Under Siege: Religious freedom in Canada

30 May 2017 Under Siege: Religious freedom in Canada

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This week, a special, full-edition feature interview with Don Hutchinson. His name is familiar to many of our regular listeners, mostly from his time as Vice-President and General Legal Counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Don studied history and politics at Queen’s University and law at the University of British Columbia.

Before he went to the Evangelical Fellowship, Don spent fifteen years in leadership with The Salvation Army, and consulted with World Vision Canada. When he wrapped up his time with the EFC, Don served as interim National Director/CEO with Canadian Bible Society.

Right now, he’s serving as the principal of an organization called Ansero, a ministry focused on facilitating partnerships for Christians engaged on issues of religious freedom in Canada and those working on behalf of the global persecuted Church. And now, he’s also written a book.

LN Feature: Under Siege

Don Hutchinson, author of Under Siege
Don Hutchinson, author of Under Siege
Hutch book cover

LN: So you’ve written a new book about freedom of religion in Canada; the history of it, and where we are today. Talk to me first of all a little bit about the content of the book. What’s it all about?

DH: “Under Siege – Religious Freedom and the Church in Canada at 150”, is a look at the history and the politics around the current status of religious freedom in Canada.

And then there’s a section that picks up from the politics and looks at what the leading courts of the country – particularly the Supreme Court of Canada – have had to say on the issue of freedom of religion under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Then there’s a third section to the book.  All of the book is bathed in Scripture; the third section in particular, however, takes a look at what the Scriptures have to say to us in contemporary Canada about how we engage with the knowledge that we have concerning freedom of religion.

LN: So why break it up into those three parts that way. Was that deliberate?

DH: It was deliberate. I was actually working on a talk for a pastors and spouses conference that took place last October, and I woke up very early one morning and felt that the Lord was communicating to me that I should turn that talk into a book. I sleep with a note pad next to my bed and I started writing. I wrote out the three section headings and most of the chapter titles.

It’s important I think for Canadians to understand the foundations for religious freedoms in our country, the challenges to those foundations, and then what the courts have had to say. And with the knowledge of the foundations, the challenges, and how the courts have spoken to the issue, then we can properly assess how we can confidently engage in the public square.

I also address in the third part some of the myths that we contend with. What is persecution? Are we really facing persecution? What is developing in Canada and how can we engage in a way that will counter an advancing secularism that would seek to silence our voices?

LN: You’ve got an interesting history. You were a law student, then you became a pastor. Then you ended up practicing law. That all sort of meshes into this book, correct?

DH: That’s true. My parents immigrated to Canada in the 1950’s, and I was their only child born here. My older sisters were born in Barbados. And I had a connection with Canada that makes me Canadian. My connection is to no other country.

And as I grew, and ended up going to law school – it was in my first year in law school that I met Christ; made a decision for Him, and felt very strongly (that) I was called to be in the ministry. So (I) became a pastor. My denomination at the time, the Salvation Army, made a determination that they wanted to set up a national legal department, and I was the guy who was sent back to law school. It’s been an exciting opportunity to engage in the arena with an understanding of the theology, the history, the politics, and the law, and then to have a significant component of my legal career directly involved with the question of freedom of religion under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

LN: It’s interesting. Looking at the book, you carry the story – I mean this is really a Canadian book – you carry the story of the 1972 Canada-Soviet Union hockey series right from the introduction to the conclusion of the book.

Explain a little bit how you weave that together, and why did you start and end there?

DH: Well, the title of the book is Under Siege. And the issue is not whether or not our opponents have forced us into a place where we are seeking refuge, but whether we have chosen to place ourselves into what I refer to as our “stained-glass closets,” hiding away from what’s going on because it’s just more comfortable and it’s safer for us. The Canada-Soviet Union Summit series in 1972; the Russians – the Soviet team – only needed to tie one of the three remaining games that were being played in the Soviet Union in order to claim victory in the series. And the style of hockey they played changed from an offensive juggernaut to a defensive effort. The result was they lost all three games. And the problem they had was the siege mentality. They started trying to defend, they started trying not to lose, and as they did that, they found themselves in a position where they couldn’t mount the offence when they needed it. So that’s the introduction to the book. To talk about why it’s called Under Siege and the siege mentality. And it carries through to the end where I talk about the need for us as Christians in Canada to break out of this siege mentality; that we’re just trying to defend what we have – we’re just trying to hold on to what we’ve got – and realize that we have contributed to the fabric and the foundation of this nation, and we still have contributions to make, and we should not be afraid.

LN: So what is the state of religious freedom in Canada today? I mean, we hear a lot about the “freedom of religion” idea, also in the context of lots of immigration that’s coming into the country; a lot of Muslims. How do we tie the freedom of religion piece to the pluralistic society that we have here today? I’m thinking, for example, of demands that we introduce Sharia Law into some segments of Canadian culture. Is that part of freedom of religion, or do you see that as a different piece?

