House of Commons Hansard #32 of the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was countries.

Topics

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

Order, please.

I do apologize. The hon. member was sort of midway and started a pause of sorts. I thought he was finished, and then he continued on. Perhaps he will be able to finish his thought. We will give him enough time to do that.

Questions and comments, the hon. member for Mount Royal.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Anthony Housefather Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Speaker, as the hon, member for Sarnia—Lambton mentioned, we do in Canada have a department on the status of women. However, we do not have an office of women's freedom for women's human rights abroad. I am sure the hon. member would agree that women's rights are also very important internationally, as are religious freedoms.

Would the hon. member tell us whether he believes that religious freedom can be adequately protected in the broader context, as part of a broader office, without losing anything we have now in the Office of Religious Freedom?

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Peter Fragiskatos Liberal London North Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for that very good question. It allows me to articulate a policy that would do a great deal in terms of human rights promotion.

Certainly our government has spoken about the need to advocate for human rights on the international stage. Promoting women's human rights is central to that. Therefore, as a country, let alone a government, we can talk about the need for promoting human rights on the international stage and also talk about those other fundamental initiatives that need to be taken, such as promoting women's rights, talking about the need to make sure that reproductive and sexual health of women is protected and maintained, and recognizing that women are affected disproportionately by things like climate change. All of this needs to be recognized.

These are very important issues that cannot be obscured, and I worry that the motion put forward by the opposition does so.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

March 21st, 2016 / 4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Jason Kenney Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise in the House to talk about this motion. I would like to congratulate the hon. member for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan on this initiative.

One of my proudest accomplishments in this place was having played a role during the previous government in the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom. I would like, therefore, first to address the reason in principle that this office is necessary; second, to describe why it is particularly urgent at this time that Canada and like-minded democracies emphasize the protection of vulnerable religious minorities; and third, to offer some practical reflections on why I believe this is necessary to the Department of Foreign Affairs, now Global Affairs. Fourth, I hope to have time to say a word about the reality of the genocide being inflicted against vulnerable religious minorities in the world today.

First, I reject the assertion of the members opposite that there is no such thing as a hierarchy of rights. Of course there is. We can see it right in the charter. Certain rights are categorized as fundamental rights and others as democratic or procedural rights. There are administrative rights. There are political preferences that our friends on the left in particular like to conflate into rights. However, to suggest that all of these have the same legal or moral weight as, for example, the right to life is illogical.

By the way, I will be splitting my time with the member for Peace River—Westlock.

If we say that the right to obtain a driver's licence has the same moral and legal weight as the right to life, we are clearly misunderstanding the very perception of rights.

Second, this notion that all rights are indivisible and equal and that we therefore cannot prioritize any is manifestly false, as the members opposite have demonstrated. Each of them, in their speeches, emphasized particular sets of rights that they think the Government of Canada ought to prioritize both domestically and internationally, and they are right to do so. However, to suggest that to prioritize the protection of people who are facing genocide because of their faith convictions or their conscience is somehow to diminish other rights is offensive and illogical.

Why ought we, then, to prioritize freedom of conscience and freedom of religion?

One of the great former prime ministers of this place, the Right Hon. John Diefenbaker, when he introduced the Bill of Rights here, spoke about the sacred character of man. In that speech he was reflecting a long tradition in liberal democracy since the Enlightenment, the view that there is something special in the character of humankind in the possession of inalienable rights, the source of which is not the state or an electoral majority or judiciary or talking. Rather, there is a sacred character in the human person from which flow inalienable rights. The preamble to our own Charter of Rights from 1982 echoes John Diefenbaker's sentiment, which echoes all of the great documents of liberal democracy when it says in the preamble, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:...”

Why does it say that? Was it just some sort of accident that former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau effectively wrote that into the preamble of the Charter of Rights? No, because he understood what Diefenbaker meant by the sacred character of man. He understand what the founders of the American republic, for example, meant when they said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights....”

If we reflect on this notion of the sacred character of man, man not being some animal but possessed with a unique and inviolable dignity, it is from this that flows religious conviction or its absence. That is why this is such a priority.

