Seriously, Mr. Toews? Christian Chaplains Providing “Generic” Services?

ITEM: “Public Safety Minister Vic Toews mandated that the federal prison system’s 71 full-time chaplains, who are overwhelmingly Christian, will provide religious services to all inmates.” So reports The Globe and Mail to head-shaking all ’round. “Another 49 part-time chaplains—18 of whom represent non-Christian faiths—will have their contracts cancelled.” Why? “The government’s decision to cancel part-time chaplains’ contracts will save approximately $1.3-million of the program’s total $6.4-million budget.”

One wants to ask Mr. Toews a few questions in response:

1. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that religious differences don’t really matter, such that, say, a Pentecostal Christian prison chaplain can be counted upon—by the Government, by the correctional officials, and by the inmates—to provide adequate spiritual care for Mormons, Wiccans, Muslims, and Buddhists?

2. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that religious differences do matter, and that, say, a Muslim prison chaplain can be counted upon to have the training adequate to provide adequate spiritual care for Mennonite, Hindu, Sikh, and Jewish inmates?

3. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that religious differences do matter and that the overwhelmingly Christian character of the full-time chaplaincy be undiluted by chaplains of other faiths such that one religion, Christianity, be advanced on what is literally a captive audience of Canadians?

4. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that chaplains’ own religious commitments are such that it poses no crisis of conscience for them to offer spiritual advice and religious teaching to anyone of any metaphysical and ethical convictions whatsoever, even those whose core values are contradictory in one or more respects to the core values of the chaplain?

5. Is it the position of the Government of Canada that saving a million dollars a year in this way is the best way to provide the best possible environment in which at least some inmates can consider the errors of their ways and make better choices upon re-entering society? Or it is the position of the Government of Canada that “once a criminal, always a criminal” and that offenders ought to be branded as “not like us” forever—as was recently argued in the pages of The Walrus?

Again and again, we Canadians and especially we Canadian Christians have to ask ourselves and our leaders, “Are we treating all Canadians fairly?” And the best test for that is the test of turning the tables, of (to coin a phrase) “doing unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Until the Mennonite Mr. Toews and the ostensibly (but really?) evangelical Mr. Harper are ready to themselves receive spiritual counsel and religious teaching from, say, an imam or rabbi or shaman or guru, perhaps they might reconsider this policy—this apparently stupid, offensive, retrograde, and truly bizarre policy.



13 Responses to “Seriously, Mr. Toews? Christian Chaplains Providing “Generic” Services?”

  1. Paul

    Hi John,
    Before you let loose with both barrels, questioning peoples intelligence, integrity, and faith commitments, you might want to make sure that the source you are relying on as a springboard for your tirade, has all the relevant facts straight. Some discrete enquiries indicate that some key pieces of information were left out of the original reporting. As David Ignatius once said, “If it is in the media, it is at least 50% wrong.”

    cheers, Paul

    • John

      What am I supposed to do with that, Brother Paul? I did, indeed, check several sources–which is what we scholars habitually do to try to have all the relevant facts straight. So what the heck does “discrete enquiries” mean? What “key pieces of information were left out of the original reporting”? This is a useless comment without actual data–worse than useless, because it accuses me of failing to be sure of facts when it offers precisely nothing to dispute what I’ve written–except a cynical quotation by someone I’ve never heard of.

      So try again. I welcome the truth, so if you’ve got some, do share it. If you have vague accusations instead, though, I trust you’ll understand if I don’t welcome those.

      • John

        Hah! I looked up “David Ignatius” and learned he is a very eminent…journalist. So we should discount his comment by 50%? Or, if his comment is at least 50% wrong, maybe the media is only 25% wrong? Or maybe we shouldn’t trust journalists telling us not to trust journalists…?

  2. J.P.


    First, thank you for continuing to converse about relevant and controversial topics facing North American Christians today.

    Second, I’m a recent Regent grad. who has found himself working as a hospital chaplain. Presently, I’m discerning whether or not to pursue professional credentialing as a chaplain. A standard one must exhibit for credentialing is leading worship for diverse groups. So, your blog post hits home. I want to receive what He has for me with open hands (indeed I see His hands at work, daily), and I want to be faithful to the first commandment. I feel a bit like Daniel in exile, trying to make the best of it. Only Daniel’s exile was forced. I wondering if I’m choosing mine.

  3. Cyle

    Hi John. Maybe the policy is as you say, but your post doesn’t offer a solution for the glaring problem of trying to accommodate the religious diversity in the prison system on a budget. What should the policy be if it is wrong? What policy would treat all Canadian prisoners fairly? What should the budget be, and if more, is that fair to Canadians? For example, if there were equal amounts of chaplains from all faiths distributed through Canadian prisons, would that really be fair? I’m just trying to think of solutions for this issue . . .

    • Mark


      If cost saving really is the motivation for this policy (as opposed to being a red herring,) then it’s another example of a government that is penny wise and pound foolish.

      This is the same government that has adopted a number of so-called “tough-on-crime” measures that we already know will cost a great deal, without doing anything to actually reduce crime. In comparison, the minor savings that will come about as a result of the Christian-only chaplain policy are only a small fraction of the costs imposed by “trying-to-look-tough” crime policies.

      If cost saving truly is the goal, then the solution is to look at where big, unnecessary costs are coming from, rather than picking at what is really a minor issue.

      • Cyle

        By “budget” I did not mean “cheap.” Every government ministry has one by necessity. Further, I am not looking for budgetary answers; but real solutions that might bring fairness to Canadians in terms of both religious guidance and budget. Obviously you are not in favor of the “tough-on-crime” measures: you do not think it’s fair in light of the paltry chaplaincy budget. That’s fine, but not the point. What model of chaplaincy representing religious diversity would be fair to Canadians in general, and on what budget? I think the pursuit of fairness here is somewhat elusive, though I am trying to think of solutions.

        • John

          Cyle, I’m all for problem-solving. But I lack the detailed information to know how best to respond to the challenges involved. What I can be pretty confident about is what I wrote about. It seems difficult to justify the move the Government is making, as well as to take seriously their stated rationales for making it.

          The paid chaplains are supplemented by over 2000 volunteers. If the budget is the question, there may be a way of training, deploying, and supervising appropriate volunteers to do what needs to be done. And that’s what I thought the Government would say they were doing, but so far they haven’t. Instead, their reasons seem rather, ah, opaque to me, which makes me worry they really haven’t thought through what is best for the inmates OR for the society they will re-enter one day.

  4. Paul Sorrentino

    Thank you for raising these good questions in response to Toews’ policy. As a chaplain with a religiously diverse constituency I can appreciate the concerns. At Amherst College our religiously diverse staff have found it useful to operate under the principles of RAM. The acronym stands for Respectful of the beliefs of others, Authentic to one’s own beliefs and Meaningful inter-religious involvement. The latter principle means that we reluctantly draw people out of their own faith community unless the joint activity is somehow stronger across religious bonds. Mr. Toews’ policy seems to violate all three.

  5. Larry S

    It will be interesting to see how this move of Minister Toews plays out.

    He cancels the contracts of all part-time CSC chaplains. In order to be consistent, it seems to me, he will need to also cancel all the contracts of 1st nation elders who go into Federal pens to offer spiritual counsel.

    I somehow doubt that he will do a move like that which would play very poorly to the press.


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