Business of Supply

Madam Speaker, I appreciate my neighbour from Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock for his remarks today, and my colleagues for bringing this important debate to the floor of the House of Commons.

Here we are within 140 or so days of a new government, and we are already fearing the elimination of something that should be a unifier, not just for Parliament but for Canadians. Yet, we brought this debate to the floor of the House of Commons because we feel that the Office of Religious Freedom and Ambassador Bennett are at risk of cancellation or at least dilution of their mandate, which is clear from some of the remarks of the government today in this debate.

Why should it be something that unifies the House? I will share with my colleagues a quote from a prominent Canadian upon news of the creation of this office. He said at the time in relation to this office, “We think an initiative like this is the kind of thing that ought to have the support of all sides in politics.” He went on to add that “The defence of religious freedom is unconditional. It applies to all religious groups… So I think a stout and courageous defence of religious freedom overseas is a good thing for Canada.”

Do members know who said that? It was the previous leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Michael Ignatieff. That was his comment with respect to the then Conservative proposal about the creation of this important office. I agree with him.

Now, I have found in these short 140 days of the current Parliament that I am quoting a lot of Liberal leaders. In relation to the withdrawal of the ISIL mission, I quoted King, Pearson, John Manley, and Lloyd Axworthy.

I am fearing that my friends, particularly my friend from Calgary Midnapore, may be questioning my bona fides as a Conservative, especially today in quoting Michael Ignatieff. However, I do that for a reason. It is because the current Liberal government under the Prime Minister is changing the Liberal Party of Canada. I do not think enough Canadians see how quickly he is doing that. The comments from Michael Ignatieff on the creation of this office demonstrate that in spades. The previous leader of the Liberals defended the creation of this important office, this important position, and the fight for religious freedom and tolerance around the world. The current leader would eliminate the position or fundamentally change it within 150 days. That should concern Canadians. That should concern people who voted for this new government.

In fact, in Mr. Ignatieff’s remarks in response to his support for the creation of this office, he mentioned, and many of my friends have mentioned, that these groups have been persecuted abroad, for years and in some cases centuries. He mentioned the Coptic Christians in Egypt. He mentioned members of the Bahá’i faith in Iran, Jews, and Christians. He mentioned China, where the rights of religious freedom are heavily restricted. Therefore, the previous Liberal leader supported the creation of this office, and it is sad that we have to bring a debate to the floor today. After just a few years, but in an exceptional mandate, Ambassador Bennett has received international recognition for his thoughtful and important interventions on this fundamental freedom.

I am going to use the next few minutes of my remarks to remind my colleagues how, as Canadians, we have this important office and an ambassador promoting religious freedom and tolerance around the world. It is a natural extension of Canadian values. What sunnier ways could there be then to preserve the freedom of worship for millions around the world? That is an essential Canadian value.

It brought to mind John Diefenbaker’s speech on the night before he reconvened a special session of Parliament in 1960 on Canada Day, which was then Dominion Day.

On June 30, 1960, John Diefenbaker addressed Canadians because he intended the following day, in a special session, to introduce the Bill of Rights. In respect to religious freedom and rights to be protected and enshrined in the Bill of Rights, he said:

The experiences of many countries whose citizens have flocked to our shores in recent years…make it clear that we cannot take for granted the continuance and maintenance of those rights and freedoms.

The next day the Bill of Rights was introduced to the Parliament of the time. It was subsequently passed, and the Canadian Bill of Rights, subsection 1(c), protected the freedom of religion. It was then later enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1982, our Charter, as a fundamental freedom under subsection 2(a).

The Conservative’s Bill of Rights from the Diefenbaker government, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under the Trudeau government, secured religious freedom as a fundamental pillar of the rights and freedoms that we enjoy here, and the values we therefore promote and protect abroad.

However, this office, and the position that Ambassador Bennett fills, is not a new extension of this position internationally. We had the Bill of Rights and the Charter, but in 1981, we were a signatory to the UN declaration on the elimination of all forms of religious intolerance. In fact, that UN section said that religious freedom must be fully respected and guaranteed around the world.

We were a 1951 signatory to the convention on the status of refugees. This is where I feel the hypocrisy of the new government is no more evident than by its successful integration of a Syrian refugee effort. We have complimented the government on doing it on a revised timeline to ensure the success of these new members of our family. Why are they in Canada? I would suggest, because it is hard to get data from the government, that almost all of them were fleeing religious persecution, or certainly a vast majority were. The government was good to extend the welcome and protection of religious freedom here, but it wants to eliminate our agent who is trying to promote that value abroad. I cannot square that circle.

It is a bit like its position on ISIL: We know the dislocation and threats of violence to so many people and we will help them if they come here, but we do not want to address the issues on the ground, whether it is a direct threat to life and security or it is the promotion of religious tolerance, which is usually at the root of this strife and out-migration.

It is important for us to recognize, again, that this is an area where in the past there has not been much white space between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. Despite some of the rhetoric at times, our record as Conservatives was actually better at helping the vulnerable.

Let us look at refugees on the government-assisted side. In the last two years of the Chrétien-Martin government, there were 7,400 refugees in each of 2004 and 2005. In the last two years of the Conservative government, there were 7,600 and 9,400 government-assisted refugees. The story is the same with private sponsorship, with about 3,000 in the previous years of the last Liberal administration. There were 5,000 and almost 10,000 private sponsorships in the last years of the Conservative government.

I am illustrating that, because one of the persecutions we allow refugees to find refuge in Canada from is religious intolerance. This is a circumstance where the work of Ambassador Bennett’s committee that he helped spearhead on an international basis, with over 20 countries involved, promoting religious tolerance, understanding, and the ability for people to practice their faith in their country, is about protecting them where they live.

Why would we not both offer refuge for those who come here but promote refuge in their country? I hope they will stand up for this important office.

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