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Refugees, religious freedom top concerns for Parliament

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — After a surge of asylum seekers over the summer, Canada’s refugee policies will be top concerns for many faith-based groups once Parliament resumes Sept. 18.

But religious freedom, conscience rights for health care workers, anti-poverty strategies, palliative care, poverty, and climate change also remain high on the agenda.

The Liberals face division in their own caucus on both its handling of more than 7,000 asylum seekers who crossed the border illegally in recent months. While the flow has abated somewhat, concerns remain that U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies toward 800,000 so-called DREAMers, people who came to the United States as undocumented migrants as children, could spur yet another surge of border crossers.

The Liberals also face internal division over a new tax policy that could adversely affect doctors and other professionals, entrepreneurs, farmers and contractors such as plumbers, in the name of tax fairness.

Refugee policy

For Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), a Christian social justice think-tank, care for refugees is among their top priorities, said CPJ executive director Joe Gunn.

“This is an area where what happens in the United States is really going to throw Canada for a loop,” Gunn said. He noted the United States bishops oppose sending tens of thousands of young people back to Mexico. 

The Canadian government is even more worried about hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, from countries like Honduras and El Salvador, whose temporary permits to remain in the country may come to an end. It was Trump’s decision to end a temporary permit for Haitians that prompted the surge of Haitian asylum seekers to Canada during the summer.

Gunn noted the Liberal government is sending emissaries to these communities in the United States to let them know, “No, Canada is not going to accept tens of thousands of people who are no longer able to stay in the United States.”

“Those kinds of very scary numbers really complicate the whole question for people wanting to work with refuges,” Gunn said. “Many of our parishes are looking for more families to sponsor.” 

A government cap on private refugee sponsorships, and having the system flooded with new arrivals, could mean those waiting in refugee camps for years to come to Canada have to wait longer, Gunn said. “The pressure on how to respond to the situation in the United States can literally twist our system into knots.”

The illegal border crossers are exploiting a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement that would otherwise not allow them to apply for refugee status in Canada because they were already in a safe country where they could apply.

CPJ, as well as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and other faith groups, are opposed to the Safe Third Country agreement. Gunn said every case needs to be judged individually. The agreement encourages people to sneak across the border, which puts additional strain on the system, he said.

Religious Freedom

For Cardus, a faith-based think-tank based, a top concern is Bill C-51, an omnibus bill to be introduced this fall intended to clean up various obsolete or redundant parts of the Criminal Code.

Andrew Bennett, director of Cardus Law, and Canada’s former Ambassador of Religious Freedom, said he is concerned about the elimination of Section 176 that “prohibits obstructing a clergyman or minister from celebrating divine series or performing any other function in connection with this calling.”

The sections to be eliminated recognize religious worship as “uniquely privileged,” and something different from a Rotary Club meeting or a university lecture, Bennett said.

The proposed changes are “not necessarily malicious,” but perhaps come from “an increasing amnesia around the importance of religious faith and religious practice in our common life together,” he said.

Conscience rights for health care professionals remain a top priority for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience, and the Catholic Women’s League. The CWL adopted a national resolution at the August national convention requesting the federal government to amend the Criminal Code to make it a crime to coerce health care professionals to participate in or refer on procedures that violate their conscience and religious freedom. The Coalition is supporting a court challenge of the Ontario physicians’ college policy that forces doctors to make effective referrals and, in emergency circumstances, to perform euthanasia, abortion and other morally objectionable procedures.

Tax policy

As for the proposed Liberal tax changes, CPJ’s Gunn believes any government programs to receive and integrate refugees, effectively deal with climate change commitments, or to address a promised national poverty reduction strategy, “will cost money” and increased taxes “are a way government can put some of these activities into practice.”

Whether what the government is proposing has been done “in a fair way,” with enough consultation, is another question, he said. In principle, tax reform that encourages “those making very handsome incomes” to pay more should be expected. Yet, Gunn pointed out efforts should be made to ensure tax reforms, “don’t divide and hurt solidarity,” and create social disruption.

Forcing doctors to pay more tax could have an impact on the provinces who might be forced to pay more for their services to compensate, he said.

CPJ hopes the Liberal government follows through on its promise for a national anti-poverty strategy and finds some revenue through eliminating the subsidies to the oil and gas industry, so as to better meet commitments Canada made in the Paris climate change agreement.


The Canadian Catholic bishops have spoken up strongly against the Liberal government’s commitment of $650 million to fund sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion, overseas. The government hopes to reduce the estimated 22 million unsafe abortions annually — a leading cause of death among women in the developing world, who often turn to backstreet providers because they have no access to legal abortion.

However, advocating for access to abortion faces obstacles in regions such as Africa where most governments are conservative and influenced by Christian and Muslim groups who are strongly anti-abortion.

For Campaign Life Coalition and REAL Women of Canada, overseas abortion funding will remain a top agenda item. REAL Women with the World Congress of Families has launched a petition asking Prime Minister Trudeau to redirect the abortion funding to “help address the real needs of the poor in Africa, like clean water and maternal health care.”

Campaign Life’s Johanne Brownrigg said they want to see the government return to the policies of the Maternal and Child Health Initiative launched by the Harper government that did not include funding abortion. “The millions spent abroad supporting the health of mothers as well as the birth and lives of young children was applauded throughout Africa,” she said. “We are making it a priority to oppose the $650M spending. We will be challenging the decision to tie aid to abortion, said ”

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