That is why a great man who lived through the 20th century, what he called the “century of tears”, a man who lived through the twin totalitarianisms of Nazism and communism, St. John Paul II, said that the first and primordial right is the right to freedom of conscience and religion, because it is through these rights that we define our deepest commitments of who we are as human persons. That, I submit, is why it is appropriate to understand the central nature of the theme of conscience and religion in the broader spectrum of rights.

Second, why is it particularly urgent at this time? It is because we are facing, as all of the data demonstrates and as colleagues of mine have introduced into debate, perhaps an unprecedented wave of violent persecution against members of religious and confessional minorities around the world.

Every day, without exaggeration, there are massed acts of violence purposely targeting people because of their religious confession or lack of it, whether it is the arrest of Uyghur Muslim dissidents in the Xinjiang region of China or the self-immolation of Buddhist Tibetans on the Tibetan Plateau to protest the illegality of their practising their ancient faith.

Whether it is religious minorities in Sri Lanka who face harassment and persecution because they are Muslim, or Hindu, or Christian; whether it is the Catholic schoolgirls who were beheaded in last year in Mindanao on their way to school for the crime of being Christian; whether it is the bombs that go off in Ahmadiyya Mosques in Pakistan, or Ismailis or Shia who are targeted for violence in Pakistan, in Yemen, and in so many other places; whether it is peaceful Sunni Muslims who are targeted daily for bombing by violent Salafis and Wahhabis because their form of Islam is considered insufficiently extreme, right across the world we see these waves. Indeed even in the liberal democratic west, we see a growing sense that the freedoms of religion and conscience need to be impinged by the state.

I submit that now it is more urgent than ever. Indeed, one of the reasons that instigated the former government's creation of the Office of Religious Freedom was the visit to this place in February 2011 of a dear friend of mine named Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minority Affairs in Pakistan, the first and only non-Muslim minister ever in the Pakistani cabinet. He talked to us about the persecution of Hindus; Sufis; Ahmadiyyas; Shia; Christians, both protestant and catholic; of Parsi Zoroastrians; and all of the minorities without proper state protection in his country. He talked to us about how he was facing a fatwa, because of his defence of those who had been brought up on false charges of blasphemy, including the young peasant Christian girl, Asia Beebi, who continues to swelter in a Pakistani jail under the threat of death.

He was a living witness to us, a sign of contradiction against this wave of hatred based on religion. He went back to Pakistan, and 12 days later was shot 21 times when he left his home that morning. His witness in this place helped to inspire parliamentarians of all parties to support the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom to say that Canada will not stand by passively in the face of such a wave of violence and persecution.

This country has always been a voice for the voiceless, a defence for the persecuted; and before this office was created, I, as a minister in the previous government, sought to have members of our foreign service prioritize these issues. I was always told not to do so publicly because we did not want to embarrass other countries or detract from bilateral relations.

Then when I would go to meet foreign leaders privately, like Prime Minister Gillani in Islamabad, our senior diplomats told me not to raise these issues privately lest we upset bilateral relations.

That is my last point, the functional problem that needed to be addressed, where these issues, for whatever reason, were not being addressed frankly and forthrightly by our foreign service.

Now, I am proud to say, thanks to the good work of Ambassador Bennett and his coworkers at the Office of Religious Freedom at our missions around the world, this is being emphasized, not to the exclusion of other rights and concerns, and Canada is now playing a leadership role. Thanks to our leadership, we are now chairing the international contact group on religious freedom.

Let us continue this relatively modest but still powerfully important initiative for the defenceless.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, one of the wonders of freedom is that the member for Calgary Midnapore can challenge our logic with his own logic, and we can have a completely civilized conversation based on fundamental and sometimes irreconcilable philosophical disagreements.

One wonders, then, why that same member has not spent his political capital on the promotion of an office of political freedom. Freedom of the press, of scientific research, and otherwise of personal choices has never been a particular forte for the hon. member or his recent government.

Religious freedom is an important freedom, indeed, a very important freedom, but it is only one freedom in a suite of freedoms that allow a society to define itself as free.

