Mr. Speaker, on May 16, 1919, Molly Pinto was born in Karachi, Pakistan, then part of greater India. Her family was originally from Goa, a Portuguese colony on the west coast of India, which had and continues to have a large Catholic population. She grew up in a Goan Catholic colony in Karachi. She remembered a very happy childhood, one populated by children and then young adults from all different ethnic and religious communities: Goan, as well as indigenous Pakistani Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, etc. Various languages were spoken: English; Konkani, the Goan language; Urdu; Hindi; etc. She recalls how people from different communities shared meaningful friendships. They would bring sweets to their Muslim neighbours at Christmastime, and their neighbours would bring them sweets for Eid.
Molly Pinto is my wife's grandmother, and the Pakistan that she grew up in looked a lot like how Canada looks today. Those on the left and on the right who are willing to casually label religious intolerance as part of the culture or religion in Pakistan do not know their history. Countries like Pakistan had a rich tradition of multicultural, multilingual, multi-faith co-operation long before Canada even existed, and that tradition continues in the living memory of many who are still with us today. I am sure that some members of the House remember that history from their own experience, and hope and pray for a return to it.
Molly remembers how increasing tensions emerged during partition, when India and Pakistan achieved their independence and separated from each other. Her perception was that when people who had been pushed out of other places in present-day India came to Pakistan, often after seeing or experiencing violence at home, they brought a level of suspicion and tension that felt alien in what had previously been an idyllic setting.
Still, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was very clear about the need to continue Pakistan's pluralistic traditions after independence. Like Molly, Jinnah was born in Karachi. His family were Gujarati Shia Muslims, and as a Shia, Jinnah was in many senses part of a religious minority as well. He also attended Christian schools.
Jinnah had a vision for Pakistan that made the protection of minorities central to its success. Pakistan adopted a flag which clearly demonstrated his vision, a green section to represent the Muslim majority, and a white stripe for the minority communities.
Here is what Muhammad Ali Jinnah said in an address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan in 1947:
You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. [...] We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.
On September 9, 1968, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti was born in Lahore, Pakistan. He would go on to become the country's first federal minister for minority affairs. In 1979, when Shahbaz was 11 years old, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This event would have a consequential impact on world affairs, in Pakistan, and in the life of Shahbaz Bhatti .
Western aid, and aid from other Muslim countries, was funnelled through Pakistan to support the mujahedeen in its jihad against the Soviet Union. The mujahedeen defeated the Soviets, but Pakistan paid a heavy price for its involvement because of the significant injection of extreme and intolerant ideas that came with the mujahedeen and subsequent rise of the Taliban. The rise of extremism in Iran, as well, had a negative effect on Pakistani pluralism.
Importantly, none of these developments in the Muslim world were inevitable. They reflected the push and pull of history, perhaps some policy mistakes, perhaps some policy decisions which were necessary in their time but that had unintended consequences. Either way, the evident decline of pluralism in Pakistan was not inevitable, and it is not irreversible.
Shahbaz Bhatti knew that. As federal minister for minorities in Pakistan, he visited Canada. He came here in February 2011, the month before his assassination. He met with the former prime minister as well as other ministers. He knew then how vulnerable he was. His visit followed on the heels of the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, a Pakistani Muslim who, like Shahbaz, was an outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy laws used to target religious minorities.
It was Shabazz's legacy and the advocacy work of his family here in Canada which led the previous Conservative government to act to create the Office of Religious Freedom. It was not some theoretical political statement about abstract rights, but an office that would and has made a real difference for people in Pakistan and all around the world.
What is the Office of Religious Freedom? The Office of Religious Freedom was established as a division of foreign affairs, now Global Affairs Canada, in the last Parliament. Incidentally, the creation of this office was announced inside a mosque. The office has an annual budget of $5 million, which is a modest sum in the scheme of things. This is 1/180th of the cost of the government's recent changes to public sector sick leave, and it is well underneath the cost of renovating 24 Sussex Drive.
This office does three main things. First, it provides training to the public service. This training is crucial to help our public servants understand underlying religious tensions and how to advance human rights and Canada's interests in the context of these dynamics.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “...if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”
Helping Canada's foreign policy be informed by an understanding of religious tensions is critical in the current environment.
Second, this office does direct advocacy, speaking out about and bringing attention to the plight of persecuted religious minorities.
Third, this office funds direct on-the-ground projects with local partners in countries like Pakistan, projects which advance religious freedom. That is in fact where most of the budget goes.
This office has had considerable success. However, members do not have to take my word for it. Here is what the , the member for , had to say recently about the work of the office in Ukraine:
As a part of broader efforts to cultivate long-term stability, tolerance, and respect for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, Global Affairs Canada, through the Office of Religious Freedom, is supporting two projects in Ukraine to promote interfaith dialogue and to strengthen the capacity of local authorities to respond to hate crimes.
As the hon. member is aware, the Office of Religious Freedom has advocated on behalf of religious communities under threat, opposed religious hatred and intolerance, and promoted pluralism and respect for diversity abroad.
The quote continues:
As the Minister of Foreign Affairs has already stated repeatedly, we are grateful for Dr. Andrew Bennett's service as the head of the Office of Religious Freedom and for his ingenuity, sensitivity, and competency over the past three years.
That is clearly very high praise for this office from the member for .
Here is what the , the member for , had to say recently about the work of the office in Nigeria:
In its efforts to combat Boko Haram's history of inter-communal violence in the region, Canada, through the Office of Religious Freedom, supported a two-year project to promote interfaith dialogue and conflict mediation in Plateau State, Nigeria. We are well aware of the good work it has done. The project successfully developed a community-based mechanism to help defuse tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, and has been used by the Nigerian government on various occasions, including in response to attacks and bombings in Jos and in the lead up to Nigeria's elections in March 2015. While this phase of the project concluded in January 2015, our government is pleased that Canada has been able to continue to support this model for inter-communal dialogue in neighbouring conflict-affected regions in Nigeria....
Listening to those eloquent words from Liberal members, one might wonder who could possibly be opposed to this office. Who could possibly oppose this clearly good and necessary work? Given the evidence and given this good work, one might be inclined to think it would be obvious that this office should be renewed. I believe it is obvious. However, there have been critics, and it is important to take this opportunity to respond to some of the arguments that the critics have made.
There are some who seem to have something of an allergy to any office of government which uses the word “religion”. They react negatively to any reference to religion in the context of government action. Let us be very clear about this. This office is not about promoting religion. It is about promoting religious freedom. These are two fundamentally different things.
Western democratic governments are not in the business of promoting religion, but all governments have to be in the business of protecting freedom, including freedom of religion. Notably, those who ask for state non-interference in religion are themselves expressing support for religious freedom.
Religious freedom includes atheists. It includes the right not to believe. In fact, atheists have direct representation on the Office of Religious Freedom's external advisory committee. The right to believe as a non-believer is frankly one of the most threatened expressions of religious freedom in the world today. Canada's Office of Religious Freedom advocates for atheists in countries like Bangladesh, where they are particularly vulnerable.
Freedom of religion is not a strictly religious idea. It is recognized in article 18 of the UN charter. It 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.
If not about religion as such, what is freedom of religion all about?
The UN charter has it right. Freedom of religion is fundamentally about freedom of thought, the freedom for people to think about their fundamental purpose, their place in the universe, and then to act that out how they see fit. This freedom of thought is clearly essential to the human experience. Freedom of religion is about so much more than the phenomenological elements of religion. It is in fact something entirely different in kind. Again, the office exists to promote religious freedom, the kind of freedom of thought identified in the UN charter. It is not about promoting religion.
A second objection we have heard is from those who say that human rights are universal, interdependent, and indivisible, and therefore they do not see a need for a separate office of religious freedom. Of course, we can all agree that rights are interdependent and indivisible. However, we are also well served by centres of excellence within government and within the department of Global Affairs, which focus on specific areas.
To name another example, we have a department for the status of women. Certainly, human rights are universal, interdependent, and indivisible, but we still have, and we should have, a department that focuses specifically on the status of women.
Why is it important that we have these types of centres of excellence? Because to have all types of rights lumped together risks a situation in which no one is focused upon individual specific areas of rights and rights violations. Without specific centres of excellence, individual areas that need attention could risk getting lost in one murky interdependent and indivisible soup.
Interdependence and indivisibility have never before been used as arguments against some degree of specialization. The natural sciences are interdependent and indivisible, yet we are still well served by having those who specialize in chemistry, biology, physics, and in subparts of each.
