The week of Canada’s National Prayer Breakfast is a yearly jam-packed adventure for those with an interest in the intersection of religion and politics. Established in 1964, the NPB is the longest running annual event on Parliament Hill. The side events that pop up around it are significant in themselves.
For those in Ottawa a day early, the week started with the NPB Leadership Dinner on Monday. Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl from the infamous Vietnam War napalm photo, shared about that day, her later acceptance of Jesus Christ as her Saviour when a young adult, and her escape from communism to Canada, to live out her life of faith in freedom. Freedom and faith would be recurring themes throughout the week.
Intrigue was piqued for Tuesday’s main event, the Breakfast, when the Speaker of the House of Commons, The Honourable Geoff Regan (Liberal, Halifax West), broke with tradition by withdrawing from co-sponsorship of the breakfast with the Speaker of the Senate, The Honourable George Furey (Newfoundland and Labrador), who went it alone. Regan has previously co-sponsored and participated. No explanation was given.
One topic of conversation leading up to the Breakfast each year is whether the Prime Minister of the day will attend. Delayed opening of the doors until after exit of RCMP officers with sniffer dogs was a sign that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Liberal, Papineau) would be present. In 2016, Mr. Trudeau read Romans 12:3-18, a passage about humility and living peaceably with all. On this morning, however, his reading would end with an awkward silence from the assembled crowd. One person near me quietly asked aloud, “Did he just read a poem instead of the Bible?” Yes, he did.
The poem had been shared with him in a meeting with Cardinal Lacroix, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Quebec.
Lord, When I am cold, send me someone to warm. When I am grieved, send me someone to console. When my cross grows heavy, let me carry another’s cross too. When I am poor, lead me to someone in need. When I have no time, give me someone I can help a little while. When I am disheartened, send me someone to cheer. When I need understanding, give me someone who needs mine. When I need to be looked after, give me someone to care for. When I think only of myself, draw my thoughts to another. Amen.
Several versions exist of this poem, translated from the original in Japanese, written by an unknown author. It is a thoughtful Christian sentiment. As evidenced by the hushed crowd, it is not Scripture.
Mr. Trudeau was the first reader. I was not alone in feeling uncomfortable at the spontaneous applause following comments and Scripture readings from Andrew Scheer (Conservative, Regina—Qu’Appelle), Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and David Blakely (NDP, Elmwood—Transcona).
I hope the Prime Minister understands the silence, as well as the appreciation that he made time to be present. Applause had greeted his introduction. It took some courage for Mr. Trudeau to stand before that crowd, knowing many were from organizations denied Canada Summer Jobs funding because of refusal to agree to the attestation clause introduced by his government. That courage would, no doubt, have been tempered somewhat by ongoing reassurance that those same leaders are praying for him in accordance with 1 Timothy 2:-3.
Uncharacteristically, there were two keynote talks. The first, shorter, was from Rev. Sean Brandow, who went quickly from being chaplain to the Humboldt Broncos hockey team to chaplain to a city, a province, and a nation in mourning. Brandow opened his heart to the room, sharing his struggles and his solace in Christ in light of the sudden tragedy that took the lives of too many of his friends. Dr. Os Guinness followed with a captivating presentation on the historic, philosophical and cultural necessity for private and public religious freedom if a society is to remain free and democratic.
Following the NPB, I was honoured to participate in a conversation between Mr. Scheer and a group of Christian leaders from across the country. As one might expect, the topic of the Canada Summer Jobs attestation arose. Another topic raised was the decision by the previous government to establish the Office of Religious Freedom and the closing of that Office by the current government. While governments around the world are recognizing the importance of religion in geopolitics, and establishing offices with ambassadors or envoys who play a key role in international diplomacy, Canada went a different direction after the last election.
Which leads these words to an event later the same day. Canadian think tank Cardus had been quick to hire now Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, the former Ambassador for Religious Freedom, when the Office of Religious Freedom was shut down. Announced Tuesday evening was that Dr. Bennett, also a senior fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC, will lead the new Cardus Religious Freedom Institute (CRFI). The CRFI is targeted to fill the gap between academics and practitioners to facilitate public understanding of, and dialogue about, religion and religious freedom.
Unsurprisingly, because the Canada Summer Jobs attestation clause has been featured in mass media for more than five months, media interviews about the new institute included questions on the attestation for the former international ambassador, who is no longer constrained from commenting on the Canadian situation.
Bennett noted the attestation has “a certain totalitarian feel to it.”
“Whether you’re a person of religious views or a person who just doesn’t want to have an opinion, the government through this action is compelling belief,” Bennett told The Canadian Press.
At Wednesday morning’s inaugural lecture from the CRFI, Bennett introduced its first report, An Institutional History of Religious Freedom in Canada, which seeks to “provide a historical context for why freedom of religion and conscience is foundational to Canadian democracy, diversity, pluralism, and to our common life as human beings living in this place, this Canada.”
Freedom. Democracy. Diversity. Pluralism. These words echoed again the next day from orators speaking at the National March for Life. Thousands gathered on Parliament Hill, then for a march through Ottawa’s downtown streets, seeking parliamentary protection for children prior to birth. As I noted a couple of weeks ago,
The Supreme Court has also determined that the reproductive rights on which Trudeau demands agreement do not exist. Constant repetition of the words “reproductive rights” may be a technique for re-education. It does not change the constitution. Abortion is legal in Canada by the absence of law from Parliament constraining it. Holding differing opinions on whether a child is a child when in the womb violates neither law nor constitution.
It’s a debate that needs to take place in Canada. Our nation is out of step with the world’s democracies, alone providing no protection for children until after they have emerged fully from their mother. Shout downs by pro-choice representatives are not debate. Refusal by politicians to discuss the subject, and false representations about the state of the law in Canada, have not resulted in silence on the issue.
Having an annual breakfast where those gathered pray for all Canadians, for our federal government and for just deliberations in Parliament invites us to address issues, even difficult issues, in our nation honestly and directly, including matters of human rights. It takes courage to stand before an unwelcoming audience, whether a Prime Minister at a Christian prayer breakfast or thousands on the lawn of Parliament Hill. May that courage be tempered by prayer, and by application of understanding and the freedoms expressed in Canada’s constitution.