My wife is from the province of Sultan Kudarat on the Island of Mindanao, a place the member referred to. When I was there a few years ago, there was a major bombing only a few cities from where I was staying. The civil war that has existed there for more than a generation is not something that would be addressed by the Office of Religious Freedom either way. It is a red herring in this debate.

Freedom of association and assembly are necessary for the freedom of religion, as well as the freedom of thought, of being political, of reading, of writing, and of communicating on topics of our own interest, of having freedom of debate.

The Office of Religious Freedom is only one piece of the puzzle in defending basic human rights and liberties, but it is a large puzzle with many pieces. Does restricting our protection of human rights internationally to only—

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

Order. We only have five minutes for our questions and comments. I think we will go, at this point, to the hon. member for Calgary Midnapore.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Jason Kenney Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Mr. Speaker, first of all, the member clearly does not understand my track record in this place and falsely asserts that I have never expressed concern about general political freedoms.

I was one of the founding co-chairs of the parliamentary friends of Tibet. I do not need to go through my record and defend myself to that member, but I will say that I do think there are other sets of rights that we ought to prioritize. For example, one of my disappointments with the record of the previous Conservative government is that we did not implement a 2008 platform commitment to create a program for democratic development. I thought we ought to have done that. The government felt that funds were scarce. However, that is a good example of how other sets of rights and concerns can be prioritized and addressed.

The member said I have never really spoken in favour of freedom of the press. I proudly stood in this place and voted for the repeal of section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, a motion that the members of the Liberal Party voted against, and in so doing helped to enhance freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Canada.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his speech.

I would like to hear his thoughts on a statement made by his Conservative colleagues. When they were talking about prioritizing certain rights, they said that if the mandate of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom were expanded, certain rights that this government or any government deems a priority would not be addressed.

The argument was that if these rights are not addressed, freedom of religion will no longer be a priority. They were essentially implying that the government would have to create an office for other freedoms, give priority to certain freedoms, and perhaps create other offices for the freedoms deemed more important by the government.

Did I understand the member's colleagues correctly when earlier they implied that some rights are more important and should be prioritized and that the government should perhaps have several offices for the freedoms deemed more important?

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Jason Kenney Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Mr. Speaker, this is already done.

As the other members pointed out, we have a number of projects focused on women's rights, for example, which absolutely makes sense. Everything we are doing, we are doing with $5 million.

The millions of members of denominational and religious minorities who are subject to persecution as a result of their religion need an approach adapted to the challenges they face. That requires a certain level of expertise and dialogue with the different religions leaders.

The Minister of Global Affairs will have to examine these issues. This is not a controversial issue. That is why representatives from nearly all denominations in Canada have supported keeping the Office of Religious Freedom.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today and speak to the motion tabled by my colleague the member for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, which calls for this House to recognize the good work being done by Canada's Office of Religious Freedom and calls for the federal government to renew the current mandate of this office.

I also want to thank the member for Cypress Hills—Grasslands for his significant work on this critical issue, over the years, to ensure that this remains a priority for the government and this House.

Religious freedom is one of the most fundamental freedoms we possess as human beings. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, under Article 18, upholds religious freedom as a universal human right, stating:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

It is important to distinguish that this universal human right to religious freedom differs from the civil right to religious freedom. It is clear that, while all possess the universal right to religious freedom, few are able to experience it, with many countries around the world lacking the civil right to religious freedom. That is why, as a Canadian, I am extremely proud and grateful to enjoy freedom of religion, because it is enshrined as a civil right in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I believe that this is part of what makes Canada a great country.

The government has spoken today about how it wants to promote all human rights and freedoms. I would argue that religious freedom not only is one of many important human rights; it in fact creates the very foundation for other inherent human rights to prosper. Religious freedom is an essential partner of democracy and other civil liberties. This is why, in Canada's own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, religious freedom not only is one of the five fundamental freedoms; it is in fact the first of the five fundamental freedoms.

Unfortunately, in western societies, poll after poll reveals that the role of organized religion and faith in our lives is decreasing. It stands to reason that as the role of religion decreases in the west, so does the value we place on the right to religious freedom. This is an alarming trend.

Let me be clear. When religious freedom is diminished or reduced, other freedoms soon follow.

