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Christian Think Tank Responds to Canadian Military Report Recommendations to ‘Redefine Chaplaincy’

Christian Think Tank Responds to Canadian Military Report Recommendations to ‘Redefine Chaplaincy’
Photo by Noah Holm on Unsplash

After Canada’s National Defence minister received a report from an advisory panel on Systemic Racism and Discrimination on April 25, Cardus, a Christian nonpartisan policy review and research group, issued a brief with concerns about the panel’s recommendations to “redefine chaplaincy.”

Brian Dijkema, Cardus’ vice president for external affairs, said not only are there “profound implications for Canadian soldiers,” but “the panel's recommendations have implications for religious freedom more broadly, and represent a profound shift away from pluralism and toward illiberalism in the government's relationship with religious communities.”

The Cardus brief said commentary in the panel’s report “demonstrates thinly veiled hostility to a number of Abrahamic religions including adherents of Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. It shows gross ignorance of the teachings of these faiths and presents caricatures of their adherents as violators of equality and social justice. This defamatory language goes so far as to equate adherents of monotheistic religions with racism. In a constitutional democracy, it is wholly outside the scope of the state to make judgments on the truth claims of any religion or the attitudes of their adherents.” 

Cardus supports the panel’s recommendation 6.2 to “select chaplains representative of many faiths” but rejects an earlier recommendation—“6.1 Do not consider for employment as spiritual guides or multi-faith representatives Chaplaincy applicants affiliated with religious groups whose values are not aligned with those of the Defence Team.” Cardus said, “In 2019, Statistics Canada found that over 65% of Canadians over the age of 15 adhere to Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. This report undermines the Minister’s own recruitment message by telling millions of Canadians that they need not apply because of their religious beliefs.”  

The advisory panel in presenting its recommendations said it conducted almost 50 engagement sessions with external organizations and internal stakeholders in producing its report. The Banner reached out to the Ministry of Defence to ask if the panel had consulted with The Interfaith Committee on Canadian Military Chaplaincy. Daniel Minden, senior communications adviser to National Defence Minister Anita Anaud, provided three statements by email. None of them addressed that question. 

“For many decades, chaplains from a wide range of faiths have served the members of the Canadian Armed Forces, and will continue to do so in the years to come,” one statement said. “Minister Anand believes that the chaplaincy should represent Canada’s diversity, uphold the values and principles of the military, and provide CAF members with access to spiritual or religious guidance if they seek it, regardless of their faith,” Minden said.

Minister Anand “strongly believes in the importance of building a more inclusive military free from racism and discrimination,” Minden said.

Gerald Van Smeerdyk said to that end, chaplains are not a detriment but an asset. Van Smeerdyk  retired as a chaplain with the Canadian Armed Forces in June 2021 and now serves as a Christian Reformed chaplain in a long-term care facility in Surrey, B.C. He said in his former role of staff officer to the third division (division that covers western Canada) he was involved in recruiting chaplains from all faiths and is very familiar with the process used in identifying suitable candidates. “If members of the advisory panel had been aware of that process, they wouldn’t have singled out Canadian Armed Forces chaplains,” Van Smeerdyk said.

He said Cardus is correct to point out the religious discrimination present in recommendation 6. 1. “It’s an ad hominem argument. The chaplains are considered guilty by association with religious organizations that are not deemed appropriate to diverse and inclusive workplace goals.” He expects this recommendation, which he sees as an attempt to deepen Canada’s secularism to the point where religious bodies are not welcome in the public arena, will not be implemented as written because automatically ruling out employment consideration based on affiliation with a religious group is in itself discriminatory. 

The department of National Defence said it will establish “a cross-sectional working group … to address the report's recommendations, including by developing an implementation Framework and Action Plan.” The Banner asked what communication is planned to Canadians about which parts of the recommendations will be implemented. The minister’s office did not address that question. 

Dijkema said Cardus has engaged with a variety of religious communities in Canada to highlight its concerns. “It's important for Canadians—including those who are not religious—to work toward an open, pluralist secularism, and to resist efforts to have the government act as the arbiter of what is and what is not acceptable to believe,” Dijkema said.

The Canadian Multifaith Federation, which includes adherents of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, and other faiths and advocates on spiritual and religious matters for Canadians, has submitted its own response to the advisory panel’s report. Dianne Algera, a Christian Reformed representative in the Federation, said the group has concerns in line with those presented by Cardus, in particular about the recommendations to make changes to the hiring practices of chaplains.

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