A third objection we have heard is from those who say that this is merely a political ploy, that the creation of the office was designed for so-called pandering to ethnocultural diaspora communities in Canada. A writer for iPolitics said this in 2013:
Diaspora politics can become a double-edged sword if left in the hands of politicians. As evidence, look no further than the new Office of Religious Freedom — a policy outcome one might expect when parties curry favour with particular ethnic constituencies.
There was something very dark about these kinds of arguments. So-called ethnic constituencies have as much right to expect that their priorities are reflected in government policy as anyone else. It is true that new Canadians, who are more likely to have ongoing personal and familial connections to those facing religious persecution in other countries, tend to be particularly supportive of this office. However, to describe policies that reflect the priorities of new Canadians as pandering is unnecessarily pejorative and it is a unique kind of pejorative tone often used to denigrate policies that are important to new Canadians.
It is certainly also true that this policy is not just important to new Canadians. Members of diaspora communities, which have been in Canada for generations, and really all Canadians, can see the value of the work that is being done here.
A fourth objection we have heard is from those who suggested the office is supposedly just about Christians and the preferencing of Christian concerns in international affairs. Of note should be the fact that this objection and the previous objection are in fact mutually exclusive and yet are often made simultaneously by the same people. The office could not possibly be both about focusing on Christians and also aimed at new ethnocultural communities. However, it would be evident to anyone who looks at the list of projects the office supports that it works with and for a wide range of different communities.
For example, a recent project gave $290,000 to the Aga Khan Foundation for development and distribution of children's books that promoted pluralism among school-aged children in Bangladesh. Working through a Muslim organization, this project also particularly is important to the atheist community, which faces growing persecution in Bangladesh. Non-Christian groups, in fact, Sikh, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Canada have taken the lead on calling for the renewal of this office. Earlier this year, representatives from these three communities sent a joint letter to the pleading with him to do the right thing and to renew this office.
A vast range of communities are represented on the office's external advisory committee. Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and, yes, atheists are represented on the external advisory committee as well.
With respect to this objection, it is important to note that this office does provide some support to some Christians. Christians are indisputably one of the most persecuted religious communities anywhere in the world. Long-standing Christian communities, which have existed in the Middle East since almost the time of Christ and since long before Christianity spread to western Europe, or certainly North America, are under intense pressure, which includes, in various cases, systematic discrimination, growing cultural bias, regular violence, and even attempts at total extermination. These people happen to share a faith with western colonizers, but these indigenous Christian communities bear no responsibility whatsoever for colonization. They have as much right to live in peace and security as anyone else.
When I talked to other non-Christian faith groups, strikingly they often raised the increasingly desperate plight of Christians as a matter of significant concern. CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, for example, has been vocal in support of the plight of persecuted Christians, and we should listen to what it has to say in this respect. This office does not focus uniquely on Christians but does not ignore them either.
A fifth and final objection that I hear to the Office of Religious Freedom is that its work is in some way colonialist. A recent commentary piece in the Toronto Star said:
The international promotion of religious freedom by Western states risks repeating “civilizing” colonial missions, imposing fixed standards without sensitivity to cultural and historical specificities...
Those who suggest that the good work this office is doing to advance religious freedom is somehow about advancing narrowly western values clearly do not understand the work of this office or the context in which it operates. This office does not seek to dictate to other countries. It works with and provides vital support for programs on the ground. It works with local leaders and leverages local knowledge. That is why it has earned such high praise from diaspora communities and others with whom it directly works.
This is not about western values but about universal human values laid out very clearly in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those who object to the promotion of religious freedom on the grounds that it is a “western” value are often the same people who have the same objections to efforts to advance gender equality, democracy, and other principles of human society, which have long been recognized as universal.
Because of my family's connection to Pakistan, I can speak best to our work in that country. Very clearly we are not interested in promoting some western construction of what Pakistan should be. We want to see the restoration of the pluralistic Pakistan that my wife's grandmother Molly grew up in. This was her reality. This was Mohammad Ali Jinnah's vision, and this was Chavez Bhatti's dream: the restoration of Pakistan's historic traditions, not the imposition of western ones.
When it comes to this office, the government has refused to give a clear answer. However, with 10 days to go until the current mandate runs out, it is high time it communicates its decision, and this motion is necessary to give people working in this area the clarity they need. Most important, people who rely on this office are waiting for an answer.
If the government recognizes the good work of this office, will it simply say yes so the work can continue uninterrupted? If it is determined to kill this office, could it at least explain why, could it at least give us some kind of a reason?
Two weeks ago, I attended a commemoration held in Toronto to honour Chavez Bhatti. There I met Rimsha Masih, a Christian teenager who was accused of blasphemy in Pakistan and only found safety after being spirited away to Canada. I think of my wife's grandmother's reality as a child in pluralistic Pakistan. I think now of Rimsha's reality with the challenges facing Pakistan. This is why this work and this motion matter so much. For one-quarter of the cost of the recent member's office budget increase, this office is saving lives and giving hope to people like her. Therefore, I urge members to reflect on the good work this office is doing and to please support this motion.
Madam Speaker, with this motion, the official opposition is calling upon the government to renew the current mandate of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom. We must first ask why, if the former Conservative cared so much about this office, it did not create it to be sustainable. Its own budget plan called for the office's mandate to come to an end on March 31. Since the office's current mandate will end March 31, the government cannot vote for this motion, and we will vote against it.
Then, what the government will have to decide is how it will enhance and strengthen Canada's fight for religious freedom everywhere, because our government is of course determined to fight tooth and nail for religious freedom around the world. It is a fundamental universal right that is deeply important for Canadians, especially when they see how religious freedom is violated in many parts of the world.
Religious persecution has been on the rise around the world for at least 20 years now. Mosques and synagogues have been attacked and desecrated; churches have been burned or closed; temples have been vandalized. Every day, people die because of their religious beliefs. The people who are the targets of these attacks are unable to defend themselves, so they try to protect themselves or simply survive by going into exile or fleeing.
Religious persecution may be motivated by fanaticism or political radicalism, among other things. It often takes root where the rule of law is practically non-existent or where, in cases where the authorities themselves do not participate in or orchestrate such persecution, they turn a blind eye to it. Religious persecution violates the universal principles that all states subscribe to and swear to uphold when they ratify legal instruments for the protection and promotion of human rights. Because religious persecution jeopardizes the fragile balance underpinning societies, it threatens international peace and security. It is our obligation to respond.
Canada stands in solidarity with everyone who faces oppression, and even threats to their lives, due their beliefs. To defend and promote religious freedom most effectively, we have to choose the best tools and methods. It is not clear that the best method would be to renew the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom, in its current form.
We fully appreciate the work the Office of Religious Freedom has done. We do not underestimate the qualities of Andrew Bennett. I have known Dr. Bennett since he worked at intergovernmental affairs, when I was the minister. I know that he is a solid professional, dedicated to the missions entrusted to him.
However, the government has a duty to choose the best approaches, especially for an issue as crucial as defending freedoms. From this point of view, we have to consider whether it might not be more effective to combine all of Global Affairs Canada's efforts to defend and promote human rights into a single office to advance and to leverage the resources of the department in its embassy network around the world to advance this mission.
Our ambassadors around the world have a unique role to play in advancing human rights. These ambassadors, the eyes and ears of the Canadian government abroad, now have the power to speak. They must always take into account their responsibility to promote human rights, freedom, and inclusion, a responsibility that is part of their mandate. Our ambassadors and embassies abroad understand the local context and have built networks with governments and civilians. They will therefore be a key part of our efforts.
During my recent trip to Geneva, I had the opportunity to meet our permanent representative to the United Nations and his team. We can be proud of what our representatives are accomplishing in promoting human rights.
During my stay in Geneva, I outlined Canada's renewed commitment to the United Nations and its human rights bodies, and I reiterated the $15-million commitment in new core funding for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights over the next three years.
My visit to Geneva allowed me to draw attention to the fact that the defence of human rights can be achieved through co-operation and commitment. Canada has reiterated its commitment to support the work of the UN human rights mechanisms and bodies by extending a standing invitation to the holders of special procedures mandates to visit Canada, reporting to human rights treaty bodies, actively participating in the universal periodic review, and following the recommendations made in these forums.
We commend the efforts that civil society organizations and aboriginal groups have made as part of these processes.
