Oh, God! New federal department gets lost in 'Pastagate' brouhaha

Toula Foscolos
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Office's purpose and value still not made clear to taxpayers

While Quebec has been up in arms over ‘Pastagate’, I’m convinced that the actions of one overzealous OQLF employee, as ludicrous as they were, speak more to the need for the language police to be properly reined in and clearer guidelines to be established, rather than the PQ’s attempt to target ethnic words as illegal. This is a non-controversy, because in essence, everyone (but the hapless OQLF employee) is agreeing. When the Journal de Montreal’s Sophie Durocher and Richard Martineau are on the same page with The Gazette’s Don MacPherson, we can all rest assured that this is a non-issue.

Toula Foscolos

It’s just a shame that, once again, Quebec makes international headlines, looking like a reactionary country bumpkin cowering in fear at a foreign word, instead of the multicultural and open society we really are.

I long to see the day in this province when protection of the French language doesn’t necessitate vilification and fear of another’s culture and identity…

Meme-friendly ‘Pastagate’ aside, what I’ve been paying particular attention to this week is the official opening of the Office of Religious Freedom at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Modelled to some degree after the U.S. office, its function would be to "monitor religious freedom around the world, and to promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy." The office comes with a modest $5-million price tag and includes a $500,000 budget for operations.

I suspect that most Canadians haven’t heard about this because the topic isn’t as juicy or controversial, and its purpose seems – at first glance - quite benign. Who doesn’t want to support religious freedom around the world, after all? Whatever that means, right? Very few details have been provided so far from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, and a couple of closed-door meetings have taken place, so no one really knows. Apparently protecting people’s freedom abroad to practice their religion of choice necessitates absolute secrecy.

As a journalist, I like transparency. Secrecy raises red flags.

It makes me ponder a lot of annoying questions. Here are some of them:

What exactly is the office’s purpose and value? What is Canada’s moral standing on an international scale that it purposes to defend religious freedom in other people’s backyards, and what makes Prime Minister Stephen Harper believe that another government would take kindly to our finger wagging, or even be coerced into doing things differently because we ‘tsk’d tsk’d’ at them? Are we getting ready to enter a political minefield?

Why is Canada choosing to target 'religious freedom' as a specific, funded foreign-policy objective when Religious Freedoms are already protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? How could defending religious freedom abroad potentially conflict with other human rights issues like gender equality, reproductive rights, gay rights, etc.? How long before foreign aid is tied to the functions of this office, directly reflecting Christian right values, therefore invalidating the office’s original multi-faith purpose?

The U.S. model has been severely criticized for preaching religious freedom, but inevitably entering into proselytization territory, and there’s much scepticism by many that this office may be used as nothing more than a vehicle to promote Christianity.

Why is Canada choosing to target 'religious freedom' as a specific, funded foreign-policy objective when Religious Freedoms are already protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

Oh, did I mention that the first Ambassador for the Office of Religious Freedom was just announced two days ago, and he happens to be a Christian college dean? Right -- Andrew Bennett has no diplomatic experience whatsoever, but no worries, we're told. Harper said he’s a “man of principle and deep convictions.” That ought to settle every debate, right?

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess his are 'Christian' convictions. What moral standing does an avowed Catholic have to protect or meddle in affairs involving the Muslim or Jewish faith, though? Even with the best of intentions, isn’t such an attempt destined to fail, and ultimately create more problems than it seeks to solve? If the office is somehow seen as a thinly-disguised excuse to promote one religion over another, it risks alienating more people than it claims to help.

And let’s assume that none of this happens. There are still so many more questions. Who gets to decide which religious minority is facing persecution? Do you have to be threatened with death, or just have your rights infringed on? Does the absence of faith constitute a form of faith in the eyes of this office? Does freedom from religion also count as Freedom of Religion? In the U.S. there are seven states where you can’t run for elected office if you declare yourself to be an atheist. Somehow I don’t see our Office of Religious Freedom interfering on that one…

Ultimately, what offends me the most is that this office was created by the same Tory government that eliminated the gun registry to save us money. Why was that eliminated while this was considered a necessity by a government that has promised to streamline and be more cost effective?

Most importantly, this is also the same government that had the entire country in a panicked uproar a while back over the possibility of two women in burkas showing up to vote. The same federal government that announced that, from now on, Muslim women must take off or lift their veil when taking the oath of citizenship. How about we practice freedom of religion at home before we attempt to pretend that we have the moral high ground to preach to others?

That would be someplace to start.





Organizations: Christian college, Office of Religious Freedom, Foreign Affairs Ministry

Geographic location: U.S., Quebec, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Etienne Forest
    March 10, 2013 - 21:07

    Defending once culture at home is a good thing, even if done in a buffoon manner (Pastagate). On the topic of defending our culture, we do not need religious freedom but freedom from religions. Especially religions that practice/preach honour killings, genital mutilation and the execution of apostates.

  • Elspeth
    February 22, 2013 - 16:17

    Very good questions, Toula. My questions: Does religious freedom give people the right to perform genital mutilation on girls? ..the right to perform honour killings? ..the right to jail or execute gays?.....the right to jail or execute atheists? And, why hasn't Canada stopped the FLDS in Bountiful BC from performing arranged marriages of 16 year old girls to men who have 10 wives already? Why haven't the people of Bountiful been prosecuted for child abandonment after they send away their 14 year old sons?