Memos anticipate religious freedom office sensitivities

Communications lines drafted by the bureaucracy about the government's plan to establish an Office of Religious Freedom reveal a deep-seated nervousness about how the venture will be perceived by the public.

Partisan politics, separation of church and state all part of anticipated questions

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, left, meets with the Apostolic Papal Nuncio to Canada, Archbishop Pedro López Quintana, to discuss protection for religious minorities and a proposed Office of Religious Freedom during a visit to the Holy See in Rome, July, 2011. (Foreign Affairs photo)

Communications lines drafted by the bureaucracy about the government's plan to establish an Office of Religious Freedom reveal a deep-seated nervousness about how the venture will be perceived by the public.  

During the election campaign last spring the Conservatives promised the office would become a key pillar of Canadian foreign policy.  

But documents obtained through access to information laws suggest the government is worried about the perception that the office would be used to curry favour with religious and ethnic groups in Canada. And it shows nervousness about the office being seen as an attempt to blur the line between church and state.  

The lines were drafted for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird for a day-long consultation with religious groups, human rights advocates and academics, which took place in Ottawa on October 3. The meeting was closed to the public and the media.  

The document is a mock-up of potential questions the minister could face, and the appropriate responses.  

One of the anticipated questions speaks to the heart of the government's ongoing partisan project to woo immigrants and ethnic groups: "Is the creation of this Office politically motivated to curry favour with certain constituencies?"  

The answer steers away from domestic and partisan concerns completely: "This is about upholding Canada's commitment to defending fundamental human rights, the right to freedom of religion and belief, opposition religious hatred and promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad."  

Blurring lines between church and state

But, from its inception, the office has been presented in the context of the Conservatives' partisan efforts to win over minority groups. It was first announced during the spring election campaign by Bob Dechert, Baird's Parliamentary Secretary. Dechert made the pledge in his Mississauga-Erindale riding, which contains a heavy concentration of Coptic Christians who are considered a powerful force at the ballot box.  

Dechert's personal MP website continues to remind his constituents of the promise to create an Office of Religious Freedom. On November 17, the MP used his site to recognize the 40th anniversary of the Coptic Orthodox Pope, and added an update about the ORF: "While still in its planning stages, the process of establishing this office is well underway."  

Dechert took part in the October 3 consultation and is now leading the effort to create the office within Foreign Affairs.  

Also included in the media lines drafted for Baird was a question about the relationship of the government to religion, a sensitive topic among Conservatives who feel they've been unfairly branded in the past as beholden to evangelical interests.  


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"Some have criticized the proposal to create the Office of Religious Freedom as a blurring of the time-honoured line that separates church and state. What's your reaction to this comment?"  

The written answer portrays the drive to create the office as an extension of Canada's defence of human rights: "That tradition forms an integral part of Canadian foreign policy and is a priority for the government. History has proven that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable."  

The lines go on to indicate Baird met with Canada's ambassador to the Holy See in Rome, the Aga Khan, and the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

Two lines blacked out

Finally, the lines include a question about who was chosen to attend the closed-door consultation in October to help the minister and his government decide what the nature of the office should be:

"How were participants chosen for the event?"  

Two lines of response have been blacked out under an Access to Information Act clause that allows government to keep secret any part of its consultations between a minister and employees of the Crown.  

It's not clear how the selection criteria for a group consultation would fall under this clause of the act, especially since the lines are presumably designed for audience consumption.  

One sentence is left standing about how the consultees were chosen:  

"Participants were invited on the basis of a demonstrated interest and track record in promoting respect for religious freedom."  

When asked last week for an update on when the office would be up and running, Baird's staff wrote in an email that the process of defining the scope and structure of the office is underway.  

"We're focusing on advocacy, analysis, policy development, and programming related to protecting and advocating on behalf of religious minorities under threat; opposing religious hatred; and promoting Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad," the spokesperson wrote.

Baird has not agreed to CBC News requests for an interview about the office.