censure from the U.N. and other international bodies for its own practices of freedom and rights, especially as they revolve around religion. The privileged public funding of Catholic schools in Ontario is one example. Others are more odious still. In Wednesday's Globe and Mail Sheema Khan writes:
... it can get tricky on the domestic front. Consider Quebec's proposed Bill 94, which would curtail access to education and health care to women wearing niqabs. Will the new Office of Religious Freedom assail this practice? Will it highlight the inconsistency of legislation that forbids niqabi women from voting, yet allows mail-in votes? Earlier this year, Tory MP Steven Blaney was set to introduce such legislation (by way of a private member's bill), with the full endorsement of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. It remains to be seen whether the Conservatives will push this bill forward; doing so would certainly dampen their credibility on religious freedom overseas.
Foreign offices pitching freedom policies good enough for abroad but not at home will pockmark the Canadian political landscape with explosive hypocrisies. There is no question in my mind that this Office of Religious Freedom is an idea well past its time. But executing it well will mean untethering it from its evangelical pushers as well as pointing its analysis at domestic, as well as foreign, policies. A modest $5 million could get very messy, but—in my opinion—that's money well spent.