The federal government is defending its decision to cancel the contracts of all its part-time non-Christian prison chaplains, saying it plans to use the same multi-faith model already used in the Canadian Forces.
The cancellations, which will take effect by the end of March 2013, will remove all the part-time chaplains in the federal prison system, leaving about 80 full-time chaplains across the country — all but one are Christian.
On Friday the government issued a statement clarifying the number of contracts affected. The statement says a total of 49 part-time contracts were cancelled, including 18 non-Christian and 31 Christian chaplains.
In question period in the House of Commons on Friday, Conservative MP Candice Bergen, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety, said the remaining full-time chaplains would provide ecumenical multi-faith counselling to all inmates.
"In addition to serving members of their own faith, these chaplains also make themselves available on a by request basis to provide spiritual advice to the general population," said Bergen.
"The Canadian Forces have used this type of chaplaincy program for years. If it is good enough for our armed forces, then it is good enough for inmates in our federal penitentiaries."
Bergen said the decision to cut the part-time chaplains was intended to ensure that taxpayers' dollars are being used wisely and appropriately,
"There were some religions that had no representation at all. I think that's actually not fair," Bergen told Power & Politics Friday host Hannah Thibedeau on CBC News Network.
In addition, prisoners will have access to about 2,500 volunteers who provide religious services in the correctional system, according to a statement issued by Public Safety Minster Vic Toews.
"We really want to see that facilitated and encouraged," said Bergen.
The contracts were cut after Toews suspended plans to hire a Wiccan prison chaplain in B.C. and ordered a review of the entire program last month.
"Upon reviewing the program, it was determined that changes were necessary so that this program supports the freedom of religion of inmates while respecting taxpayers' dollars," said Bergen.
But Liberal justice and human rights critic Irwin Cotler responded that "requiring inmates of other faiths to turn to Christian chaplains for religious guidance is clearly discriminatory."
"The Minister of Public Safety says that he is ‘not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status’ – but by providing funding for Christian chaplains only, he is doing precisely that," said Cotler.
In question period NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar questioned how much money the government was saving by cutting 100 part-time positions.
"This is not a costly program. The minister has no justification for cutting it," said Dewar.
The total cost of the chaplain program, including full-time and part-time positions, is about $6.4 million a year. The part-time contracts represent approximately $1.3 million of that total, the Public Safety Ministry said on Friday morning.
Religious leaders raise concerns
Outside of parliament the cuts also spark strong reactions from religious leaders.
David Koschitzky, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said access to appropriate religious counselling in prison was key to many inmates' rehabilitation.
"It is no stretch to say that chaplains are at the forefront of the rehabilitation process, and work every day to ensure that inmates awaiting release have the tools they need to avoid re-offending," said Koschitzky.
"While this is a matter of protecting freedom of religion, there is also an important aspect of public safety at stake in this decision."
Sikh and Muslim leaders have also called the program's cancellation discriminatory.