Jury still out on Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom

Matthew Coutts
National Affairs Reporter
Daily Brew
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces Dr. Andrew Bennett will head up Canada's Office of Religious Freedom

Canada is still settling in to its new role as a worldwide defender of religious rights, but the moniker is already facing skepticism here at home.

The new Office of Religious Freedom has left some scratching their heads. Two years in the making, the new branch fulfills a campaign promise that both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have spoken passionately about.

But where does the office sit now?

For one, there is the agnostic and secular crowd who claim the office will overlook their ilk and leave atheists out of Canada's foreign policy strategy.

Humanist Canada says it was not invited to participate in the creation of the office and fears the department will not stand up for atheists persecuted on religious grounds.

Meantime, the announcement of the office's first ambassador has left some with doubts. Dr. Andrew Bennett was the dean of a small private Christian school before being named to the position.

[ Related: Academics split on Canada's religious freedom ambassador ]

But it is his limited history in the academic world that has raised eyebrows. Bennett holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in politics, not a religious study. He was working for Natural Resources Canada as recently as this month, and was previously a senior analyst in the Privy Council Office.

In contrast, Bennett has been the part-time Dean of Augustine College, an Ottawa liberal arts college that offers one-year study programs, for about two years.

David Seljak, the University of Waterloo's religious studies chair, told CBC News the position of ambassador of religious freedom should be held by someone qualified to take strong positions.

He said:

That's why it's disappointing to have a person of this type named to this type of politically sensitive office, where you're going to need someone with some courage and some weight, quite frankly, some gravitas, so that when he does call the government to task and does alert the minister that he is going to make some unpopular pronouncements on religious freedoms, that he's going to stick to his guns.

The Department of Foreign Affairs told CBC News very little about the selection process, only that Bennett was appointed by cabinet and was qualified.

Janet Epp Buckingham, a professor at Trinity Western University, a private Christian college in B.C., doesn't see Bennett's background as an issue.

[ Related: Canadian ambassador joins fray against religious persecution ]

In an interview with Cardus, a social think tank, Epp Buckingham said Bennett's faith and experience with government should help him build bridges between the two worlds.

Even if these questions had simple answers, another layer of doubt has already been hefted on the Office of Religious Freedom by those who view it under a cynical scope.

Take pundit John Moore, who wrote in the National Post:

The office is a calculated endeavor designed to pander to domestic faith groups. It’s all the more cynical when you consider that this government regards our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms as liberal puffery.

Indeed, many questions for the office to answer. But the Office of Religious Freedom will have a chance to prove its worth. And that chance starts now.