A Resolution in Canada’s Prison Chaplaincy Problem?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 13, 2013 — 13 Comments

Last year, Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who oversees Canada’s penitentiaries, eliminated all paid part-time chaplain services, effectively making government prison chaplaincy a Christian-only affair. This came after he retracted a paid part-time position for a Wiccan prison chaplain. The result, as you may have guessed, was litigation.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

“The suit was triggered by Ottawa’s announcement last October that it was canceling the contracts of all part-time prison chaplains to save an estimated $1.3 million. The non-Christian chaplains ministered to Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, and Buddhist inmates, and those who follow aboriginal spirituality. The legal action, brought against Attorney General Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, charges that Christian prisoners continue to have access to Christian religious services, Bible study sessions and other faith-based activities.”

Then, one week ago, the federal government announced that it was restoring some of the minority-faith part-time chaplaincy positions, while stressing that this wasn’t a change in course regarding policy.

“CBC News has learned at least four of the part-time chaplains are being offered a chance to return to work. All four provided service to non-Christian inmates.  Buddhist chaplain Charmaine Mak says she’s eager to resume working with prisoners. “They’ve been cut off from spiritual development and education, so I think that’s a really good step for them,” Mak said.”

Patrick McCollum, an advocate for Pagan prisoners in the United States who famously testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights regarding prisoners’ religious rights, has now revealed to The Wild Hunt that he was going to be involved in the litigation against the Canadian government and implies that it was this pending litigation that created movement on this issue.

Patrick McCollum

Patrick McCollum

“The Prisoners’ Legal Services just confirmed that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has agreed to reinstate chaplaincy services to minority faith prisoners!

‘We are very pleased that, once faced with court action, the government has acquiesced and has voluntarily reinstated services by tendering contracts to all five minority faith chaplains in British Columbia. As this is precisely the remedy we were seeking by way of injunction, we have consented to withdraw our application for injunction as it is no longer necessary.’

The letter goes on to say that this restoration of contracts is an interim service model meant to ensure that the immediate spiritual needs of the prisoners are met while CSC develops a new service delivery model for federal prisons in BC and across Canada. Prisoners’ Legal Services will monitor and evaluate this new model as it develops and is implemented to ensure it meets appropriate and professional standards.”

In addition, I was privately shown the letter from Prisoners’ Legal Services, confirming what Patrick attests (you can read the entirety of Patrick’s letter to me here). So at least one lawsuit has been avoided, but this is, as a government spokesperson termed it, an “interim measure,” so what of the future? It appears that the government is looking for a private company to shift all chaplaincy services to.

“Going forward, CSC will consolidate this contractual process under one national contractor,” Sara Parkes wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “In conjunction with CSC, the national contractor will ensure the provision of chaplains who are qualified, official representatives of their faith traditions and capable of ministry in the correctional environment.”

So far, most commenters seems to be staying on the fence regarding this move, with some expressing some cautious optimism. I suspect that the company the federal government contracts with will have a lot of bearing on how advocates of minority faiths in Canada react. Until then, it seems like a resolution of sorts has been reached, albeit not one that will fully address the problem of serving the spiritual needs of all prisoners. The Wild Hunt will keep you posted on further developments in this story.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Settlements can often be better than judgements. Not tickled to see this being shifted to a private company, which may have fewer obligations than the government that hires it, but we’ll have to wait and see.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      The next legal struggle may well be to establish that the private contractor must live up to the same standards as the government.

      • cernowain greenman

        This really is the crux of the matter, in my opinion. How do you insure that a private contractor will abide by the Canadian Chart of Rights and Freedom? I would rather see a committee from the Parliament of World Religions or some such body overseeing this.

    • Makarios

      WRT the issue of privatizing and contracting out chaplaincy services, I agree that it is a poor idea on many levels. I also suspect that there are factors in the polity of some churches (including RC, Anglican, and Orthodox) that might make it unworkable.

      Be that as it may, the problems, if any, will arise in the wording of the requirements specification (aka “statement of work”) in the request for proposals that will eventually be issued. This will specify exactly what is required of the service provider. I would suggest that these be closely scrutinized. While I would not expect that the wording would, in so many words, direct the contractor to give primacy to the Christian religion in providing its services, there are ways of sending exactly this message without directly saying so. Since tender documents are matters of public record, it should be possible to monitor this.

    • I know. I hate when the words “private” and “contractor” are uttered together. I find such entities highly dubious.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    “the national contractor will ensure the provision of chaplains who
    are qualified, official representatives of their faith traditions”

    Well, that is going to rule out any Pagan chaplains, isn’t it? What with a complete lack of official representatives of most Pagan traditions.

    • cernowain greenman

      If those Pagan traditions without an organization get their act together and get organized, then they can issue endorsement to their clergy. Endorsement is really the only way the prison system, hospitals and the military can know who represents a faith tradition and who doesn’t.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        The vast majority of Pagans are solitary, these days. Organisation is (usually) seen as undesirable.

        • cernowain greenman

          Then they should not expect services such as a Pagan chaplain when they are in the hospital, in prison, in the military or at university. But if we were to educate Pagans to let them know how these things can come to be for them, they might acknowledge the need for organization. If not, then they have no room to complain for the lack of services.

          Fortunately, I have met a good number of Pagans who actually are organizationally minded. They understand the interconnectedness we all are a part of. And they are hoping to make a change for the better for Pagans in our society and the world.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            My point would be that, even when a coven is formed, there is not nationally recognised ‘authority’.

            Will someone’s high priest be allowed to count as a qualified, official representative for the purpose of this rule?

            It is not just those on the inside of the prison system that have made the decision to avoid a formal organisation of Pagan religions.

            It is just an(other) example of how mainstream society is not set up to deal with modern Paganism.

          • We have such organizations here in the U.S., Circle Sanctuary, Sacred Well, and COG being the better known ones. Of course I don’t know whether there are similar organizations in Canada or not.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Are they prepared to offer their services to any who ask, or just members? Also,do they get recognised as having “qualified, official representatives” of the Pagan religions? It isn’t like they are priests, after all.

            I am playing Devil’s Advocate, here. I think they offer great services, but I am not convinced that many people outside of the Pagan umbrella have any measure of respect for the (lack of) organisational structure of Paganism.

          • Deborah Bender

            In the US, ministerial credentials are easier to obtain than chaplaincy credentials. Pagan organizations such as CoG have been issuing legally recognized ministerial credentials for decades. In most jurisdictions, these credentials are as good as anybody else’s in the eyes of the public and institutions. As a rule, it’s up to the individual ministers to decide where their ministry is directed, since for the most part they are volunteering their time.

            Professional chaplains are paid to provide services to anyone who is a member or client of the organization that hires the chaplain. Part of the training for becoming a chaplain is learning how to provide services to people who are not members of the chaplain’s religion. Some chaplains do this better than others, of course.

            As for respect and recognition from non-Pagans, attitudes vary. For people who don’t hold the belief that their own religion is the only true and legitimate religion, respect comes with familiarity. If they have no respect for other religions, no amount of organizational impressiveness would make any difference. Most people have no idea how their own denomination commissions chaplains, let alone any other religion.