Where the canary sings. Canada & the Office of Religious Freedom

When the canary quits singing, there’s trouble.  The phrase “canary in the coal-mine”  references a historical mining practice of taking canaries into a coal mine.  The canary  would show distress from carbon monoxide, methane, or carbon dioxide earlier than the miners working and breathing the same air.  The canary was their early warning system.

Religious liberty is our canary.  Where religious liberty falls, other freedoms will soon decline.

This week perhaps in recognition of the importance of religious liberty in our global conversation, Prime Ministry Stephen Harper announced the creation of Canada’s newest office:  The office of religious freedom.  Andrew Bennet a former professor and dean will be the director.

Religious liberty as a societal value is a complex set of beliefs and convictions.  Within Christian thought and practice, religious liberty for all is a philosophical position that evolved over many years after governments gave certain expressions of Christianity favoured-religion-status.  The network to which I belong points back to Roger Williams , founder of Rhode Island, as a leader that dramatically advanced the pursuit of liberty beyond “my group” to “for all.”  I am aware within my own tribe of baptists though, that our stated value for religious liberty is not often taught and is more often pragmatically neglected when confronted with our pluralistic and democratic society.  In those cases, the canary is under duress.

My hope for the Office of Religious Freedom is that it will take its small budget and multiply it by encouraging reflection, scholarship and praxis within Canada’s diverse cultures and religious communities to pursue a “for all” vision of religious liberty.  The global mix of Canada’s citizenry in our cities and our universities affords us the opportunity to create safe spaces for the intentional effort required.

Being the canary watcher is not enough.  It will not be enough for Canada to critique countries and governments that deny religious liberty.  We must learn to recognize the signs of duress and consider how to stimulate and support the hard work, thought, and sacrificial actions  required for liberty.


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