I am proud to say that Canada is a rich source of human rights experts, who are working on a wide range of human rights issues. I am in contact with all of those groups, and we are also having many important discussions with religious leaders to make our mission a reality.
As a result of our co-operative efforts with the United Nations here in Canada and the work being done through various diplomatic channels, Canada will continue to support the values of inclusive and accountable governance, peaceful pluralism, and respect for diversity and human rights, including the rights of women and refugees.
However, we cannot make meaningful progress if we treat each issue in isolation. There are, in fact, solid reasons to believe that human rights are best defended when treated as interconnected. Everyone's right to pray without dictation from others, or not to pray, is a freedom indivisible from freedom of conscience, expression, assembly, and movement.
I would like to quote here, in full, section 5 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action:
All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
This declaration was adopted by consensus in 1993 by representatives of 171 states and was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1994.
The adoption of this declaration was a critical step in consolidating the human rights instruments with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the foundation. Section 5 is often invoked by defenders of human rights when faced with arguments by those who want to privilege certain rights while reducing the protection provided for other rights.
The indivisibility of rights has been at the heart of liberal philosophy for centuries. It is also at the heart of our government's political philosophy. The has placed an emphasis on ensuring human rights and freedoms are not only central to our strategic interests but representative of a moral world view that recognizes diversity as strength.
As such, the protection and promotion of all human rights, including the freedom of religion, must be treated as part of a comprehensive vision of foreign policy.
As one of the fundamental human rights, freedom of religion is important, and so, too, are freedom of assembly, speech, thought, and expression. Where freedom of religion is not respected, so too are these other freedoms not respected.
To address the issues, to mitigate the impact and improve the lives of the people facing the worst abuses, we must treat all human rights as a priority. We must orient ourselves to the cause of all people who face limits on their freedoms and denial of their basic human rights.
If we are going to defend them, we must continue the work of the office in a comprehensive fashion, embedding the principles that have sought to protect religious freedom with the interdependent freedoms I have mentioned.
Security challenges, economic pressures, climate change, gender equality, and inclusion across the board are all improved if we treat human rights and our fundamental freedoms together. The issues we face today are too great to be treated any other way.
Canada will support every effort to speak out when human rights are in question or where people are being persecuted for who they are or for their beliefs, including when human rights defenders are arrested and threatened for daring to speak out against human rights; when the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersexual community is the target of extreme violence and hate; when sexual and gender-based violence is committed against women and girls at alarmingly increasing levels; when 15 million young girls a year around the world are forced into marriage, keeping them from reaching their full potential, interrupting their education, jeopardizing their health, and making them vulnerable to violence; when children are abused, exploited, neglected, and turned into instruments of war, trafficked, or made to labour in inhuman conditions, or deprived of an education or adequate health care, and denied an opportunity to just be kids; and when people are persecuted for how they pray, when they pray, or if they pray and to whom.
We will seek to integrate all our fights for human rights, including the promotion of religious freedom, so that we may be more effective as a country at the broader objective of promoting our fundamental human rights at home and abroad.
Madam Speaker, I am a proud practising Catholic, and indeed I do acknowledge the first human right was the right of religious freedom, the right to worship as one saw fit. All other human rights emerged from this fundamental right.
As our civilization developed over the centuries, our concept of freedom became more expansive. We now believe that other human rights are every bit as fundamental as the freedom to worship freely. A perfect example of what I mean can be found in article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.
While the right to worship freely may predate the right to not have one's body sold into slavery, the right to not be owned by another person, I think we can all agree is every bit as fundamental as any other. Implicit in the right to not be owned by another is the understanding that all human life is of equal value.
Even our understanding of the concept of religious freedom is more expansive than it was originally construed to be in that the first form of religious freedom, at least in the west, was religious tolerance. This was what philosophers referred to as a negative freedom, the freedom to be left alone. Our understanding now is much more robust.
I wish to state, Madam Speaker, that I will be splitting my time with the member for .
I am very proud to say that the universal declaration was written by a Canadian by the name of John Peters Humphrey. 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.
I take this stroll through history to make a point, which I believe to be important; there should be no hierarchy among human rights, that the question of religious freedom has to be understood within the broader context of freedoms and fundamental rights. This is the position of the NDP. We believe that if our government is to promote human rights, it should promote the full spectrum of freedoms and not just the freedom of religion, as significant as this freedom no doubt is.
Let us look further at these rights and freedoms, all of which are fundamental: freedom of expression, of privacy; freedom of the press; freedom of assembly; the right to participate in one's government; the right to equal pay for equal work; and the right to form and participate trade unions. There are many more that I will not go into. The point is that we should not arbitrarily limit our focus to just one of all these fundamental freedoms.
When it comes to promoting fundamental human rights, we should not play politics with them. That, unfortunately, is precisely what the Conservatives did when they were in government.
In March of 2012, former foreign affairs minister John Baird announced that the Conservative government had decided to scrap the highly respected organization, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, better known simply as Rights & Democracy. It had been created to be a non-partisan, independent Canadian institution, established by an act of Parliament in 1988, to encourage and support the universal values of human rights and the promotion of democratic institutions and practices around the world. At the time, then minister Baird claimed that the move to close Rights & Democracy had to do with the government's efforts to find efficiencies and savings.
Fast forward to February 2013, when the Government of Canada officially opened the Office of Religious Freedom within Global Affairs Canada, with an annual budget of $5 million. So much for efficiencies and savings I guess.
The Conservatives shut down Rights & Democracy, an organization dedicated to promoting a robust conception of human rights only to open up less than a year later another organization designed to promote just one right in particular, the right to worship freely.
It is important to recall, too, that the Conservative government of the time also shut down three offices of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, in Halifax, Vancouver, and Toronto, the three cities that registered the highest number of human rights complaints. During this period, the Conservative government also slashed funding to highly respected human rights organizations, such as KAIROS, Alternatives, and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, in retaliation for their criticism of the Conservatives' appalling record on international rights.
Also during this time, the Conservatives cut funding to many organizations promoting women's rights: the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity, le Conseil d'intervention pour l'accès des femmes au travail, the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, Womenspace, and several more. Why would a government claiming to be committed to human rights slash funding to all of these organizations then turn around and open an Office of Religious Freedom? The reason, of course, is simple: politics.
To get a sense of what I mean, we only need look at the actual record of the Office of Religious Freedom.
In an analysis of the ORF by Samane Hemmat, published in OpenCanada, Hemmat notes that, “Christian minorities have garnered almost twice as much of the attention...as compared with Muslim and Jewish communities”. This is not to suggest that Christians are not being persecuted in the Middle East, because they are.
This is why, during the previous Parliament, the NDP supported a study by the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the human rights violations against Egyptian Christians. We also supported the committee's all-party statement condemning this violence against Christians, calling for its cessation. According to Hemmat, the ORF has also released press statements speaking out for Christians in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, China, and the Central African Republic, though paying special attention to Christian minorities in Pakistan and Coptic Christians in Egypt, a strong population which has immigrated to Canada.
The focus on Ukraine is especially puzzling, given the low ranking it received on the Pew forum's government restrictions and social hostilities index. I am sure the fact that Canada had the third largest Ukrainian population after Ukraine and Russia and that the Conservatives were keen to court this population had nothing to do with ORF's advocacy on behalf of Ukrainian Christians.
As my time is drawing to a close, I would like to wrap things up by acknowledging the fact that a number of our friends in various faith communities across Canada support the continuation of the Office of Religious Freedom. I would like our friends to know that the New Democrats support the same freedoms as they do, every bit as passionately as they do, even as we do not support the continuation of the ORF.
The New Democrats believe these important freedoms would be promoted more effectively by a government body less political in nature, one designed in a way to promote a thoroughly robust and inclusive conception of human rights, all human rights and freedoms, as opposed to one designed for crass political purposes. Our faith communities deserve better and Canadians deserve better.
We believe, along with our new , that rights are indivisible, interrelated, and interdependent, that freedom of religion is unthinkable without freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, or freedom of movement. Our party is committed to working with the new government to ensure that human rights are front and centre in all decisions made, indeed, to ensure that human rights are the central organizing principle around which all policy is formulated in all matters before the state.
Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today and speak to the motion before us and speak about what Canada has been doing around the world and in the House of Commons with regard to religious freedom.
