Thursday, August 30, 2012

Conservatives and Canadian bishops convene

By Joe Gunn
Prairie Messenger
August 2012

In a move that has no precedent in recent memory, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has invited a federal cabinet minister to address their Plenary Assembly this autumn. Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney has accepted the invitation.

Minister Kenney will speak sometime during the Sept. 24 - 28 plenary, to be held in St. Adèle, Que. The CCCB has stated that the event will be “private and off-the-record.”

There is intrinsically nothing wrong with a minister of the Crown being invited to speak to the bishops. Questions may be legitimately asked of the CCCB, however, in terms of balance (were the other political parties’ views sought?) and political policy (whether this invitation represents a shift toward stances of the current federal government).

Persons working with refugees and other newcomers to Canada have expressed the hope that their bishops will have a chance to ask questions of the minister, and evaluate his remarks in terms of those government policies that the church has questioned. Five newcomer-serving Catholic groups from Toronto have written to all the bishops, posing four questions in areas where federal policy differs from their apostolic ministries. These groups include Becoming Neighbours, the Faithful Companions of Jesus Refugee Centre, Mustard Seed, Sanctuary Ministries and Romero House.

A Catholic minister

Jason Kenney was raised in Saskatchewan, where he graduated from Notre Dame College. He did undergraduate studies in philosophy at the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius Institute in San Francisco, but dropped out before completion of his degree. Mr. Kenney later served as a volunteer director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, and has been elected five times in the riding of Calgary Southeast — representing the Reform, Alliance and now the Conservative party. He has been Immigration Minister since 2008.

He is the only minister of any government whose picture graces the website of the CCCB, after a May 2011 meeting with the general secretary, and the promise of a followup meeting with the (then) CCCB president.

Mr. Kenney was one of three ministers (including Jim Flaherty and John Baird) who attended Toronto Cardinal Collins’ installation in Rome. The cardinal has travelled to the Hill, accompanied by Archbishop Richard Smith, the current CCCB president, and Quebec City Archbishop Gérald Lacroix to meet with these ministers. The Toronto archdiocese has been especially attentive to the minister’s desire to settle Iraqi Christians in Canada. And Mr. Kenney will address the Archdiocese of Toronto’s second national conference on Settlement of Refugees, in December.

“Jason Kenney versus his own Catholic Church”

This was the title of a Vancouver Sun article at the end of 2010. Why? A Nov. 25, 2010, public letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Justice and Peace warned the minister that clauses of his refugee bill might contravene Canadian law. Archbishop Brendan O’Brien’s letter echoed a similar letter from Vancouver Archbishop Mark Miller.

The minister responded in attack mode. A headline in The Catholic Register read: “Kenney takes swing at bishops.” “Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has fired back at Canada’s bishops for a public letter criticizing his anti-human-smuggling bill.” In a March 2011 interview with Salt + Light TV, the minister defended his retort to the bishops and expressed disappointment that they did not consult him before speaking out.

Mr. Kenney also drew negative headlines for supporting the cutting of $7.1 million in funding for KAIROS, the ecumenical church organization sponsored by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) as well as the CCCB. Going further, in a speech in Israel in March 2011 Mr. Kenney accused KAIROS of baseless charges of being anti-Semitic and supporting a boycott of Israeli goods.

Since the prime minister has flatly stated that the abortion question will not re-appear on the federal political agenda, it seems that the Conservative party’s stance on this matter of deep concern to the bishops concretely translates to maintenance of the status quo. Mr. Kenney’s personal views on the matter aside, no change will be promised at the plenary.

However, there should definitely be some questions to the minister given the recent decision of the federal Conservatives to cut 70 per cent of the funding request of CCODP, the official development organization of the Catholic bishops. CCODP has been forced to cut $5 million in programming in this year alone, thus minimizing the excellent international development work of the Canadian church.

Questioning Conservative policy toward newcomers

After the Conservatives received a majority in the May 2011 election, Mr. Kenney pushed through Bill C-31, essentially a compilation of previous policies that were opposed by other political parties and groups serving newcomers. Ottawa “streamlined” approval processes to eliminate the backlog in applicants — without providing additional resources to enable this to happen. Rather, the minister’s staff now can create a category of “safe” countries (where applicants can be fast-tracked based on country of origin rather than individual merit). Other measures allow mandatory (and expensive) detentions, tighter timelines for preparing and presenting cases and denial of an effective appeal process against negative decisions. Undoubtedly, some of these provisions will shortly be tested in court, and may be questioned by the bishops.

Catholic doctors have opposed Mr. Kenney’s withdrawal of free medical services to certain categories of refugee claimants through the Interim Federal Health Program. Thousands who received medications no longer have access as of June 30.

Catholic teaching on migration issues

In three pastoral letters the bishops have written on migration issues since 1993, the Canadian bishops echo the Vatican’s statement: “The problem of refugees must be confronted at its roots, that is, at the level of the very causes of exile. The first point of reference should not be the interests of the State or national security but the human person . . .” At their plenary, our bishops might simply quote their own 2006 pastoral letter: “Christians are to be among those who refuse to let injustice toward migrants continue, let alone increase.”

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical organization that promotes justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

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