BLOCK: Canada must recommit to religious and expressive freedom

There are simple, tangible, ways in which our government can promote religious freedom on both the national and international stage.

Kelly Block Saskatoon SK

“I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.” Over the last two years, in my speeches in the House and elsewhere, I have used this famous quote by former Conservative Prime Minister, and one of my personal heroes, John G. Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker fought throughout his career to protect and defend human rights. As Prime Minister, he extended the right to vote to Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. He appointed the first woman in cabinet and the first Aboriginal person in the Senate. Diefenbaker’s strong stance against apartheid resulted in South Africa withdrawing its application for continued membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. And of course, he enshrined Canada’s Bill of Rights into law.

A Proud Tradition of Freedom

Among the rights enshrined in this Bill was that of freedom of expression and belief. In 1982, the Liberal government under Pierre Trudeau included these rights in the Charter, proving that, at the time, protection of speech and religious expression was not a partisan issue. In particular, our commitment to freedom of belief predates the founding of our country, having its origins in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. In that Treaty, the British Crown agreed to allow the inhabitants of Quebec to continue practicing their Catholic faith, a concession unheard of in England at the time. Steadfast in that commitment, the previous Conservative government created the Office of Religious Freedom and appointed the first Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Dr. Andrew Bennett. The mandate of this office was to defend and promote religious liberty around the world, and it was remarkably effective. Unfortunately, that Office has since been closed by the current Liberal government. At the time, I commented on how the closure was an indication that we take our freedoms for granted within Canada. We have a tradition of tolerance and even celebration in the beliefs of others. Yet in many places around the world, this is not the case.

International Oppression

On the international stage the Muslim Uyghur population in China, has been placed in internment camps for “re-education”. The Chinese government has also expanded its persecution of Christians, including tearing down religious symbols and arresting pastors and Bishops who dare to teach the non-Communist-Party-approved version of their faith. Iran still has the death penalty for atheists and persecutes religious minorities such as Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims, believers in the Bahá'í faith, and many others. This documented and open persecution resulted in a rare UN Human Rights Committee condemnation. Here I must pause and give credit where credit is due noting that the resolution was sponsored by Canada. However, on the other hand, the Liberals have restored funding for UNWRA. This program provides funds to teachers in the Middle East who promote an anti-Semitic message, providing countless recruits for Hamas in their regular attacks on Israel. In Southeast Asia, the Muslim Rohingya have fled deadly persecution in Myanmar, and may soon face expulsion from the Kingdom of Thailand.

A Growing Threat to Our Fundamental Rights

These few examples – and there are many more I could give – show that we do indeed take our liberties for granted here in Canada. For us, the ability to express our thoughts and beliefs openly is second nature. But here is where we ought to pause and consider the true importance of these rights. Freedom of expression and religion are intertwined as the real-world manifestations of each person’s internal freedom of thought. When people are unable to express themselves openly, or when they consistently feel forced state agreement with ideas they oppose, they lose the art of critical thinking. This is a serious problem for the long-term health of a democracy. Intellectual uniformity is cancerous for any organization, and particularly so for a democracy. It leads to stagnation, prevents outside-the-box solutions to serious problems, and, because no one challenges authority, inevitably leads to tyranny. Imagine, for example, if no one challenged the government on their plan to seize the private banking information of half a million Canadians. Historically, threats to our expressive liberties have come from governments. Over the last number of years in Canada, we have seen some cracks forming in our tradition of freedom. Examples such as the Liberal’s values test on the Summer Jobs Program application, the rollbacks of protections for religious Officiants, the Alberta government’s attacks on religious schools, the lack of conscience protections for doctors who object to providing euthanasia, and the Liberal’s disgraceful treatment of my colleague Rachael Harder for her pro-life beliefs, all spring to mind. We have also seen examples of censorship by individuals through the use of violence. Recently in Toronto, two women were assaulted only days apart for peacefully expressing their pro-life convictions. For the sake of our democracy, we must be able to speak our minds and express our personal convictions about difficult and controversial subjects without fear of being suppressed by our government or facing violence from fellow citizens. We must be willing to listen and engage in peaceful debates.

What Is To Be Done?

So what can be done? First and foremost, each person must protect the rights of all their fellow citizens to express their political, cultural, and religious opinions even if those opinions go against their sensibilities. Secondly, we must continue to call upon our government to recommit to promoting and defending religious liberty both here in Canada and internationally. As I said before, the freedoms of expression and belief are intertwined. By committing to religious liberty, we are protecting not only the right to believe what one wishes, but the right to express that belief. There are simple, tangible, ways in which our government can reiterate that belief in both the national and international stage. Nationally, our various governments must stop targeting religious individuals and groups. That means doing away with values tests, letting religious schools be, and respecting each person’s conscience. Internationally, our federal leaders have to follow the example of Diefenbaker and stand firm on human rights issues, especially freedom of belief. This means, among other things, ending funding for UNWRA, re-establishing the Office of Religious Freedom, and promoting a humanitarian refugee system. I believe this is achievable. Just weeks ago, 14 Members of Parliament from the Liberal and Conservative Parties signed a letter to the Minister of Immigration asking him to grant asylum to Asia Bibi. There is a wiliness to work together. We just have to find common ground. Perhaps that common ground starts with the words: “I am a Canadian…”

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