A headhunter’s nightmare at Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom
There’s a reason the Harper government had a hard time finding someone to head the Office of Religious Freedom: the job description makes no sense.
By: Natalie Brender - The Star, Toronto - Published on Mon Feb 18 2013
Despite the recent papal drama in Rome, the Catholic Church isn’t the only religion-focused body with prominent personnel troubles. In Ottawa, the Harper government has spent the last year dealing with a leadership vacuum of its own as it struggled to find a suitable ambassador to lead its long-promised Office of Religious Freedom.
Virtually no one would quibble with the notion that a right to freedom of religion is part of a larger set of human rights to freedom of conscience, assembly and expression. As critics have persuasively argued, however, religion is too multi-faceted in its forms and contested in its practice to be championed impartially by any government office. A selective focus on the persecutions of certain religious groups in certain places won’t (and shouldn’t) be acceptable to the Canadian public.
But if these conceptual arguments aren’t convincing enough, let’s take a look at the situation from a different angle — as a human resources issue. The Harper government, which is expected to announce the office’s first ambassador on Tuesday, spent well over a year under intense public scrutiny looking to fill a job with a fancy title and handsome perks. It reported that two or three prospective candidates were approached but turned the job down. Why was the search so difficult?
The answer may have something to do with the job description. After all, a suitable ambassador for this office will have to fill four essential criteria.
First, she or he must be convinced that religion is an important dimension of human existence and its practice a fundamental human right. And further, that this right should be actively promoted and protected by Canada’s federal government in its diplomatic activities abroad as well as within our borders. And still further, that such protection merits a specific diplomatic focus in addition to Canada’s existing commitment to human rights promotion.
Second, the ambassador must be broad-minded about all religions and subgroups within them in order to avoid charges of bias in running the office. The worst-case scenario on this front is unfolding at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has been dogged by accusations of pro-Christian bias since opening in 1998. It’s being sued for religious discrimination by a Muslim policy analyst claiming her job offer with the commission was revoked for fear of disapproval by its vice-chair — a person who has publicly advanced a Christian-centric conception of religious freedom and a suspicion of American Muslims’ beliefs. Canada’s government must have a rock-solid confidence in its own ambassador being a person of wholly different sensibilities.
Third, a suitable candidate must be versed in international diplomacy and human rights, as well as a worldly and articulate advocate for the office’s mandate. After all, the ambassador will be called on every day to explain why every form of religious freedom needs its own special protection as a human right, and to sell this idea effectively to audiences opposed to it from various secular and religious perspectives.
Finally, the office’s leader must be an acutely political animal whom the Conservatives can trust to finesse relationships with two very different constituencies. On one hand, conservative Christian caucus members and voters are expecting this office to focus on protecting persecuted Christians abroad. On the other hand, there are Canada’s ethnic communities, whom the Conservatives are famously eager to court — but who will certainly have hotly opposing views on which religious persecutions in which parts of the world most deserve Canada’s attention. Coaxing electoral wins out of this terrain will call for something of a political Houdini.
Pity the poor Conservative headhunters charged with finding a candidate meeting all these marvellous qualities. But once that moment of pity has passed, it’s appropriate to wonder if the list of leadership qualities they’re working with is downright incoherent — and if that fact points to a broader incoherence in the office’s explicit and implicit mandates.
Clearly the government couldn’t go on in this embarrassing way forever. It was inevitable that someone would eventually be chosen to become the office’s inaugural ambassador. But whether that person will be capable of filling the role up to a standard that Canadians will find acceptable and worthy of support is very doubtful indeed.