The motion talks about promoting peace, freedom, tolerance, and communal harmony. It calls on the government to renew the current mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom, which on the surface sounds like something we could support. However, when we start to look at the overall elements that are necessary for the advancement of humanity, we know that a generalized approach is much stronger for humanitarian and other rights as opposed to a more concentrated element by itself, which seems to leave out some of the things we need to look at.
For example, we in the NDP often advocate for human rights in our trade deals with different countries. New Democrats have constantly argued for elements that look at labour policies and humanitarian right policies. We look at equality issues, whether that be sexual orientation or religious beliefs. We look at all of these factors in total, because once the human rights element surfaces as an overall policy, it allows the religious aspect and other aspects, such as labour rights, children's rights, or a number of different institutions a country is involved in, to be protected. We do not single it out as an individual element because it becomes more of a natural progression, the protection of humanity versus that of religious orientation, which would not encompass the entire atmosphere necessary for human rights to evolve, and that includes women's equality.
Canada has signed a number of trade agreements. They are critical for the Canadian economy in different respects, and also critical for the nations who have signed on with Canada. In one aspect these trade agreements are signed, sealed, and delivered, and then just as the moon orbits the earth, there are secondary agreements related to human rights, the environment, and other things that are offsetting but cannot really be pulled into the sphere of the actual agreement itself. These other things basically become footnotes or appendages that are not even part of the overall system. They just become useless vessels to promote human rights, including religious rights, women's rights, indigenous population rights. We give up the leverage necessary to get these rights.
Canada has signed numerous trade agreements with countries that have notorious human rights elements that are difficult for us to deal with, especially once we know about these things, sign agreements, and then expect to use some type of leverage, which really does not happen. That is unfortunate, because with these things comes greater accountability and the opportunity to instill an overall pattern of support for people to be free in their society.
As has been noted, the Office of Religious Freedom has a budget of $5 million. Its mandate was not renewed under the Conservative regime and I do not understand, if it was that important, why was that the case. Five million dollars is a sum of money for sure, but there are numerous religions around the world and in Canada. There are many different groups and organizations in Canada that will never be attended to because there is no money to do so.
The Office of Religious Freedom really does not incorporate the entire human rights aspect. That aspect has not been supported in our own country when we look at the indigenous population, women's equality, and different things in our country. We still have our own domestic problems relating to these issues, one of which deserves a national inquiry, which has taken far too long to take place. It has taken many debates in the House and many questions from different political parties over generations to try to get that basic element drawn out, which is systematic in our population.
Also, we are not talking about renewing or reviewing the actual operations. Therefore, the concern is this. If we set up this independent operation and if we are sending money abroad, then Parliament does deserve a review of the full vetted actions. That is a more wholesome debate than a motion brought in the House of Commons.
I would note that this is a motion, not legislation, so the binding would be different. I remember the former basically saying that, ethically, motions should be upheld in the House of Commons. He said that as the opposition leader at that time. At that time, the Liberals defended the fact that a motion is just a motion and it is technically at the will of the House. Ed Broadbent, one of our former members who will be celebrating his 80th birthday soon, was in this chamber passing motions on child poverty, which were never lived up to outside of this chamber. We have had numerous motions over the years that have not gone through anything other than a vote in the House of Commons. The Conservatives used to support motions as being the ethics of Parliament and requiring implementation. However, once they were in power they disregarded that altogether. They know that from the get-go because they have just been in power, for a number of years. We cannot scrub away all history, either from one side or the other, and that is just the reality that took place.
I was here when we passed motions on a series of different things, on some very serious issues, and others where there was generally some support. It becomes a pick-and-choose element.
A proud moment in this Parliament is when we passed motions on identifying five genocides, which are now in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. We renewed that together as a group and it was reinforced. However, as I mentioned, others brought by our good friend Ed Broadbent, such as his motion on child poverty, have never been implemented. Therefore, I question the tactics of the Conservatives about this because, if they really wanted this vessel, they could have improved it and used it as a piece of legislation. It is not. Therefore, it will only stand on its own in terms of the will of a majority government, which can basically do what it wants with respect to this motion.
The key issues for the New Democrats in terms of freedom are more broadly with respect to human rights and democratic development. We have seen Canada involved in these abroad. However, they again are the principle building blocks to allowing religious freedom to take place. The broader context is very important because we have the institution building, democracy promotion, and human rights promotion, which come to the forefront. With that forefront in place, it allows for religious freedom to be part of a group of elements that can be protected. That is one of the things we have out there.
If we look at some of the cases of persecution of religious freedoms out there, we see they do not just take place abroad in the larger context of the world outside of North America. I would point to—and it is interesting that I do this, coming from my riding of Windsor West—the presidential candidate Donald Trump and his statements about Muslims and preventing them from going into the United States. I can say from everyday experience that there are Muslims who are Canadian citizens, some by birth and others who have immigrated, who are doctors, nurses, health care providers, accountants, lawyers, and a number of different occupations, who go to the United States every single day. Right now they are not asked if they are Muslim or not. Rather, they are asked if they are Canadian citizens. As Canadian citizens, we need to have that basic right when we cross the border, and our strongest trading partner should abide by it. The United States is also one of our more strategic allies around the world. However, it now has someone running for president who would bar Canadians from saving American lives every single day and persecute them because of who they worship.
Maybe that office needs to focus on our neighbour.
Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague, the hon. member for for bringing forward this timely and most important motion today.
As a member of the subcommittee of this House on international human rights, the substance of this motion is something that I am most passionate about. I sincerely hope that upon reflection on this motion in this debate, the government will see fit to renew the very important mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom at a moment in the history of humanity when it is most needed.
I should note up front that I will be sharing my time allocation to speak to this motion with the hon. member for .
When the hon. member for spoke in this House a couple of weeks ago, he ended his remarks with a parting thought that perfectly encapsulates the essence of this motion. He said:
While we cannot solve every problem, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. The Office of Religious Freedom is the candle that is burning bright far beyond its size would suggest it could. I ask the government to please not snuff this candle out.
Let me also iterate for the purpose of this debate on this motion today a line from the joint letter sent by Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim leaders to the Minister of Foreign Affairs that noted the fact that the current Syrian refugee crisis is exacerbated by the flight of religious minorities targeted by ISIS on the basis of their faith. In their letter of support for the Office of Religious Freedom, Mr. Shimon Fogel, Dr. Amritpal Singh Shergill, and Mr. Asif Khan wrote:
This is an issue that touches the conscience of all Canadians, regardless of any particular religious affiliation, many of whom arrived in Canada as refugees fleeing religious-based persecution overseas - whether recently or in previous generations.
The point they make so eloquently is that standing up for tolerance, standing up for human rights, standing up for rights of minority faith groups is very much the Canadian way, so much so that these very principles are reflected in our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including, and not limited to, freedom of religion, which is why, as Canadians, we understand that we have more than a moral obligation, we have a duty, to put words into action.
This was the impetus behind the Office of Religious Freedoms when it was formed in 2013, within what was then called the Department of Foreign Affairs. With a most modest budget and a talented ambassador in Andrew Bennett, the mandate of the office is to be focused on those countries or situations where there is evidence of the worst kinds of violence, hatred, and systemic discrimination on the basis of religion.
Sadly, it was an international tragedy that brought about the formation of the office. In March 2011, the shocking assassination of the Honourable Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal Minister of Minorities of the Republic of Pakistan, shook all of us who believe in peace, tolerance, and understanding. Shahbaz Bhatti was the sole Christian minister in the Government of Pakistan, and his brutal murder in broad daylight was designed to send a wave of terror through that nation.
What was particularly disturbing to observers in both Pakistan and the international community was that Shahbaz Bhatti's life work was to promote peace, tolerance, and understanding among peoples of all faiths. He knew he would likely pay the price of his life for advocating for religious freedom for all minorities in Pakistan. He said that to me personally here in this House just weeks before he was assassinated back home.
In light of Shahbaz's life, and with the pursuit and the goal of defending those who cannot defend themselves, the Office of Religious Freedom was conceived. It was officially opened in 2013. I was honoured and privileged to attend the mosque where the announcement of its first ambassador took place.
I have been even more honoured to get to know martyr Shahbaz Bhatti's brother, Peter Bhatti, over the past few years. We have had many conversations about the work of his brother, the violence and persecution in Pakistan and the region, and the promise of the Office of Religious Freedom. In fact Peter Bhatti, who immigrated to Canada in 1997, is one of 23 prominent Canadians and leaders of faith communities who are part of the external advisory committee that advises the Office of Religious Freedom.
