Prison Chaplaincy in Canada

Like many British Columbian pagans, I have been following the news about whether or not Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is going to allow the posting for a Wiccan prison chaplain to stand. It made a big splash in the news at the beginning of September when Corrections Canada advertised an opening for a part time Wiccan prison chaplain, and then the next day, Toews put a halt on the posting.

On Friday, the federal government announced that it would be cancelling the contracts of ALL non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons. Frankly, I am shocked.

According to an email that was sent from the minister’s office to CBC News:

“The minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners,” the email states. “However, the government … is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded … chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.”

As a Wiccan priestess, I am disappointed, but not terribly surprised that the contract for Wiccan chaplaincy was cancelled. While Wicca and Paganism are officially recognized religions according to the federal government, that doesn’t mean they are accepted by everyone. I regularly encounter people who are misinformed about our beliefs and practices. I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe that this drastic move on the part of the Public Safety Minister is targeted only at our faith.

As a Canadian taxpayer, I am angry. The email states that “the government… is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding.” Isn’t that exactly what they just did? The Christian ministers clearly received preferential treatment in this case.

Religious AcceptanceI have nothing against Christianity, or its ministers in general. I have met some wonderful ministers who were very open and non-judgmental regarding my beliefs. I have even had the opportunity to speak at an Interfaith Dialogue held at a Presbyterian Church, and was welcomed warmly. However, just because someone can accept my beliefs doesn’t mean they can minister according to my beliefs, much less the beliefs of the Muslims, First Nations, and Buddhists who are represented in larger numbers than the Wiccans in prison.

Analytically, I can almost understand the majority rule that must have been a part of the decision making process. More than half of prison inmates declare themselves as Catholic or Protestant. So if they have to choose one over the rest, it makes sense to choose the one that will serve the majority of inmates. However, on a humanitarian and ethical level, I really have a hard time understanding why a person should be denied the spiritual service they prefer because they believe differently than the majority. Just because the majority believe a certain thing, doesn’t mean it is the only right belief anyone can hold. How many inmates are going to be encouraged or pressured to convert because the priest serving their prison is adamant that his is the “one, true religion” and therefore every other faith is wrong?

This kind of duality – I’m right and you’re wrong – is what has gotten our planet into countless wars throughout history. I long for the day when everyone understands that beyond the basic needs (air and water), no one thing is right for everyone, and THAT’S OK. We all eat different kinds of foods for nourishing our bodies. Doesn’t it make sense that we can nourish our souls in different ways as well?