DH: Al, the Supreme Court of Canada has given a very robust definition to freedom of religion. Most Canadians are unaware of how much freedom we actually have, and the book has been written partly – perhaps mostly – to inform Christian leaders and the person in the pew. The average Canadian. André Schutten says “the average Joe needs to read this book.” (The book has been written) to inform the average Canadian of what they aren’t going to get from the media and most won’t read from the Supreme Court of Canada. So that’s one piece.

The second piece is that pluralism in Canada has been founded upon religious freedom. It’s been founded upon the principles where Jesus didn’t force anyone to follow Him. He invited. And even the rich young ruler who chose not to follow Him; Jesus didn’t go after him. He allowed him to walk away. He made the invitation clear, but he allowed great freedom. In the Old Testament we see this where the commands coming to Moses are to “treat the foreigner in your midst fairly”. They don’t have to become Jews, but they do have to be treated fairly by the Israelites.

So when we consider the questions of other religious communities coming to Canada – which has been an ongoing feature of Canadian life, but was metabolized and sped up in the 1960’s under the policies of the Pearson and Trudeau government(s) in changing our immigration policies – we need to realize, as Canadians, that there’s a great deal of freedom. We need, also, to benefit from being aware that the Supreme Court of Canada has said that the limit of that freedom is when it causes harm or injury to another person. So when we have concerns about Sharia Law for example, the issue is that Canadian law is over-arching and governing; that there’s freedom to engage in worship. There’s freedom to engage, in the Muslim community, in evangelism – because Islam is a very evangelistic religion – but there is no freedom to engage in coercion. There’s no freedom to engage in harming someone else. There isn’t a freedom to engage in oppression.

LN: You mention the notion of “freedom of worship”, and I’ve seen some court rulings that say “Canadians have freedom to worship”, but the freedom of religion seems to be confined to “places of worship.” You’re free to be a Christian in your home, in your church, (or a Jew) in your synagogue, (or a Muslim) in your mosque, but you can’t take it out into the public square. I’m thinking, for example. of the Delwin Vriend case in Alberta a number of years ago which kind of drew that distinction. Talk to me a little bit about that.

DH: Well, the first decision concerning freedom of religion in Canada was a case coming out of Calgary. It was actually a drug store that wanted to be open on Sundays, and it was challenging the (Lord’s Day Act). And the Supreme Court of Canada defined religious freedom in a very strong and robust way by saying that it includes the right to choose your belief, it includes the right to worship, (and) it also includes the right to declare your religious beliefs openly. To practice, teach, and disseminate. To engage in evangelism from a Christian perspective.

And we have a decision in 2004 in Chamberlain that says the religiously-informed mind should not be somehow disqualified from engaging in the public square but rather, contemporary Canadian secularism has to accommodate both the religious and the non-religiously informed perspectives.

And then we have an incredible decision from the BC Court of Appeal in the Trinity Western case that came out just a few months ago, in November, where it was a 5-0 decision in favour of the University, and the court recognizes that a society that can’t accommodate differences can’t be free and democratic. And that there has to be a freedom and a recognition of the rights of others – whether they’re individuals or institutions – to be able to carry beliefs that are not harmful to others.

LN: I’m going to wrap up with this. A new survey from Cardus that was released last month talked about the benefits that religion brings to the public square. Ray Pennings actually wrote a piece on this for the National Post last month. Religions have generally not done a good job of explaining those benefits that they bring into society. What about the importance of putting that religion into the public square in terms of the sociological benefits?

DH: What Ray has said is very true, and the study done by Angus Reid and Cardus together is a very good study for Canadians to reflect on. As contradictory as it seems to the notion of humble service, which is where a lot of us are when we do something in church – we want to serve with humility – if the media and the general population don’t see our community contributions, then for them it doesn’t exist, because perception becomes their reality. And this impacts people’s perspectives on religion. When they see religion doing good – when they recognize that it’s Christian organizations that are feeding the poor in missions and housing those who are homeless – when they see that it’s Christian churches that are engaging in what in Ottawa (and across the country) is called “The Big Give” where people can come to a free thrift store day when they can get great stuff if they need it. When they see that it’s Christian churches that are helping to settle refugees to Canada, when they understand those things, then they gain an understanding of the benefits of religion. But if they see religion as kind of a private club where people are thinking in subversive and questionable ways, it’s really not terribly helpful for Christians to stand up in public and say “This country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and we want that back.” It’s far more helpful for us to live out those Judeo-Christian principles, and demonstrate, in public, that we love our neighbours as ourselves.

LN: The book is entitled Under Siege. How do we get a copy if we want one, Don?

DH: Well, the book is available at donhutchinson.ca. It’s also available on Amazon (and) Chapters-Indigo. It’s available in paperback and soon to be available in a variety of electronic formats: Kindle, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd. This is a book for Canadians who want to worship Jesus to understand that we can do so confidently outside of our stained glass closets and in the public square.

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