Jewish leaders have joined members of other faith groups in denouncing Ottawa’s plan to effectively cancel funding for non-Christian prison chaplains at federal jails.
“We are deeply concerned that non-Christian inmates will be deprived of religiously specific spiritual nourishment at a time in their lives when they most clearly need it,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko, chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, the arm of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) that represents rabbis of all denominations.
“Ministers from all faiths who meet prison standards, conform to prison rules, and are qualified to meet the particular religious needs of non-Christian inmates are a powerful influence for them to correct their errors and return to their communities as responsible citizens. We cannot be deaf to those who seek our support at the lowest point of their lives. We ask the minister of public safety to reconsider this decision and ensure that all prisoners who seek spiritual sustenance are able to receive it,” Rabbi Poupko said.
The move to cut part-time, non-Christian chaplains came after Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is responsible for federal penitentiaries, ordered a review of funding for part-time chaplains from other religions.
That decision followed another last month in which Toews cancelled a tender for a Wiccan priest to minister in federal jails in British Columia. Toews told the CBC News at the time that he wasn’t convinced part-time chaplains from other religions are an appropriate use of taxpayer money and that he would review the policy.
Most of the non-Christian chaplains working in the federal penitentiary system are part-time.
As a result of the review, part-time chaplains will be let go and the remaining full-time prison chaplains – who are almost all Christian – will now provide interfaith services and counselling to all inmates, Toews’ office told CBC News.
Less than one per cent of the approximately 15,000 inmates in federal jails identify themselves Jewish, while some 57 per cent identify as Christian. Muslims account for 4.5 per cent of the total, while Buddhists make up two per cent, CBC News reported.
The contract cancellations are scheduled to take effect by the end of March and will affect 49 part-time chaplains nationwide, 18 of whom are non-Christians, CBC News reported.
CIJA chair David Koschitzky said his group has “written to the minister of public safety to urge the government to find a solution that will maintain this essential service.
“While this is a matter of protecting freedom of religion, there is also an important aspect of public safety at stake in this decision. It is no stretch to say that chaplains are at the forefront of the rehabilitation process, and work every day to ensure that inmates awaiting release have the tools they need to avoid re-offending. That Jews and other non-Christians are a minority of inmates in no way diminishes the critical importance of their access to chaplains of their own faith – who provide a moral compass to help inmates navigate their way to a productive life following incarceration.”
Mount Royal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, his party’s justice and human rights critic, called the government’s decision “clearly discriminatory.”
He added: “The minister of public safety says that he is ‘not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status’ – but by providing funding for Christian chaplains only, he is doing precisely that.
“The Conservatives must recognize this contradiction, reinstate funding for chaplains of all faiths, and uphold the values of freedom of conscience and religion – and equality before the law – as enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Late Friday, however, B'nai Brith Canada CEO Frank Dimant issued a statement saying he had received assurances from Toews " that inmates of all faith traditions will continue to be ministered to by chaplains representing their own religion… We have been advised that the volunteer chaplain and full-time chaplaincy programs will continue and that these programs are ministered by representatives of all faith groups."
Earlier, during question period in the House of Commons, Toews' parliamentary secretary, Candice Bergen, defended the government's decision.
"Our government strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians. Convicted criminals continue to have reasonable access to any religious counselling or services of their choice on a voluntary basis," Bergen said.
"The government does fund full-time chaplains. In addition to serving members of their own faith, these chaplains also make themselves available on a by request basis to provide spiritual advice to the general population," she added.
"The Canadian Forces have used this type of chaplaincy program for years. If it is good enough for our armed forces, then it is good enough for inmates in our federal penitentiaries."