Former United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt noted this important connection between religious freedom and democracy, stating:

Where freedom of religion has been attacked, the attack has come from sources opposed to democracy. Where democracy has been overthrown, the spirit of free worship has disappeared. And where religion and democracy have vanished, good faith and reason in international affairs have given way to strident ambition and brute force.

That is why the work of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom is so important.

If the government truly wants to promote and advance all basic human rights, it should not only renew the mandate for the Office of Religious Freedom, but strengthen its mandate with an increased budget.

Hon. members, religious freedom ought to be one of Canada's greatest exports.

Part of the mandate of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom is to promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.

One of the practical ways in which the office has accomplished this is by spearheading the development of the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, last June. This group brings together government representatives of more than 20 countries in a diverse and multilateral effort to facilitate networking, co-operation, and collaboration to address the challenge posed by international religious persecution.

Another critical part of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom is to protect and advocate on behalf of religious minorities under threat. This is accomplished through the religious freedom fund. The $4.25-million fund supports projects, including awareness-raising activities that provide education on religious freedom and research on religious freedom to support government engagement in the areas of tolerance and pluralism.

I want to highlight Nigeria, where the religious freedom fund supported a two-year, $730,000 project that allowed for the promotion of intercommunity dialogue and conflict mediation in Nigeria's Plateau State.

In Nigeria, Christians regularly experience horrific violence as part of their faith. The Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, an al Qaeda ally, has committed to ridding the north half of Nigeria of all non-Muslim influence, including Christians. I want to share a recent example of religious violence in the Plateau State of Nigeria, reported by The Voice of the Martyrs Canada.

Three months ago, Fulani herdsmen, who are linked to Boko Haram, attacked a predominantly Christian village of Hwak Kwata-Zawan, and the total number of fatalities resulting from these raids reached 15, leaving many more in the community grief stricken and emotionally wounded. In one of the village homes, 57-year-old Rose Monday was killed while trying to protect her three young grandchildren from the gunmen. Two of the three children, unfortunately, succumbed to their injuries. Their eldest sister, five-year-old Anna, who miraculously survived, is receiving treatment in the hospital for gunshot wounds.

I want to note that this horrific religious violence took place in Plateau State, the same state that was a recipient of the religious freedom fund project. Clearly, there is a continued role that Canada's Office of Religious Freedom must have in places like Nigeria's Plateau State to support projects that mobilize local capacity to respond to local challenges.

Canada must continue to help protect other members of religious minorities like Rose Monday who are at risk of experiencing violence and death merely as a result of their religion. It is also important to note that Canada's Office of Religious Freedom is committed to promoting religious freedoms around the world for people of all faiths. Ambassador Bennett has actively spoken out against violence and discrimination toward people of many different faiths.

Religious freedom is not a Liberal or Conservative value; it is a Canadian value. Former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker championed human rights both in Canada and around the world. On the day he introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in Parliament in 1960, he spoke these words:

I am Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.

Under prime minister Pierre Trudeau, religious freedom was enshrined as a civil right within Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney also aggressively promoted religious freedom as part of Canada's foreign policy, especially within the former communist countries of eastern Europe. In 1998, former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy announced that addressing religious intolerance would be a key priority for the then department of foreign affairs and international development.

Then in 2004, a bipartisan parliamentary subcommittee on human rights and international development adopted a resolution that urged the Government of Canada "to make the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of religion and belief a central element of its efforts to defend human rights internationally". This resolution was made a reality in 2013 when the former Conservative government established the current Office of Religious Freedom, dedicated to promoting freedom of religion or belief as a key Canadian foreign policy priority.

I fully support this motion to renew the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom, not because I am a Conservative but because I am Canadian. I urge all members of the House to support this motion. It is a Canadian value that I am proud of and cherish. As I noted earlier, Canada should make religious freedom one of our greatest exports.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Winnipeg North Manitoba

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I have been listening to a great deal of the debate today and what comes to my mind is that, when we think in terms of religious freedom, I concur with the member that it is a very strong and passionate Canadian value. It is close to our hearts, and we want to demonstrate strong leadership as much as possible, not only here in Canada but outside of Canada's borders.

