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Finding the Place of Religion in Canada’s Democratic Life
October 6, 2020
A week before the country-wide shut down in response to coronavirus, a small group of MPs, aides, and national representatives of religious groups gathered in a small conference room on the third floor of a Parliamentary building on Wellington Street, Ottawa. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the creation of an All-Party Interfaith Caucus, an entity that could facilitate dialogue between parliamentarians and Canada’s diverse religious communities about areas of mutual interest and concern: reconciliation, poverty, environmental stewardship, hate speech, and other issues. MPs who have been helping to steer this initiative with the support of the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, will be speaking about the role of faith as a vehicle for dialogue at the upcoming DemocracyXChange Summit.
The most recent Federal election campaign featured discussion of religion primarily as a source of division and polarization. Whether it was the moral positions of the Conservative leader or the debate over Bill 21 in Quebec, religion was seen as a conversation stopper for politicians. It became clear that we need new language and concepts to engage with religion in the public sphere. We often recognize religion as a source of identity, spiritual practice, and deep-rooted articles of faith. These are sources of difference that add to the diversity of our country. They call us to summon the same ethic of inclusion, toleration, and mutual learning that we are applying to other social differences.
As much as Canada’s religions contribute to our diversity, however, they also reinforce our common life in a variety of ways. At an individual level, religious communities help to educate young people to dedicate their lives to the betterment of the world and to serve others. Religion also reinforces the bonds of community ties that help to foster neighbourhood vitality and relationships of social trust. These communities also give rise to institutions, from charities to small businesses, which generate significant public benefits. In other words, Canada’s religions are an important part of the fabric of democratic life. Few would question that religion can be anti-democratic, especially when its leaders promote prejudice, misinformation and fear. Our challenge, then, is to create structures that can reinforce prosocial religion by connecting the insights arising from the teachings and experience of religious communities to processes of democratic deliberation.
The All-Party Interfaith Caucus is intended to be a mechanism for this kind of democratic action. All-Party groups are informal parliamentary bodies that have become a feature of several Westminster legislatures. They typically bring together backbencher parliamentarians across different parties to work with non-governmental groups on issues of shared concern. As Dr. Paul Thomas has noted, All-Party Parliamentary Groups have proliferated in Canada over the past several decades – often driven by these converging interests. They create opportunities for parliamentarians to develop policy ideas through structured interaction with constituents, community groups, and lobbyists. While many parties also have issue caucuses, All-Party Groups exert a countervailing influence on growing partisanship by bringing together parliamentarians from across the aisle.
On October 15th at 11am ET, three parliamentarians from different political parties will participate in a panel discussion at DemocracyXChange about how faith can be a vehicle for dialogue in an age of partisan polarization. Elizabeth May (Green Party), Garnett Genuis (Conservative Party), and Anthony Housefather (Liberal Party) will discuss how religion can have a positive role in public policy and the best way to engage with a religiously diverse citizenry. I have worked with Dr. John Milloy, a former Cabinet minister in the Ontario government and the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College, to organize this conversation. Our hope is that the discussion will point to concepts and principles that transcend partisan difference and promotes a space for more robust public dialogue.
Geoffrey Cameron is Director of the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’i Community of Canada. He is also a research associate with the Global Migration Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto, and has previously been a senior policy advisor at Global Affairs Canada. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Toronto, where he was a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar.