It’s safe to say new cost-cutting measures in Canadian federal prisons do not support freedom of religion like the Conservative government has otherwise claimed. Freedom of religion may be a contentious subject that draws a number of interpretations, making it difficult to say what giving someone freedom of religion actually means, but the culling of all part-time non-Christian chaplains shouldn’t count by any definition.
These chaplains work with inmates to hopefully help them find a better direction for their lives through their specific faith. However, according to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, keeping these part-time chaplains of other religions is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.
It’s believed by many that religious chaplains can help reduce recidivism among inmates. Religious leaders argue they do important work to ensure inmates have all the tools they need to avoid re-offending and ending up back in jail, and that this is a method that works.
But whether these claims are true and prison chaplains are an effective use of taxpayer money isn’t the major flaw in Toews’ announcement. Instead, it’s the statement these measures make in implying that Christian chaplains are more important than chaplains of other faiths.
Instead, no matter whether prisoners are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or any other religion, all federal inmates are expected to receive guidance from chaplains who will provide interfaith services and counselling. But it’s ridiculous to assume that the minister of one faith can cover any and all religions.
Having the ability to aid prisoners through religion likely comes from a lifelong devotion to their specific faith, and to expect the same level of knowledge and guidance from a chaplain in other faiths and spiritualities is ludicrous. Various religious leaders have spoken out saying they don’t believe that Christians could cater to the spiritual needs of a prisoner of a differing religion — and they’re right. Religious ministers are not a one-size-fits-all product. They’re specialized experts in their own spiritualities and their own beliefs. We shouldn’t expect them to have equal expertise of every religion.
Despite Toews’ comment about what would be the best use of taxpayers’ dollars, the most fitting solution would be to employ a number of chaplains proportionately consistent with the religions of inmates. That would mean having just over half of the chaplains employed as Christian, but also having percentages of chaplains that account for the 37.5 per cent of inmates that are Catholic, or the 4.5 per cent that are Muslim.
While the multi-faith model may be more economically beneficial to the country, one has to wonder just how much this change is saving the government. This is the point of view put forward by NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, who questioned how much money the government would actually be saving from a program that Dewar claimed wasn’t costly in the first place. After all, the total cost of the chaplain program is $6.4 million per year, and the contracts of part-time chaplains only make up for $1.3 million of that total.
Freedom of religion is clearly not being supported with this new model, despite Toews’ claims. Freedom of religion would mean giving non-Christian inmates the freedom to receive guidance from their own specific, non-Christian religions. But an even bigger contradiction in Toews’ statements, is that “the Government of Canada is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status.”
By effectively eliminating all non-Christian religious staff members, the government — whether intentionally or not — picked and chose this one religion as more relevant and important than any other. Canada has long sought to be a multicultural, pluralistic society, and decisions like this undercut that goal. To truly be a multicultural mosaic, like so many Canadian classrooms claim this country is, the federal government has to strive to accommodate as many cultures as they can in as many ways possible. Even if these people are prisoners, they still deserve the same basic rights to religious freedom as everyone else.
Employing the same number of chaplains, but representing a number of different faiths would be ideal. Even to cut prison chaplains entirely would have been a better move for the government if it truly was a necessary decision for the sake of saving taxpayers’ money. But these changes to federal prisons imply that one religion is more relevant to Canadians than any other, which is a ridiculous blunder for a federal government of any country as large and diverse as Canada to make.
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