For those in this chamber who have heard the passion in Peter Bhatti's voice and seen the impact of his work, there is no doubt of the effectiveness of the Office of Religious Freedom.
Yet Peter Bhatti is not alone. The advisory committee includes the imam of the Lebanese Islamic Center in Montreal; my friend Rabbi Reuven Bulka, right here from Ottawa, who is the former co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress; and Dr. Mario Silva, to name a few.
Many members of this House will know Dr. Mario Silva, as he served as the Liberal member of Parliament for Davenport from 2004 to 2011. I am proud that he was a colleague on the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism. In fact, he has continued his work as an international legal scholar to speak out on those issues, and I am honoured to call him a friend.
I think this demonstrates the calibre of people involved with the Office of Religious Freedom. They are leading Canadian lights on international human rights and they are making a difference on a daily basis. For this reason alone, the mandate of the office should be renewed.
However, I would also like to point out a few examples of the work of the office and what it is accomplishing on the ground in some of the most difficult places in the world.
It is clear that we live in an increasingly dangerous world. We need only to remember the Paris attacks of last November and the attacks on Canadian soil in 2014 to see this. Unfortunately, it is also clear that religious persecution underpins this brand of terrorism and extremism, the advance of ISIS, and many other global conflicts. That is why the heavy lifting being done by the Office of Religious Freedom is so crucially important.
In Iraq, support and funding of a quarter-million-dollar project with Minority Rights Group International is strengthening the ability of local Iraqi organizations to monitor and report on religious persecutions. That is directly helping persecuted people on the ground.
Similarly, a $200,000 project to document injustices faced by non-Muslim Pakistanis as well as to sensitize Pakistani parliamentarians to the circumstances of religious minorities in the country is making a difference in the very place where Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated. This is also directly helping persecuted people on the ground. What is more, the project includes work to develop policy recommendations to provide religious minorities with relief from persecution, something that the Office of Religious Freedom, with its access to some of Canada's and the world's leading lights on international human rights, is uniquely suited to do.
There is one other example I would like to highlight, because it speaks to the injustices raised and the alarm bells sounded by the international and Canadian parliamentary coalitions to combat anti-Semitism, with which Dr. Mario Silva and other past and present members of the House have been actively involved. Through the religious freedom fund, the Office of Religious Freedom is supporting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation with $400,000 and providing $100,000 to UNESCO for Holocaust awareness-raising events and educational activities around Holocaust remembrance and genocide prevention. Most importantly, this particular project includes funds toward the conservation of the buildings, grounds, and archival holdings of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
As all members of this House know, especially those who heard testimony during the panel of inquiry conducted by the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism in 2010 and 2011, if the world is not to learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them. Too often the trampling of minority religious freedoms is just the beginning of something far more sinister, which again reinforces why the work of the office must continue.
There is one other case I wish to touch upon before I yield the floor to the member for . This is the case of Pastor Saeed Abedini, a courageous young Christian pastor who was arrested by Iranian authorities, beaten, and held for three and a half years in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, often in solitary confinement. A dual citizen of Iran and the United States, Pastor Abedini was deemed by the Iranian regime to be a national security threat for peacefully observing his Christian faith in Iran.
I have spoken about Pastor Abedini's case before as part of the annual Iran Accountability Week in this chamber. Cases like that of Pastor Abedini are the reason we must continue to draw attention to human rights abuses against religious minorities and speak out for human rights everywhere.
The amazing and heartwarming news is that when Pastor Abedini offers his annual Easter message of Christian hope and reflection this week, as he did every Easter during his brutal tenure in an Iranian jail, he will be doing it from the midst of his church community in Idaho, having been freed from Iran this January.
This is what it is all about. This is what the Office of Religious Freedom is all about: upholding the global fight for freedom of religion, advancing human rights, standing up for something as fundamentally Canadian as freedom of religion, and putting words to action.
Madam Speaker, before I begin, I would like to take the time to thank Canada's ambassador for religious freedom, Dr. Andrew Bennett, for his three years of devoted service, not just to Canada but to those around the world. He has worked tirelessly to promote Canadian values and to speak out against injustice. He has raised the issue of religious freedom across the country, helping Canadians better understand an issue that thankfully does not touch us directly but that is all too real for millions around the world.
I came to Canada from an area of the world where religion is much more at the forefront than in our society here. It is an area where wars have been fought in the name of religion for centuries. Therefore, perhaps I have a different perspective on the issue of religious freedom and its importance than many hon. members do. I came to Canada from a region where every religious group has experienced persecution throughout history.
Religious persecution takes different shapes or forms, but at the end of the day, it is an attempt to take people's freedom, and furthermore, their existence.
In Canada, when we talk about religious freedom we are talking about it in the abstract, and in the House, we agree that such freedom is a good thing. Where we disagree is whether it should be at the forefront of Canadian foreign policy. However, in many areas of the world, the idea of religious freedom is literally a matter of life and death, places where changing from one faith to another carries with it a death sentence.
We all need to be aware that what we are discussing today is not an academic exercise. It is not about different political visions. It is about a Canadian response to situations in which people are dying, situations in which Canada may be able to help.
Freedom of religion is considered to be a basic human right. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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.
The UDHR is the fundamental global human rights document. However, despite the general acceptance of freedom of religion as a universal right by member countries of the United Nations, restrictions on religious freedom have been increasing.
Canadians see themselves as a people with a strong tradition of standing up for the rights of others. With the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom in February 2013, the Government of Canada showed that it considers freedom of religion to be not only a basic human right but also a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy.
We Canadians are indeed fortunate to live in a country where democratic freedoms, including freedom of religion, are taken for granted. We do not face the realities of other countries where religious minorities are regularly persecuted. Many of the Syrian refugees who have come to Canada in the past few months have suffered religious persecution. Canadians are perhaps less insular than we once were and are more aware of what is going on beyond our borders. Addressing religious persecution in other countries is now seen, perhaps for the first time, as a moral obligation.
Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada's first ambassador for religious freedom, says that we define freedoms and human rights positively, with the understanding that freedom includes the opportunity to dissent and disagree. Indeed, rights and freedoms are not always going to be absolute.
As Dr. Bennett sees it, Canada's becoming involved in advocating for freedom of religion in other countries and exerting pressure when necessary on other nations to improve their human rights record flows from Canadians' values and understanding of human rights. He feels that Canada has the opportunity to use its position in the world and its international reputation to work with other countries for the overall improvement of religious freedom.
Dr. Bennett's voice is not alone. Speaking in the House about religious freedom, the member for said:
Canada has an important role to play globally, a role from which we will not shy away. Canada is a country of tolerance, acceptance, peace and security, and we are also a pluralistic society. Our diversity gives us a unique perspective on the world. Canada has long been building the conditions in which people live with the dignity others wish for—built around our fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
This is not a partisan issue. The member for , in discussing an earlier motion in the House, said:
...we should continue to recognize the importance of faith as a core component of many people's lives, not only in our society but in the broader foreign policy context.
The motion being discussed then was adopted unanimously by the House. It reads in part:
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) continue to recognize as part of Canadian foreign policy that (i) everyone has the right to freedom of religion and conscience, including the freedom to change religion or belief, and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in teaching, worship, practice and observance, (ii) all acts of violence against religious groups should be condemned, (iii) Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights be supported, (iv) the special value of official statements made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs denouncing violations of religious freedom around the world be promoted, (v) Canada's commitment to the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom should be used to help protect religious minorities and promote the pluralism that is essential to the development of free and democratic societies....
All parties supported the Office of Religious Freedom then. Why not now? Apparently the government intends to do away with the office, perhaps as early as in tomorrow's budget.
We stand up for rights at home. Why would we not do the same in countries or situations where there is evidence of systematic violations of the right to freedom of religion, violations that could include violence, hatred, and systemic discrimination?
There are those who say that religious rights should not be separated from our understanding of other rights, that there is no need for a separate office to promote religious freedom. I wish that were true, but regrettably it is not. There are millions of people worldwide being persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Religious rights are indeed in a separate category in much of the world, a category too often ignored by Canada in the past.
Dr. Bennett says that the role of the Office of Religious Freedom is to advance, promote, and defend freedom of religion in the world, in countries where it is under threat, in countries where, typically, many freedoms are being violated.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all Canadians the right to freedom of conscience and religion. It is our first freedom. It is also a freedom not enjoyed in much of the world. If we believe so strongly in this freedom, why are we not willing to promote its benefits to the nations? Why not have an Office of Religious Freedom?
