The federal government says it doesn’t know how many times Jewish inmates requested visits from a Jewish chaplain in the last year.
Out of 15,023 federal prisoners, 133 identified themselves as Jewish, according to the Ministry of Public Safety.
The admission came last week after Jewish leaders had earlier joined members of other faith groups in denouncing Ottawa’s plan to effectively cancel funding for non-Christian prison chaplains at federal jails, when it decided not to renew the contracts of all part-time chaplains.
They were concerned that non-Christian inmates wouldn’t have access to chaplains from their own faiths, because the vast majority of full-time chaplains are Christian.
But a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews stressed that volunteer non-Christian chaplains will still be available to prisoners that ask for them.
“The government strongly supports the freedom of religion of all Canadians. Last month, minister Toews asked for an immediate review of the chaplaincy program to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used wisely and appropriately,” Julie Carmichael told The CJN last week. “Upon reviewing the program, it was determined that changes were necessary so that this program supports the freedom of religion of inmates while respecting taxpayer dollars. Convicted criminals will continue to have access to religious services of their choice on a voluntary basis.”
Most of the non-Christian chaplains working in federal jails are part-time. Out of 80 full-time chaplains in the system, two are non-Christian, but there have never been Jewish full-time chaplains, Carmichael said.
The contract cancellations are scheduled to take effect by the end of March and will affect 49 part-time chaplains nationwide, including 18 non-Christians.
Three of the part-time chaplains are Jewish. The ministry would not release their names.
Part-time contracts represent approximately $1.3 million of the $6.4 million total cost of the chaplaincy program, according to ministry numbers.
Part of the job description for chaplains in the prison system is to facilitate visits by volunteer spiritual leaders of various faiths when requested by inmates.
“There are currently 2,500 volunteers who provide religious services within the correctional system. Minister Toews has instructed the Correctional Service of Canada to facilitate interaction between prisoners and the religious volunteer sector, where safe and appropriate,” Carmichael said.
Toews’ decision to review the part-time chaplaincy program followed another last month in which he cancelled a tender for a Wiccan priest to minister in federal jails in British Columbia. 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.
As a result of the review, part-time chaplains will be let go and the remaining full-time chaplains will provide interfaith services and counselling to all inmates and arrange for volunteer non-Christian chaplains when requested.
Jewish inmates comprise less than one per cent of the 15,023 inmates in federal jails, 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.
Speaking in the House of Commons after the cuts became public earlier this month, 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.”
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which had strongly criticized the cuts to part-time chaplains when they became public earlier this month, said his organization has suggested to the government that Ottawa compensate Jewish and other non-Christian chaplains on a per-visit basis.
The government told CIJA that it will consider the proposal, he added.
However, Fogel said CIJA still believes that Toews’ decision to maintain mostly Christian full-time chaplains amounts to differential treatment of inmates based on religion.
“Jewish inmates would have access to chaplains only on a volunteer basis, not supported by the system, whereas different Christian communities would have it supported,” Fogel said.