Public Safety Minister Vic Toews decided recently to cancel the contracts of all 49 part-time chaplains in Canada’s federal prisons. Eighteen of those chaplains are non-Christians. Another 80 full-time chaplains remain; 79 of them are Christians. That leaves only one non-Christian chaplain, an imam, in the entire federal prison system. The public reaction, at least as expressed in the media, has been almost entirely opposed. Even the Conservative-friendly Calgary Herald was mildly negative.
Toews may (or not) care about negative public comment – he has had plenty of that in the past few years. But he has also won five federal elections in a socially and religiously conservative area of Manitoba and he knows well how to play to his political base. He also speaks in a code that they understand and he is doing that in the narrative of dissed prison chaplains.
In a media statement and a letter to editors, Toews provided several justifications for his actions. He talked about using taxpayer dollars “wisely and appropriately.” He said that he supports freedom of religion for all Canadians, including inmates, but that the government “is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding.” He added that the chaplains employed full-time by Corrections Canada will now have to “provide services to inmates of all faiths.” In other words, Christian chaplains will be expected to provide religious counsel to First Nations, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and other inmates.
Toews’ parliamentary secretary Candice Bergen later took the justification farther when she said that the Canadian Forces use this type of chaplaincy program. “If it’s good enough for our armed forces, then it is good enough for inmates in our federal penitentiaries,” she told the House of Commons.
Let’s look at the justifications offered by Toews and Bergen. First, there is cost, which is $1.3 million per year to pay the part-time chaplains. That’s barely loose pocket change for a government with annual budget expenditures of $276 billion in 2012-13, and minuscule compared to the Conservatives’ plan to spend at least $2 billion on expanding and building prisons. The $1.3 million amounts to about 4 cents per Canadian each year. So the reason for this decision cannot seriously be said to be monetary.
One size fits all
Then there is Toews’ claim that Christian chaplains can provide services to all inmates. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Lorna Dueck said that would be “something like asking New Democratic Party candidates to campaign for all the political parties.”
Writing in the Calgary Herald, Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman said that a message offered by a Christian chaplain would in all likelihood “ring false” to a Jewish inmate. The Rabbi continued: “And while I cannot speak for Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists or First Nations people, my religious experience suggests that their spiritual needs could not be effectively met by Christian chaplains, who neither share their theology nor their cultural or historical norms.”
By the number
There are an estimated 15,000 inmates in federal prisons, the highest number ever and one that is sure to climb as a result of the Conservatives’ tough-on crime legislation. According to Corrections Canada data, 54% of inmates identified themselves as Christian, 5% as Muslim, 4% as native spiritual, 2% as Buddhist, 1% as Jewish and 1% as Sikh. Most of the remaining 33% said they belonged to no religion.
There are then virtually no chaplains to minister to 13% of the prison population who identify themselves as following a non-Christian religion. This gets us to Toews’ and Bergen’s arguments about supporting the freedom of religion for inmates, and about the government’s not picking which religions should get preferential treatment. It is this argument that some columnists and editorialists have described as Orwellian.
By creating a situation in which all but one of 80 prison chaplains are Christian, Toews is obviously doing exactly what he claims he is not – favouring one religion over others. Rev. Gary Paterson, moderator of the United Church of Canada, has written to the minister asking him to rescind his decision. “Your decision,” he said, “will essentially eliminate chaplaincy services for non-Christians. This is not just; this is not right.”
Then there is Bergen’s comment that what is good enough for the Canadian Forces should be good enough for inmates. This plays well to the Conservative base but it is a misleading comparison. A member of the Canadian Forces is generally able to attend religious services where she or he wishes and to seek appropriate religious counseling or advice. An inmate behind bars has no such freedom.
Some would say that the needs of inmates do not merit consideration. A columnist in the Sun Media group of newspapers objected to having the government pay for any prison chaplaincy programs whatsoever for individuals “who rape, maim and kill innocent people.” He described those who would support such measures as the “hug-a-thug crowd.”
This leads to another important point of discussion. Can people who have made a mistake and committed a crime be rehabilitated? Can they change their lives so that they will become good citizens? Prison chaplains will tell you that many prisoners are open to making such changes, owing to their remorse and isolation. Incidentally, Rabbi Voss-Altman said in the Calgary Herald that some prisoners he has visited receive absolutely no visits from anyone else.
What’s up, really?
If the changes introduced by Minister Toews are not really about cutting costs, then what is going on? The best analysis that I have seen is from Stephen Maher for Postmedia News. “Toew’s decision,” he wrote, “fits the pattern of this government regarding groups of people whom devout elements of their electoral base dislike.”
Those “don’t like” groups include inmates. This is a government that prides itself on being tough on crime, a meat and potatoes issue for its socially conservative base.
A significant component of that base is unimpressed with inter-religious co-operation at any level, and certainly not in prisons. They also believe that Canada was and remains a Christian country but that this status is being eroded by religious relativism, multiculturalism and any number of other developments.
It should not be surprising that religious conservatives vote overwhelmingly for the Conservative Party of Canada in federal elections. The Conservatives, for their part, want and need these people as a pillar of their political coalition but there is some restiveness in the ranks.
The Prime Minister disappointed religious conservatives by what they saw as his half-hearted effort on same sex marriage legislation. He has also made it clear that his government will not introduce new legislation regarding abortion.
Crumbs from the loaf
Mr. Harper’s problem is that if he gives too much to his socially and religiously conservative base, he will alienate many other Canadian voters who want nothing to do with this agenda. In this context, dropping the part-time chaplaincy for inmates is an easy and painless way to provide crumbs to that base, even as the government withholds the loaf.
Stephen Maher, wrote in his Postmedia column: “There are two message tracks: one for the general public – about caution with taxpayers’ dollars; and another for devout religious supporters – communicated quietly and carefully.” He describes this approach as “careful hypocrisy.”
It is instructive to read and reread the comments of Minister Toews and Candice Bergen with these dual message tracks in mind.