When the prime minister called the federal election, he framed the debate as having two key pillars: the economy, and security. The crushing migrant crisis in Europe fed into this frame — until the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach, and that unforgettable photo broke our hearts. The defining issue then became humanitarian leadership — and, who would have guessed? — faith communities were thrown directly into the forefront of debate.
Because, you see, faith communities have been receiving and settling refugees for 35 years, since a Progressive Conservative government initiated private sponsorship of refugees at the urging of Canadian Mennonites and their ecumenical colleagues. Ask faith communities, who make up the majority of Sponsorship Agreement Holders, what the problems are with our refugee policies today and they’ll be able to tell you right away.
Citizens for Public Justice put out the story for all who have ears to hear — http://www.cpj.ca/private-sponsorship-and-public-policy — 88 per cent of people working every day with refugees are “very concerned” with bureaucratic delays in processing; 80 per cent are very concerned with the government cuts to refugee health coverage; 92 per cent are either concerned or very concerned with the lack of consultation from our politicians; and 84 per cent are concerned or very concerned with the lack of immigration officials in Canadian visa posts abroad.
CPJ has prepared a 2015 Election Bulletin, which offers convenient background on the issues, and offers questions you may care to ask candidates when they request your support. Why not ask candidates how many Syrian refugees they pledge to resettle, how they plan to meet that target, how they plan to include our churches and whether they will reinstate the pre-2012 Interim Federal Health Program — cuts which a federal court has described as “cruel and inhumane.”
And CPJ’s Election Bulletin covers other issues of concern.
Faith communities have long been on the front lines of addressing poverty in Canada, through support for food banks, feeding centres and In From the Cold programs. At election time we should all focus on policies that could decrease inequality, make the tax system fairer, and actually prevent and reduce poverty. Candidates for office could be asked if their party is prepared to spend an additional $2 billion per year in affordable housing, or if they would reverse tax benefits for the wealthy (like income splitting and the doubling of tax-free savings accounts) in order to privilege existing, successful anti-poverty measures like the National Child Benefit Supplement.
In his recent encyclical Pope Francis encouraged people of faith to respond to the climate crisis with renewed vigour and an emphasis on social justice. Wouldn’t we view the election period as a success if our newly elected politicians committed to more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets — Canada’s are now the weakest among G7 countries — as a result of hearing faith communities echo the pope’s call?
Candidates could be asked when they will establish a price on carbon emissions, as several provinces have already agreed to do. They might be asked when the long-promised regulations on emissions from the oil and gas sector are forthcoming, if subsidies to fossil fuel producers will end (an action promised since 2009), and to elaborate their plans to revitalize renewable energy projects. And will Canada pay its fair share, estimated at $500 million, in contributions to UN bodies that assist poorer countries to lower their own emissions?
In August the Catholic bishops encouraged Canadians to vote — without suggesting why so many of us refrain from doing so. Democracy in Canada needs a boost, by enhancing the role of Elections Canada in encouraging fairer elections and minimizing the role of money in campaigns. Parties could refrain from attack ads and negative messaging. Strengthening democracy should not be limited to election campaigns — CPJ suggests politicians should clarify why so many charities are undergoing audits of their “political activities” and any new government should commit to a very minimal use of omnibus bills, as good ways to encourage more public engagement.
The CCCB’s Sept. 8 letter on refugees invited Catholics to “get involved politically,” referencing CPJ’s election material as a resource in this regard. You may download a copy at http://www.cpj.ca/2015ElectionBulletin
During this election, and after, faithful citizens can raise important issues, propose significant commitments, hold meaningful debates and hold prospective office-holders to their promises.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.