A Resolution in Canada’s Prison Chaplaincy Problem?

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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.