Where I really disagree with the Conservatives' approach to this debate today is that they seem to be of the opinion that the only way we can protect religious freedom, something I often refer to as freedom of thought or human rights issues, is to have that office. There is no doubt that Dr. Bennett has been able to accomplish some good things, but I would ask the member this. Does he not recognize that at times there is a need to look at ways in which we could possibly do an even better job, that there could be something in the budget tomorrow that might deal with this particular issue, and that, in fact, the real issue is human rights and ensuring that religious freedom is part of a proactive government dealing with individual freedoms and the freedoms of all?

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Mr. Speaker, I believe the question was whether I see the need for perhaps a different focus. I would agree that we could perhaps do more things other than just the Office of Religious Freedom, but that in no way requires us to shut down the Office of Religious Freedom. If we want to do more things, let us do more things, for sure. If the member opposite is hinting that we have to look in the budget to see more things, for sure we will, and I hope he is also hinting that the Liberals are going to keep the Office of Religious Freedom.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Mr. Speaker, the last two speakers have really put their fingers on the central point, that the government wants to make this about process. However, it is not about process, but it is about priorities.

We have seen from the current government that it is going to kill the Office of Religious Freedom. There is no mention of religious freedom in the mandate letters. There is no consideration for religious minorities in the refugee program, and the Liberals are refusing to recognize the genocide of Yazidis and Christians, even though it has been recognized by the United States and the European Parliament.

Could the member expand on the point that it is not about process but about priorities, and religious freedom clearly is not a priority for the government?

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Mr. Speaker, I agree with my colleague entirely that this sends a signal to all Canadians that religious freedom is not a priority. The government is going to shut this office down without even taking a second look at it, despite the repeated calls from this side of the House to say that we should see what work it has been doing, see what kind of an influence we have been in the world, and see how we are leading the world in terms of religious freedom. It pains me to see the lack of vision when it comes to the Office of Religious Freedom.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Anthony Housefather Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Speaker, I share my hon. colleague's passion for religious freedom, as do many people on this side of the House.

I am not quite sure how the member for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan can presume to determine that the government is not committed to religious freedom. However, I think that the vast majority of people on all sides of the House are committed to religious freedoms, which is why I would ask him the same thing I asked his colleague.

In the event that the Conservatives really wanted to have unanimity on something upon which I think we almost all agree, that religious freedom is important, they could have put forward a motion asking that the work of the current office continue in this or a different format; meaning the current format or an expanded format. I think they would have had all the people on this side voting for their motion.

My question is this. Why would the member not have put forward a motion to which all of us could have agreed, as opposed to this specific motion insisting on the exact specific existing mandate, which the minister is supposed to look at reviewing, according to the mandate letter, as we have already heard?

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Mr. Speaker, when we were coming up with the motion, it was my colleague who brought it up, and so I cannot talk to the specifics of what the motion was. However, I do think we were calling out to the government to say that this is a priority, that this was a priority in the past, and it should be a priority into the future.

Religious freedom is something about which we all care deeply. I would agree with my colleague on that. Therefore, given that, we were concerned that the funding would end for this office. If this is broadly supported all around the House, the Office of Religious Freedom should also be broadly supported.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Beloeil—Chambly.

It will likely surprise no one to hear that I, and I think most if not all of my colleagues, will be voting against this motion. It comes as no surprise because when the Conservative government created Canada's Office of Religious Freedom, we were already against it, and not because we are against freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is extremely important, but we had some serious problems with this initiative. Part of the problem had to do with the context in which this office was created, but a bigger part of the problem was based on an important matter of principle.

Let us talk briefly about the context. What we need to keep in mind is that the government that created Canada's Office of Religious Freedom is the same government that literally killed Rights and Democracy, which had been around for 25 years and did absolutely extraordinary work to defend all rights and promote democracy around the world. The government killed Rights and Democracy and then created something that focused exclusively on freedom of religion.

It was the same government that also broke its promise to create an institute for democratic development with the pretext that it did not have the funds to do so, and that it was not worthwhile investing in democratic development.

