Religious Freedom Speech


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Mr. Speaker, as someone whose faith is at the very core of who I am and influences all of what I do in this place, today’s motion is of great importance to me. This is the same for many Canadians. Their faith shapes them, and it is very important to their everyday life.

Places of worship, traditionally seen as sanctuaries, are also places for peace, contemplation, and fellowship, all of which makes the heinous attacks that took place in Quebec City just a few weeks ago that much more disgusting. This is why it is important for members of the House to stand together in support of today’s motion, which condemns such hatred in Canada and strives to work toward collectively fighting for the freedoms enshrined in our constitution.

I neglected to mention, Mr. Speaker, that I will be sharing my time with the member for South Surrey—White Rock.

The rights enshrined in our Constitution in section 2 of our charter clearly state that everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;

(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

(d) freedom of association.

Whether it be the most recent attack on Muslims in Quebec City, the drawing of hateful images on Jewish synagogues in Ottawa, or the persecution of Christians in many regions of the world, these acts of hatred toward one another need to be stopped, and it is up to us as elected officials to stand up to this destructive climate.

It has long been stated that freedom of religion is one of the most basic freedoms a society can give to its citizens. The United Nations has enshrined this freedom in its Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

It is also important to note in the context of today’s debate that article 19 goes on to state:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

I had the opportunity to visit Egypt and Tunisia with several colleagues from this chamber over the winter break. I was very encouraged to see the concerted effort that the president of Egypt, Mr. el-Sisi, a devout Muslim himself, was making to bring people of different faith communities together, and it is not just words. He is taking action to lead the way for his people.

It is particularly regrettable that the Liberal government chose not to extend the funding and strengthen the mandate of the ambassador and the Office of Religious Freedom in budget 2016. Canada’s voice on issues of religious tolerance in an increasingly intolerant world is now severely diminished. It was our party that established the Office of Religious Freedom, under the leadership of Dr. Andrew Bennett, in 2013. The creation of this office was very important, and it was done in an Ahmadiyya Muslim mosque, a minority sect of Islam that is persecuted around the world.

Canada’s commitment to religious freedom and tolerance both at home and abroad was advanced greatly by the previous government, particularly by the Office of Religious Freedom.

The mandate of the office had three broad components: first, defend religious communities and monitor religious freedom through country strategies and analysis, interventions in support of communities at risk, and strengthening the capacity to monitor and promote religious freedom through specialized training; second, promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy through domestic advocacy and outreach, international advocacy and outreach, and whole-of-government coordination; and third, the Office of Religious Freedom led the way internationally to protect freedom of religion and belief as well as to promote Canadian values of tolerance and pluralism.

This office stood up for the rights of all people. Its external advisory committee included representation from many communities, such as atheists, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, and Baha’i. Its ability to work with others earned it great esteem internationally and within diaspora communities in Canada.

Though its mandate focused primarily on situations abroad, the office clearly had an effect at home, in Canada, with many minority communities that felt that this office was a beacon of hope to those who felt marginalized and persecuted.

Dr. Andrew Bennett recently appeared at the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights, discussing some of the accomplishments that this office made during his time as ambassador. He said:

“Under the office’s Religious Freedom Fund, which represented $4.25 million of our annual $5 million envelope, we sponsored over 20 projects that supported activities, addressed some of the root causes of religious persecution and also helped those directly persecuted in over a dozen countries. We introduced training for Canadian diplomats on religious freedom and the role of religion in international affairs, a necessary component of our work.

We engaged our allies in defending religious freedom internationally through the United Nations, such as the Human Rights Council, through the Special Rapporteur on religious freedom and also through the Third Committee of the General Assembly, and through a unique initiative that the Office of Religious Freedom brought forward, and that is the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which brought together over 20 like-minded governments committed to advancing religious freedom.

These were not just our traditional like-minded governments. We also reached out to other countries such as Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, Senegal and Indonesia, who demonstrated a desire to improve the status of religious freedom in the world.”

Let me share another quote from our former Ambassador Bennett, which I feel is at the very heart of today’s motion and is powerful in combatting this growing hatred in Canada for people of all kinds of faiths and traditions. He said:

“Freedom of religion, as indicated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in many other documents, is often placed as a first freedom, or we might say a foundational freedom. Why is this? I would argue that it comprehends that without recognizing the metaphysical need present in each of us to contemplate who am I, who am I in relationship to you, who am I in relationship to the world in which I live, and who am I in relation to God or to a particular philosophy I choose to follow, without recognizing that metaphysical need embedded within freedom of religion, we cannot then move on to give utterance to our beliefs — freedom of speech — gather with others to share those beliefs — freedom of assembly — or form groups of our fellow human beings who share similar beliefs so as to advance the common good.”

I truly believe this is the end goal of every member in the House, to help advance the common good. I look forward to taking on this endeavour with colleagues from all parties.

Therefore, let me remind all members, indeed all Canadians who are watching today, of the inclusive nature of the motion before us today. Today’s motion reads:

“That the House: (a) recognize that Canadian society is not immune to the climate of hate and fear exemplified by the recent and senseless violent acts at a Quebec City mosque; (b) condemn all forms of systemic racism, religious intolerance, and discrimination of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious communities; and (c) instruct the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage to undertake a study on how the government could (i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating all types of discrimination in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making…”

The motion goes on, but I see my time is up. I urge all of my colleagues to support the motion. It is in the best interest of all Canadians, including all faith groups that are represented in Canada.