Chaplain cuts: Picking and choosing our preferred religion

Absurd Statement of the Week goes to Department of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, defending recent cuts to the federal prison chaplain program.

The Conservative government has cancelled the contracts of all non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons. Inmates of faiths other than Christianity—including Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, and those of Native spirituality—will only be able to seek spiritual counselling and guidance from Christian chaplains. Likewise (and just as absurdly), Christian chaplains are now expected to counsel inmates from other faiths.

The government is cancelling these contracts through eliminating part-time chaplain positions, in which all but one of the non-Christian chaplains are employed (of the 100 part-time chaplains, 20 are from faiths other than Christianity, whereas all but one of the 80 full-time chaplains are Christian).*

Here is the Minister Toews-approved defence:

“The Minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners. However, the Government of Canada is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding.”

I’m having a difficult time wrapping my head around this one. It seems to me that firing all chaplains except those of the Christian faith amounts to exactly that: picking and choosing which religions are given preferential status. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Earlier this month, Toews said that “the government is not convinced all services offered through the chaplaincy program reflect an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.” No one seems to know what the savings of these cuts will be, but the entire chaplain program only amounts to $6.4 million a year (to put this in perspective, the Conservatives spent 4.5 times that—$28 million—on this year’s War of 1812 celebrations).

Cutting a couple of million dollars from a program that apparently aids rehabilitation seems like an inefficient and unintelligent way to save “taxpayer dollars.” And doing so in a way that excludes multiple faiths seems counter-intuitive for a self-proclaimed multicultural nation. Above all, it’s painfully hypocritical—the Conservatives should either fund the federal chaplain program (and do so proportionally to faiths represented in prison) or cut it altogether, instead of hiding their religious preferences behind claims of taxpayer savings. It’s dishonest and insincere, and crude politics.

{side notes}

Of the 15,000 inmates in federal prisons, 57% identified themselves as Christian (37.5% Catholic, 19.5% Protestant), 4.5% as Muslim, 4% as First Nations spirituality, 2% as Buddhist, 1% as Jewish, and 1% as Sikh. Christian inmates are clearly the largest group, but other faiths clearly represent a significant number as well.

* The government later clarified that they were only terminating 49 of the 100 part-time contracts, including 18 (of 20) non-Christian chaplains and 31 (of 60) Christian chaplains. This leaves 2 non-Christian part-time chaplains for the entire country. All chaplains, however, are expected to provide multi-faith counselling.

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