We need the office because freedom of religion is a human rights issue, and the mandate of this office is really a human rights mandate. In advancing freedom of religion, we are also advocating for human rights.
For the Canadian government to return to the mindset in which religion is ignored, or at best a subset of a number of variables, is to ignore the reality of the influence of religion in global society.
The Office of Religious Freedom is not pushing religion to the forefront of foreign policy, but an acknowledgement that religion is an important consideration in public life, both domestically and internationally.
Madam Speaker, I will be dividing my time with the hon. member for .
I am grateful for the opportunity to rise to draw attention to Canada's efforts to promote and protect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” These words are inscribed in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and are as powerful today as they were when the declaration was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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.
Yet, religious intolerance and discrimination continue to increase around the world. Recent data from the Pew Research forum shows that in 2013, 5.5 billion people, an incredible 77% of the world's population, lived in countries with high or very high levels of restriction on religion, because of official government restrictions on freedom of religion, social discrimination, and hostilities involving religion. This is an increase from 68% of the world's population in 2007. The past decade reflects the deeply disturbing fact that freedom of religion, for most people in the world, is not possible without fear of reprisal.
Religious discrimination causes suffering, spreads division, and contributes to a climate of fear, intolerance, and stigmatization. It is why the previous government established the Office of Religious Freedom, and it is why we are examining ways to strengthen its value in the context of human rights as a whole.
Freedom of religion is but one of several universal, indivisible, and interdependent rights. Mobility rights, freedom of assembly, freedom to be a woman, all are interconnected with freedom of religion. Human rights are not chosen from a smorgasbord according to which rights you like. Human rights are taken together as one.
The promotion and protection of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, is an integral part of Canada's constructive engagement in the world, and, of course, was enshrined in our own Constitution in 1982.
As the asked, how can we enjoy freedom of religion if we do not have freedom of conscience and freedom of speech? It is absolutely important to press for freedom of religion, but it is unnecessarily narrow and sidesteps the essence of what human rights advocacy must entail.
Canada's Office of Religious Freedom was established on February 19 2013, to protect and advocate on behalf of religious communities under threat, to oppose religious hatred and intolerance, and to promote the Canadian values of pluralism and respect for diversity abroad. Led by Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada's first ambassador for Religious Freedom, Canada's efforts have been pursued through policy, programming, advocacy, and outreach. Policy work conducted by the office is focused on ensuring that freedom of religion or belief is promoted and integrated in Canadian diplomatic efforts.
To enhance international co-operation, encourage greater multilateral action, and strengthen coordination between countries in promoting religious freedom, Canada recently established an international contact group on freedom of religion or belief. Through interreligious dialogue, research training and capacity building, and legal and legislative support, Canada has supported programming initiatives around the world to promote and defend freedom of religion or belief.
These projects have provided crucial support to individuals and communities facing persecution due to their faith or belief, built the capacity of civil society and human rights defenders to address religious persecution, and strengthened governments, institutions, and local organizations striving to build pluralist and inclusive societies.
The mover of the motion has suggested that other members of the House are somehow unaware of the work of the office. If I have not already disabused him of that, I would like to show examples of the good work that has taken place.
In Bangladesh, as part of broader efforts to advance pluralism, Canada supports a project with the Aga Khan Foundation that has developed educational materials to aid in the long-term promotion of pluralist values and prevent conflict and exclusion arising from intolerance.
In Nigeria, as part of efforts to address intercommunal violence in the region, Canada supported a two-year project to promote interfaith dialogue and conflict mediation in Plateau State. The project successfully developed a community-based mechanism to help diffuse tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, including Christians and Muslims, and has been used by the Nigerian government on various occasions, including in response to attacks by Boko Haram in the lead-up to Nigeria's elections in March 2015.
In Pakistan, Canada is supporting a project to promote respect for diversity at the institutional level through the establishment of broad coalitions that span across party, ethnicity, and religion, to advance policy and legal reforms which protect religious minorities against discrimination and abuse. This past year, the project was successful in advancing 11 new and amended pieces of legislation in Pakistan.
In Ukraine, Canada is supporting two projects to promote interfaith dialogue and strengthen the capacity of local authorities to respond to hate crimes, in order to cultivate long-term stability, tolerance, and respect for human rights.
Finally, as part of efforts to confront ISIL's extremist ideology and violence, Canada supports projects in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria to help strengthen social cohesion among religious communities in the region and build their capacity to monitor human rights violations. This is a core aspect of our foreign policy in that regard.
Dr. Bennett conducted a joint visit to Burma with his U.S. counterpart, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein, at a key juncture in the country's democratic transition. Together, they engaged with a variety of Burmese government officials and civil society members in order to advocate on behalf of persecuted religious communities in Burma.
We understand and we value this beginning. We are grateful for Dr. Bennett's service as the head of the Office of Religious Freedom. We believe that the Office of Religious Freedom should be situated in the context of all human rights, because it is impossible to think they can be upheld without relying upon the way in which all human rights reinforce one another.
We are committed to building on and strengthening the work undertaken by the Office of Religious Freedom. Canada's experience as a multicultural and multi-faith society is a model for peaceful pluralism and respect for diversity. Intolerance is a global issue that is on the rise. Canada's experience is that diversity is a tremendous source of our strength. Diversity is precisely what human rights are there to protect and defend.
In countries where democracy has developed strong roots, peaceful pluralism and respect for diversity is continuously reinforced in a society and its institutions through the fundamental freedoms that all citizens have a responsibility to ensure and the right to enjoy.
As a multicultural and multi-faith country, Canada is well placed to champion inclusive and accountable governance, peaceful pluralism, respect for diversity, and human rights internationally. Canada is deeply committed to helping build a world in which pluralism and differences are accepted, encouraged, and celebrated.
There is so much to improve upon in the field of human rights, at home and abroad. The promotion and protection of human rights is central to our government's foreign policy. We will work continuously to promote positive change and to reach out to the members in this House to join with us in this most important work.
Madam Speaker, it is a great pleasure to rise today to speak to this important motion.
I want to start off by sharing my story with the House.
I grew up in the Middle East as a member of the majority. Most of the people who I was raised with, neighbours, friends, my parent's friends, were all from the same sect. We all had the same faith and cultural background. I grew up in an environment where things were black and white, where things were simple, where we knew right from wrong. There were a lot of minorities but they kept to themselves.
The things I usually heard about minorities as I was growing up were unfortunately mostly negative stereotyping. It was the belittling of their traditions. It was the questioning of their loyalty. It was the questioning of their lifestyle and their vision. This was done by well-meaning individuals who did not really mean any malice. They lacked an understanding of what other groups and individuals aspired to be. Their stereotyping and accusations were never questioned. As a kid, I never questioned them myself. It was quite common. As a result of these questions, it was no surprise that many minority members kept to themselves. They kept their backgrounds to themselves. They would try to blend in with the majority and avoid any types of questions or stereotyping.
I immigrated to Canada at a young age and quickly became a member of the minority. Well-meaning individuals would ask me questions about my background, my faith, and wanted to understand some things they read about in the media. These types of questions or generalizations never gave me reason to ponder the ramifications of stereotyping up until I became a recipient of them.
This was an important journey for me. It helped me understand the importance of respecting each human being regardless of faith, background, sexual orientation, or gender. To this day, I carry with me the deep understanding that regardless of our faith, we all share humanity and the common desire to do well for ourselves and our family. Regardless of how different we are, we must always extend to each other respect and understanding even more than tolerance. Tolerance means we tolerate each other even though we might disagree. We have to advocate for respect and understanding. For me, that journey was the cornerstone of my deep commitment to human rights regardless of background and upbringing. I am extremely proud to be a member of a government that is deeply committed to that understanding and that belief.
Our government has taken action with respect to promoting human rights. Let me share with the House some of the steps that our government has taken.
Our right hon. has announced that Canada will be seeking a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Our government has announced that Canada will be seeking election to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, underscoring Canada's commitment to advancing gender equality globally, and the protection and promotion of the rights of women and girls.
The hon. recently addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the first such address for a Canadian foreign minister in several years. At the Human Rights Council, the minister also clearly restated Canada's opposition to the death penalty and announced that Canada would, once again, be leading the annual resolution on the elimination of violence against women in June.
