PULPIT & POLITICS
Dropping prison chaplains has little to do with saving money
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 care (or not) 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
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
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
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 per cent
of inmates identified themselves as Christian, five per cent as Muslim,
four per cent as Native spiritual, two per cent as Buddhist, one per
cent as Jewish and one per cent as Sikh. Most of the remaining 33 per
cent said they belonged to no religion.
There are then virtually no chaplains to minister to 13
per cent 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
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.”
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
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
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.
Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer and a former member of Parliament. His blog can be found at http://www.dennisgruending.ca