It was a government that always gave the impression that it was making very deliberate choices and giving priority to religious rights over other rights, even though we know that all rights are equal. I would also like to say in passing, I cannot help it, that it was the same government that readily agreed to sign trade agreements, free trade agreements with countries that were known to have serious human rights issues. It was the same government that said yes to arms sales without being able to show that studies had been done to ensure that Canadian arms would not be used to commit human rights abuses.

It is the same government that mounted a very weak defence of people like Raif Badawi, who was convicted simply because he wanted to assert his right to freedom of opinion and expression. It is the same government that literally harassed civil society organizations, here in Canada, that dared to even remotely criticize their policies.

Religious freedom is important. The government that prioritized religious freedom over other rights was the same government that refused to honour its promise to create an office for democratic development. Let us remember this. Democratic institutions and democratic development are the best guarantees of all human rights, including freedom of religion. It was the same government that basically killed Rights & Democracy, a great Canadian institution that had 25 years of experience, and was protecting all the rights of everyone around the world.

Rather than work to defend rights across the board, the government decided to give priority, as I said, to one right over the others. It is an important one but one right should not be above the others. When we talk about human rights, we have to remember one fundamental principle, and that is that all rights are equal, that there is no hierarchy in matters of rights, and that all rights are interdependent. We cannot defend one without defending all.

That is the crux of the problem, the problem of principle. All rights are equal. There is no hierarchy of rights. In order to promote rights effectively, we must bear in mind that they are all interrelated and interdependent instead of making one set of rights more important than another.

Of course, I said, I repeat, and I cannot say enough that freedom of religion is important, but all human rights are important and we must work on them all.

I wish to inform my colleagues opposite that we are here to push the new government to entrench human rights in all of its policies, including its policies on foreign affairs, international development, and trade.

It is also essential to work on developing and promoting democratic institutions in the world, because they are the best guarantee of human rights.

That is the problem of principle. I talked a little bit about the context and the fundamental principle, but we also need to have a closer look at the work that has been done in recent years. Yes, some good work has been done; no one is denying that. However, I would like to point out that certain questions have been raised about the scope of the Office of Religious Freedoms.

For example, a doctoral candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School pointed out that Christian minorities have received almost twice as much attention from that office as Muslim and Jewish minorities. This could be attributed to a number of factors, but nevertheless, it does raise some questions. What raises even more questions is the fact that the office, specifically in Iran, focused mainly on the Baha'i community. I have absolutely no problem with defending that community. I have met with representatives of Baha'i groups. I think it is extremely important. They are in a very difficult situation in Iran, which is one of the worst countries when it comes to human rights abuses in general. However, Sunni Muslims, Jews, and Zoroastrians also face oppression in Iran, so why did that office not work on their behalf, too?

Moreover, in more general terms, the office never examined traditional or aboriginal religions. We know that these files are raising more and more concerns and that acts of repression against traditional and aboriginal religions are on the rise around the world.

We hope that the office's approach was not biased, but we do note some rather significant shortcomings. Nevertheless, even if this was not the case for the office, focusing on and giving priority to one type of human right is problematic because all rights should be considered as a whole.

In fact, Canada must speak out and defend all rights and the rights of all.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is unfortunate that the member cites this tired talking point about allegedly more of the money going to one religious group or the other. For clarification for the hon. member, many of the projects of the office are not public because it is working in very sensitive countries or it cannot release details of the project. Therefore, it does not really make sense to try and do an analysis of who is getting more of the money when a lot of the projects are not public. That is totally the wrong way to go about this anyway, to try to pit groups against each other in this way. The office puts out calls for proposals, does important work and it engages on the proposals that it receives.

Further, is the member aware that Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim leaders have been among the most vocal about the need to renew the mandate of the office? Clearly there is not a bias only toward Christians if we have Sikh, Jewish and Muslim leaders being so vocal in support of the office. Why won't the NDP and the government won't listen to these groups and renew the mandate of this office?

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Mr. Speaker, some religious groups supported creating the Office of Religious Freedom as well as keeping it open. Many people pointed out, just as we did, that there was a fundamental problem with having one set of rights take precedence over another.

As members are aware, I worked for foreign affairs for 15 years. I worked mainly on thematic issues, and I worked very closely with the people in the department who deal with human rights.