Furthermore, the recently met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and announced a $15 million contribution over three years to support the work of his office. Before Christmas, the personally welcomed some of the 25,000 new Syrian refugees upon their arrival in Canada.
Let us not stop there. Canada, with clear direction from both the and the , worked to have human rights incorporated into the Paris agreement. At the last commonwealth summit, the Prime Minister and the were unequivocal in expressing our support for the human rights of LGBTI persons.
The hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs has also engaged directly with some of Canada's leading civil society organizations and national indigenous organizations to seek their views on international human rights.
The government is committed to doing more in the promotion and protection of human rights. We will be seeking opportunities to engage with a broad range of partners, traditional allies, and emerging bridge builders to strengthen the international human rights architecture. The UN will be the principal forum in which we will advance our international objectives, including our human rights objectives. We will also engage in other forums, both established and emerging forums, wherever we can be most effective.
Canada has been instrumental in shaping the international system of human rights that sets global standards, monitors situations, provides early warning, addresses crises, reviews whether international obligations are being met, documents violations and abuses, and helps to prevent impunity. This work has been within both the United Nations and regional organizations engaged on human rights. Extending the strength, reach, and capacity of the UN human rights system is critical to Canadian interests.
The UN human rights system needs Canada's voice, but it also needs tangible financial contributions. In recent years, Canada has not contributed to the core funding of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Our government has corrected this. The hon. has announced that our government will support the important work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights through a contribution of $15 million over the next three years, funding that is new, un-earmarked core funding. A stable base of un-earmarked core funding is critical to the office's capacity to fulfill the mandate that we as member states gave it. Put simply, it cannot be an effective and objective promoter and protector of human rights absent predictable resources. Canada is also making an additional contribution to strengthen the on-the-ground presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Burundi.
Our government is committed to hearing the views of Canadians with regard to human rights. The has engaged directly with some of Canada's leading civil society organizations, as well as national indigenous organizations, to seek their views on international human rights. Officials at Global Affairs Canada are continuing this engagement. Engagement with civil society organizations is essential to the success of our approach to human rights. We need their knowledge and expertise. We welcome their criticisms. Even in cases where we do not agree, we need to hear and consider the views of all Canadians. Our government has empowered offices to continue this engagement.
Our commitment to the promotion of human rights is deep and solid. While we acknowledge and celebrate the work of the Office of Religious Freedom over the last few years, we intend to expand it, to enhance it, and to continue to promote human rights here and abroad.
Madam Speaker, it is an honour to speak to the motion today. I will be splitting my time with my friend and neighbour, the great member for .
The reason the debate today is so important is that we want to talk about human rights, but we have to focus in on the great work that has been done by the Office of Religious Freedom under the leadership of the Ambassador Andrew Bennett. We need to remember that, when we look at most of the atrocities that have been committed around the world, when we look at most of the human rights violations that too many people have had the misfortune of experiencing, we see it always starts with an attack on religious freedom.
Not one of the countries today that have the worst human rights violations has freedom of religion or recognizes the people's right to choose which religion they want to practise.
It comes down to watching what is going on in the world today.
I was encouraged to see U.S. Secretary of State Kerry say this past week that what ISIS is doing in Iraq and Syria, and indeed around the world, is genocide. Its targets are religious minority groups. It is the Assyrian Orthodox, the Yazidis, and the Chaldean Christians. It is those groups ISIS is focusing on. It is Shia Muslims and progressive Muslims it is targeting. Anyone who will not accept ISIS' demented idea of religion and ideology, those are the ones whom it is not just persecuting but exterminating.
We have to take a strong stand to stop these types of atrocities, to stop this genocide in particular in Iraq and Syria. That is why our party has always supported being part of the combat mission to actually stop the genocide, to exercise our responsibility under the UN charter, which is the responsibility to protect, which was agreed to under the Geneva Convention. We have a responsibility, and that is why the Office of Religious Freedom that we established a few years ago in Canada is so important.
I want to talk from the standpoint of my experience of what we are seeing happen in Ukraine today. Despite some of the earlier comments made by the member for , I want to make sure people understand that there has been a huge attack on religious freedoms in Russian-occupied Ukraine, whether it is in Crimea, in Dombass, or by their proxies like former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
In Crimea, since the occupation began, when the little green men showed up on the streets in 2014, there was an immediate attack on the Muslim minority there, the indigenous Crimean Tatars. Almost systematically the government of Ukraine, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, as well as his proxies, his so-called Crimean self-defence forces in Crimea, made sure that they first went and shut down their mosques. Then they attacked their media, based upon their religion; so freedom of speech and freedom of the press were automatically shut down after they attacked their ability to worship.
They shut down the Crimean Tatars' newspapers, radio stations, and television stations. Then they attacked their right to assembly and shut down their legislative body, which they have enjoyed under the authority of the Ukrainian government in the autonomous region of Crimea, since Crimea and Ukraine became independent in 1991, their Mejlis, which is their legislative body where they elect leaders, make policy decisions, and advise the government of Ukraine as well as the government within Crimea on the type of things they need for their people, the Crimean Tatars.
Those attacks on their religion were all orchestrated by the Kremlin out of Moscow. Those attacks on their human rights—freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech—were all attacked by the Kremlin. We have to take a strong stance against these types of human rights violators.
That is why Andrew Bennett, the ambassador of the Office of Religious Freedom, travelled on numerous occasions to Ukraine to highlight the abuses that were occurring in Crimea by the Russian Federation. We have to applaud the Office of Religious Freedom for taking that type of leadership role, because on the other side of that, we have Russia Today, the Russian television that is broadcast into Canada, saying that the Mejlis, the Tatars' legislative assembly, is a terrorist organization. It said that the Tatars are not allowed to assemble in their mosques or Mejlis because they are planning unrest within Crimea. This just stinks of the time in 1942 to 1944 when the Soviet Union systematically tried to stomp out the Tatars' culture, their religion, and their ability to be within their homeland, by deporting them to the gulags in Siberia and eastern Russia. They were allowed to return in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain began to crumple. They were allowed to go home to reclaim their properties and to re-establish themselves as a community under the leadership of the free and independent Ukraine. However, all of that has now been turned back. Crimean leaders have been arrested, many of them have disappeared, and that is very disturbing.
Amnesty International has made a number of different statements, along with Freedom House, on everything that is happening to the Tatar community in Crimea. Amnesty International has said that since the annexation by the Russian Federation, “the fundamental rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression have been repeatedly violated in Crimea”.
It further states:
The Crimean Tatars, recognized as the indigenous people of the peninsula prior to the deportation of their entire population to remote parts of the then Soviet Union in 1944, began the painstaking process of re-establishing themselves in Crimea in the late 1980s. It is the Crimean Tatar community which is bearing the brunt of the above violations.
Some of those leaders have been persecuted, and some are now living in Ukraine because they are fearful of returning to Crimea, like Mustafa Dzhemilev, who has been here and met with us in Canada and with whom I have met in Kiev on a number of occasions, a true leader of the Tatars and a true leader within the political circles of Ukraine, who is banned from Crimea. Ahtem Ciygöz, his successor to the Mejlis, is missing because he appeared at a protest against the Russian occupation and illegal annexation and took strong stands against what Putin was doing in Crimea. He was detained and has not been seen for some time, along with other Crimean leaders. Russia continues to violate religious freedoms in Ukraine.
Also, the Russian Federation has gone after the Greek Orthodox Church in Crimea. It has gone after members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, mainly because it believes that the Kiev patriarchate is not in concert with the Russian Orthodox Church because it often talks about the freedom and nationalism of Ukrainians. Again, the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom, under the leadership of Ambassador Bennett, has spoken out strongly against violations—for example, Greek Orthodox priests were beaten on the street, and 200,000 Greek Catholics within the Crimean area have fled the country because they feared for their safety.
It should also be mentioned that in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting is taking place, one of the first things the Russian proxies did was go to the synagogues and ask all Jews to register. It smacked of Nazism, it smacked of the fascism that was experienced in Germany leading up to World War II, and it is repeating itself in Ukraine today and being perpetrated by the Russian government.
Therefore, we need to continue to take a strong stand in support of religious freedom; otherwise we will not have human rights respected in those regions.
Madam Speaker, I am very happy and honoured to rise today on behalf of my constituents of Portage—Lisgar to speak in favour of the opposition motion. The motion does a couple of things, but two things would be accomplished primarily if the motion were passed.
