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Will new government boost social justice causes?

By Will Braun
Canadian Mennonite magazine

11/25/2015

When a provincial election brought a wave of optimism to Manitoba — or at least parts of it — in 1999, a colleague said, “yep, the reign of God should descend upon us any time now.”

Change is always less dramatic on the ground than on the stump, which is either good or bad, depending on your political tilt. But still there is something of the reign of God at stake. So, what might the change in Ottawa mean for a few issues that faith groups have pushed?

Social values

Traditionally, many people of faith have cared about conservative social issues such as abortion and same-sex rights. But Conservatives dropped those battles years ago so change is a moot point.

Aid

Canada’s official development assistance budget has sunk to 0.24 per cent of Gross National Income, far below the 0.7 per cent goal set in 1969 by a United Nations commission led by former Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson. Will Trudeau live up to Pearson’s ideal? During the campaign, Liberal party president Anna Gainey said the party “will aspire to reach this allocation,” noting that “(Trudeau), in particular, is strongly committed to Canada fulfilling this obligation.” Good intentions but no commitment.

The Liberal platform does commit to refocus aid on “the poorest and most vulnerable,” reversing a Conservative trend toward blending aid with commercial, political and ideological goals.

Jennifer Wiebe, who directs the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ottawa office, says she’ll be watching for reassessment of Canada’s list of 25 priority countries to include fewer middle-income nations. She would also like Canada’s commitment to overseas food security to shift more toward smallholder agriculture.

Justice

None of the 100-plus categories in the online version of the Liberal platform is devoted to justice issues. There’s nothing, for instance, about Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), the bold and innovative program struggling to survive after being largely dropped by Ottawa. Last year there were 16 CoSA organizations across Canada, many with strong faith ties. They match released high-risk sex offenders with volunteers who provide friendship and accountability.

The CoSA offices had received about $650,000 annually from Correctional Services Canada (CSC). Public Safety Canada had also funded a $7.5 million demonstration project that allowed for significant expansion of the programs between 2009 and 2014. That project proved the program to be effective at reducing re-offences and saving government money. Despite that, last year Ottawa cut about half of the $650,000 and offered nothing to replace the demonstration project funding.

Eileen Henderson, who heads CoSA work for MCC Ontario, says four of the 16 CoSA organizations no longer function and the others are struggling to stay alive. She is hopeful the new government will shift its justice focus from punishment to rehabilitation and reintegration.

In addition to funding, she will be looking for greater dialogue with decision-makers and sustainable funding for community-based organizations so they can focus on their work rather than paying bills. She also hopes for an atmosphere in which work with victims and work with offenders are seen on the same spectrum not in opposition to each other.

Refugees

One photograph had all parties suddenly scrambling to appear responsive to refugee concerns in September. The Liberals are prioritizing their promised to bring 25,000 government-sponsored refugees from Syria and Iraq to Canada by year’s end. Whether or not they meet this target, it is clearly part of a larger shift.

Among various promises to make it easier, faster and cheaper to become Canadian, the Liberals committed to reinstate health coverage for people in the immigration process, reversing a Conservative move that stung refugee claimants and sponsors.

Brian Dyck, who serves as Migration and Resettlement Program Co-ordinator for MCC Canada, will be watching to see whether overall refugee settlement targets rise, or whether Syrians simply fill existing limits, displacing others. Over the long term, Dyck wonders how humanitarian immigration — primarily refugees as opposed to other immigrants — will fit in the overall immigration plan.

War and peace

The Liberals have committed to “maintain current National Defence spending levels,” though they will opt for something cheaper than the F-35 stealth fighter jets the Conservatives had on order. They have made vague commitments to increase Canada’s role in UN peacekeeping missions, something Harper had nearly eliminated. And of course, Trudeau has said he will end the combat mission in Iraq, while still training local forces.

KAIROS

KAIROS, the national ecumenical organization best known for having its funding abruptly cut by the Conservatives, is hoping for change. In an email, KAIROS director Jennifer Henry said that at the time their funding was nixed, “assurances were made to (KAIROS) from all opposition parties that they would restore funding.” She hopes the new government will “honour this commitment.”

The chill

Church organizations and aid agencies have felt the threat of Ottawa coming after them if they publicly ruffled Conservative feathers. A year ago, at least a few sentences in this article would have caused me pause. That has changed. Julia Sánchez, head of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, said via email: “Our sense and our expectation is that the chill is off.” She added that organizations have become so “used to self-censoring over the past few years” that it may take time to readjust.

Jennifer Wiebe points to the section of the Liberal platform that says the party will: “allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment.” The platform refers to “an understanding that charities make an important contribution to public debate and public policy.”

Let me exercise this new freedom to say the Liberals, like other parties, pandered to the financial self-interest of voters as much as they invoked a broader vision for society. Still, the new government may well extend its sunshine to some of “the least of these.” At such times, church folk will be there to encourage and collaborate.

Will Braun lives near Morden, Man., and writes for Canadian Mennonite magazine, in which this article first appeared.