The people working on this file know the issues and take a holistic approach by addressing all rights. I always wondered whether, instead of giving so much money to the Office of Religious Freedom, the government should have given more support and additional resources to the existing resources within the department, which were already doing extraordinary work.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.

Winnipeg North Manitoba

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments made by the member, but throughout the day I have talked a great deal about the importance of human rights and the idea of religious freedom as a great Canadian value. I believe all members, on either side of the chamber, believe in the importance of religious freedom.

Does the member want to provide some additional comment in regard to how important it is that when we talk about religious freedom, we talk about human rights in general? Would she agree that good governance would have us show leadership on the wide spectrum of human rights?

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:20 p.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I could not agree more. That is absolutely essential. Earlier on in today's debate, I heard someone mention a puzzle. Freedom of religion is a very important piece of the puzzle.

If we really want human rights to be respected, we cannot start looking at rights individually. We need to look at the problem as a whole and we must ensure strong, well-established governance and democratic development, because those are the best ways to guarantee that human rights will be upheld within a society.

We need to work on the whole issue. Although religious freedom is very important, it should not be given precedence over other rights.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for her remarks. I have a brief question for her about the risks involved in having a government give priority to some rights over others and about the possibility of political or ideological interference. For example, some rights related to access to medical care were not part of the previous government's strategy.

Does my colleague think that there is a potential risk when a government gives some rights priority over others? Could ideology also sometimes interfere in the promotion or protection of certain rights abroad?

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière NDP Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question, which I feel touches on an essential point.

One of the basic principles of human rights is that all human beings are equal. Since we are all equal, we all have equal rights. Human rights encompass women's rights, the right to health, the rights of LGBT communities, and so many more. All of those rights are equal because all humans should be equal in the eyes of the law. That is why we have the basic principle that no particular right takes precedence over others.

Many consider the Office of Religious Freedom to be more an outgrowth of ideology than anything else, but I think that we will leave it to Canadians to decide. They already have, in a way.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

NDP

Matthew Dubé NDP Beloeil—Chambly, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Laurier—Sainte-Marie for sharing her time with me.

I am glad to speak after her because I would like to elaborate on several points she mentioned. We can debate Canada's institutional tools and how public funds are used to achieve diplomatic objectives abroad even if there is some disagreement about how to achieve those objectives and what our offices and institutions should look like. Nevertheless, we recognize the tremendous importance of religious freedom.

This debate reminds me of something one of my professors at McGill University often used to say: human rights apply horizontally, not vertically. In other words, no single right is more important than another. Human rights exist side by side. Some countries are grappling with extremely complex situations that result in certain rights clashing with other rights. Here in Canada and in countries with strong democracies, we recognize that different rights can create more nuanced situations. In those cases, the Supreme Court of Canada sometimes has to adjudicate.

We have judicial, political and legislative institutions here to tackle those problems, but in countries where conflict exists and countries that do not have democratic institutions, the situation can become even more complex.

That is one of the main reasons why we need to have a strategy as well as an office that deals with all human rights, not just rights related to freedom of religion. At the risk of repeating myself, as my colleague did and we will continue to do, the right to freedom of religion is extremely important.

Let us come back to the situations in various countries. It is important to look at the long-term solutions that Canada can provide through our diplomatic action and the work done by the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is not about focusing on human rights alone, but looking at every situation. For example, we could say that this also applies to the fight against ISIL. It is not about photo-ops and sound bites. It is about long-term solutions in order to set up real democratic institutions in these countries and ensure that they are capable of enforcing these rights.

Since the beginning of the debate, Conservative members have named several countries where there is terrorism or violence. Not so long ago, I head a member talking about Boko Haram. Even though there is an office to protect religious freedom, what long-term solutions can we envision other than a comprehensive solution for protecting all rights, real democratic reform in those countries, and the implementation of real democratic and judicial institutions? That is the key. That is what Canada should be working on.

Let me get back to why we oppose the motion. As the old saying goes, we should not put all of our eggs in one basket, but that is what happened here. The Department of Foreign Affairs and our diplomats should not be functioning on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis. They should try to resolve the conflicts that lead to persecution in those countries by putting forward a long-term democratic solution. That is part of the solution.