First, it would recognize the good work being done by Canada's Office of Religious Freedom. I think that is something we could probably all agree on in the House. There seems to be a consensus that Dr. Bennett and the folks he has worked with at the Office of Religious Freedom have done good work.
It is the second part of the motion that seems to be contentious. That is where we are calling on the government to renew the current mandate of the office. The reason is that its continued vital work is needed now more than ever.
I want to speak to both of those topics and a bit about my experience since being a member of Parliament and prior to that, in terms of what I learned about how blessed we are to live in Canada. We have religious freedom and many times we take those religious freedoms for granted. As a member of Parliament, I learned from colleagues in other countries about the lack of religious freedom. It is not just emotional or social persecution but physical persecution to the point of death that individuals in other countries have had to suffer.
It is important to note that the issue of religious freedom around the world is a growing concern. Religious freedom around the world is not expanding. If anything, it is contracting. That means that people who are living in Muslim countries are not freer to practise their Christian faith. That means that people who are living in Communist countries are not freer to practise their Sikh, or Muslim, or Jewish faith. According to Global Affairs Canada, nearly 77% of the world's population lives in countries with high government restrictions on freedom of religion and/or where social hostilities committed by individuals and groups involving religion are allowed by the government. Seventy-seven per cent of all the world's population is living with restrictions on religious freedoms.
In terms of the Christian population in the world, according the The Voice of the Martyrs, 85% of the world's population is subject to persecution if they are Christian or if they are Sikh converts to Christianity. Not only are they not allowed to practise their religion, if they are of another religion and want to convert to Christianity or to a different religion, they are also restricted from doing that.
This is a growing problem, not just for Christians. It is an issue for all the major religions of the world, including for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and, as has already been mentioned, those who profess no faith. There are people in our world who have no faith. They are atheists. However, in the particular country they live in, they are not allowed to publicly profess that or they will face death, prosecution, or penalties for having that particular non-belief. It is a problem, and it should be recognized and called out as an issue.
The Office of Religious Freedom was created by our Conservative government. It was actually an election promise. When we were elected in 2011, we can say with confidence we were given the mandate to create the Office of Religious Freedom. None of the other parties opposed that office when we created it. All parties agreed it was needed. It was given a modest budget. However, even with that modest budget, it was able to accomplish a lot of good work.
It was created to, among things, defend religious communities abroad and to advocate, analyze, and develop policy and programs to protect religious communities under threat. It has been doing that work. Even with the small budget of $5 million, it has been able to do work in Bangladesh to educate school-age children. So many times that is where religious intolerance starts. At a very young age, wrong teachings are given to children.
It has increased awareness around the world about the Holocaust. We are seeing anti-Semitism grow, so to see awareness of the Holocaust and capacity-building seminars on the Holocaust, and remembrance of it being taught, is so important.
The office has engaged in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This includes engagement with youth, religious leaders, relevant authorities, and community members in those countries to increase inter-religious dialogue for the promotion of religious freedoms and tolerance.
I could go on and talk about all the good things that the Office of Religious Freedom has done, but, as I said, I think we are in agreement on that.
It seems that the case the opposition has to try to make to the government is that we need to single out the issue of religious rights when it comes to making a strong defence of such rights.
I would readily admit that as Conservatives, we do tend to call out issues pretty specifically and then try to address them. When we were in government, we did that on our maternal and newborn health initiative. We recognized that around the world, women in other countries had no value. There were women who were given no resources, women who were dying when giving birth to children. Children have no value in some countries around the world. We directed our international aid dollars specifically to help women, who were suffering when they were in childbirth and young children. We were very specific. We called it out. We did not just say that we should protect all humanity and throw money at helping all humanity. We were very specific and said that as Canadians and as a Canadian government, we were going to help women.
We also did it when we strongly called out our support of Israel and spoke of that support. We, as Conservatives, and sometimes we are criticized for it but I know I will not change my mind on it, tend to call out offences as we see them. Creating the Office of Religious Freedom was one of these areas where we did not want to lump the issue together with women's rights or LGBT rights or with other infractions of human rights.
For some reason, religious rights always goes to the bottom of the list when talking about human rights. As Conservatives, we wanted it and we created the Office of Religious Freedom.
I remember my daughter, who is now 21 years old, coming home when she was in grade 3. She was fairly popular. She was a very pleasant little girl. She did well in school and had lots of friends. She was quite enjoying her grade 3 class and all of her friends. However, my daughter came home in tears a number of days. She said there was a little boy who was being bullied, that kids were mean to him, but she was scared to say anything because she felt if that if she did, they would then be mean to her and they would not like her and she would not be as popular.
That is a pretty common concern of children. When they see someone else being bullied, they, as children, do not want be targeted as well. They want to continue to be asked to all the great parties, to be part of the cool group, to be in all the pictures.
Sometimes, when someone stands up to a bully, they are not popular. Sometimes they have to make a stand, and in making that stand they lose a little bit of popularity. Dare I say, maybe this is what has happened. Some say that Canada is back under the Liberals. I would say that Canada will maybe be more popular now when it comes to being invited to the parties, maybe being invited to a seat at the UN, because maybe now Canada maybe will not be offending some of the biggest religious rights violators that are sitting at the table at the UN. However, I would dare say that Canada should be standing up for the rights of those who are bullied, the rights of individuals like Shahbaz Bhatti who gave his very life. He was assassinated for standing up to the bully.
I would ask that the government reconsider its decision with pride, stand up for women, stand up for minorities, and stand up for religious freedoms by continuing the good work of the Office of Religious Freedom.
Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for .
I am thankful for the opportunity to rise and draw attention to Canada's effort to promote and protect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, which is central to Canada's foreign policy.
Indeed, Canada has made recognition of respect for diversity a priority, both at home and abroad. Canada's multi-ethnic and multi-faith heritage, as exemplified in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, makes us well placed to share our experience internationally to help build a more tolerant, peaceful, and prosperous world. As the right hon. Prime Minister has said, Canada is strong, not in spite of our differences but because of them. It is this very principle that will be at the heart of both our success as a country and in what we offer the world.
As Canadians, we know that diversity is not an obstacle to be overcome or a collective difficulty to be tolerated, but rather it is a tremendous source of strength. More than one-fifth of Canadians are foreign born, yet they choose to immigrate to Canada. Our largest city, Toronto, is considered one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with more than half of the population born outside of our borders. My home riding of Brampton East is the second-most diverse riding in the entire country. Canada's story, while imperfect, is demonstrative that diversity, pluralism, and acceptance, regardless of place of birth, mother tongue, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or belief, is a proven path to peace and prosperity.
The mandate letters for the and the include championing the values of inclusiveness, accountable governance, peaceful pluralism, respect for diversity, and human rights, including the rights of women and refugees.
Our government has already engaged with many domestic stakeholders and international stakeholders in this regard, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Today the is proud to be hosting, in Ottawa, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. To date, all have been supportive of this Canadian foreign policy as a priority to protect human rights. Canada is an example for many. Respect for diversity is a global issue that concerns us all, given the misguided belief by some that diversity in all its forms, whether cultural, religious, ethnic, political, or social is a threat.
Unfortunately, there is a worrying global trend regarding intolerance and discrimination. The latest report from Freedom Health underscores that global freedoms have declined for the tenth year in a row. Restrictions on religion and social hostilities directed at various religious minorities, which contribute to this global trend, also continue to rise. Recent data from the widely respected Pew Research forum shows that in 2013, 77% of the world's population, some 5.5 billion people, lived in countries with high or very high levels of restriction on religion, an increase from an already high 68% in 2007. These can include both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion.
Discrimination in all its forms causes suffering, spreads division, and contributes to a climate of fear, intolerance, and stigmatization. Discriminatory actions motivated by intolerance have no place in any country and are in opposition to values such as respect for diversity and justice.
This troubling reality argues for new and collaborative global efforts to foster peaceful pluralism and respect for diversity and oppose intolerance and discrimination. In this regard, Canada is a useful model and has much to share and contribute.
Fortunately, Canada is not alone in such efforts. We can partner with and engage with like-minded countries, United Nations bodies, multilateral forums such as the G7 and G20, the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, and with civil society to promote pluralism and diversity internationally. All have a role to play and can be important collaborators of global re-engagement of peaceful pluralism, respect for diversity, and human rights.
The Office of Religious Freedom was established in 2013 to protect and advocate on behalf of religious communities under threat, oppose religious hatred and intolerance, and promote the Canadian values of pluralism, respect for diversity abroad—