It really bothers me that today's motion was moved by the government. My colleague from Mount Royal asked one of our Conservative colleagues why the motion was not worded differently.

This is yet another us-against-them motion, a divisive motion that says “these were our policies when we were the Conservative government; take it or leave it” instead of trying to work together to find a real solution that will really tackle these terrible situations in which people are persecuted. That is not something we can tolerate. That kind of violence is unacceptable and appalling.

That is why this motion is so hard to swallow. Rather than look for constructive solutions by adopting a more comprehensive outlook, they are pushing a “my way or the highway” agenda. Unfortunately, that is how things were handled for the past 10 years almost. That is the approach today's Conservative motion argues for.

That mentality and that idea are troubling considering that there were already groups in place doing the work. There has been a lot of talk about Rights and Democracy. Members of the House would be surprised at how much Canadians cared about that organization. When the Conservatives announced the cuts that led to the closure of Rights and Democracy, people were furious and very disappointed. I should not even say that they were furious. They were disappointed because that group had been doing the work for a very long time. Rights and Democracy had built relationships and had known for a long time what the best practices were. That was the case in my riding and I think it was also the case in the ridings of many of my colleagues. Some of them even mentioned it in this debate.

I heard one of my Conservative colleagues, a former minister at that, say that public servants had advised them against getting involved in some files that they should have gotten involved in. The Conservatives used that as an argument to say that the Office of Religious Freedom was a good thing because it allowed the government to intervene in files that public servants did not want it to get involved in. That shows exactly what the problem was with the Conservative approach. When the Conservatives found that something was not working or that an approach needed to be changed, their solution was to do away with it completely and start fresh with something completely ideological in their own image.

That is why we take issue with this Office. It is not because we oppose protecting freedom of religion but, on the contrary, because we had the tools in place to solve and address these problems. Instead, we should have perhaps taken a modified approach taking into account the international reality that changes from one minute to the next and that can be very complex. We should have worked instead within the existing framework and with groups that already had the expertise and a mandate supported by the people, as was mentioned by those who contacted our offices to protest these cuts and, consequently, this closure. We can see the problem there too.

Without repeating what my colleague from Laurier—Sainte-Marie said, this is even more problematic when we consider it together with the problems associated with the Conservatives' approach to other rights. We need only think of the number of countries in the world that have passed homophobic or racist laws that attack other minorities besides religious minorities in their countries. The government seemed to be more reluctant in those cases. My colleague mentioned the example of Raif Badawi. That is another fine example. That is an example of a type of freedom that was violated when a blogger was subjected to the situation he is suffering through now simply for blogging. The government was very reluctant to intervene in that case and even refused to do so. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, we see that instead of being considered and applied horizontally, rights were applied vertically, and that is unfortunate.

We oppose this motion, not because we oppose protecting freedom of religion, but because we recognize that there are many minorities in the world and that many rights are unfortunately violated every day. In Canada, we have the know-how, the resources, and, more importantly, the human resources. Think of the people who work at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. They will be in a position to do this work if we, as parliamentarians, give them a mission or mandate to work on ensuring all these rights are upheld. However, we will have to focus on finding an institutional solution by establishing legal and democratic systems in these countries. This will enable these countries to uphold human rights and to continue to protect these rights once we discontinue our involvement abroad.

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jason Kenney Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Madam Speaker, I congratulate the hon. member on his comments and on being elected.

Frankly, I find the NDP's position on this rather problematic. I have been in the House for 19 years and I have heard very few New Democrat members speak out about the wave of violence and the persecutions against denominational minorities around the world.

For example, according to the European Parliament, all members of the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration, and genocide experts from the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and according to the facts, a genocide is being perpetrated against Yazidis and Christians in Iraq and Syria.

That is one of the reasons why, in 2008, the previous government developed a program to resettle refugees, focusing on these populations.

However, it is not enough to say that there are all kinds of rights, obviously. Some particularly vulnerable communities, which have no military or political power, are facing a genocide.

Does the NDP acknowledge that a genocide is currently being perpetrated against these denominational minorities in the Middle East?