By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney will address Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops some time between Sept. 24-28 at the bishop's plenary in St. Adele.
Canada’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenney will address the annual Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) plenary in late September. The forum will offer an opportunity for frank dialogue on controversial issues.
Members of the Development and Peace (D&P) Facebook group leaked a notice of the meeting July 22 on the popular social media site and began proposing questions for the minister. The questions posted on the site range from concerns about budget cuts to KAIROS and more recently to Development and Peace, and to recent reductions in healthcare benefits for some refugee claimants.
Both Kenney’s office and the CCCB have confirmed the minister will address the plenary.
“Minister Kenney routinely meets with different ethnic, religious, and cultural communities across Canada,” said the minister’s press secretary Alexis Pavlich. “He looks forward to meeting with the CCCB - which he has not yet done - to discuss recent changes to Canada’s immigration and refugee system as well as other relevant topics of interest to the bishops.”
CCCB General Secretary Msgr. Pat Powers said Kenney would address the bishops some time during the plenary Sept. 24-28 in St. Adele, Quebec. His talk, however, will not take place on the days the bishops’ meetings are open to invited guests and accredited media.
“It is not unusual that ministers, even premiers, meet with regional Catholic bishops or presidents of the conference,” said Msgr. Powers. “Those meetings are always private and off-the-record.”
Msgr. Powers said previous presidents of the CCCB have met with various cabinet ministers in the past. The CCCB tries to maintain contact with members of all major political parties, he said. Both Kenney and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have visited the CCCB offices in recent months.
“What does this invitation mean for the relationship of D&P and KAIROS with the CCCB?” asked Toronto-based Facebook Development and Peace group member Larry Carrierre on Facebook. “From my perspective it seems that these partners which work on social justice issues are being introduced to the new conservatism in our society, particularly when it comes to public funding for things that have been considered charitable works, but are now considered and perceived as more oriented to advocacy and vigorously assertive on human rights, civil rights and justice.”
“What has he done to refugees who are cut from healthcare?” asked Ottawa-based member Helene LeBrun, a former animator for Development and Peace.
“Development and Peace works in countries and situations where there are human rights crises such as Colombia, the Philippines and the DR Congo,” wrote Mary Durran, D&P International Programs Officer for Latin America from Montreal. “We also work in emergency situations such as reconstruction of Haiti,” she said. “We should put together some questions compiled with partners from those countries raising their concerns regarding treatment of refugees and Canada's respect of the Refugee Convention.”
Kenney, who is Catholic, has not always had a smooth relationship with the Catholic bishops in his role as Immigration Minister.
Relations seemed to reach a low in Dec. 2010, when he blasted an open letter from the CCCB’s justice and peace commission that criticized the previous anti-human smuggling bill Bill C-49, which was before the House of Commons. The bishops wrote the proposed legislation might contravene international and Canadian laws concerning the rights of refugees. The bishops reminded the minister national interests and security concerns should not trump human dignity.
In an interview with CCN, Kenney dismissed the letter as reflecting a “long tradition of ideological bureaucrats who work for the bishops’ conference producing political letters signed by pastors who may not have specialized knowledge in certain areas of policy.”
Kenney also said he would prefer those bureaucrats themselves would dialogue first about the prudential considerations of legislators, rather than “cut and paste” from arguments circulating in the “special interest groups in the immigration industry.”
In recent years, no cabinet minister had taken such a public stand against Catholic bishops since 2005, when former Chretien government cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew criticized the bishops for their public defense of traditional marriage, arguing it was a violation of the separation of church and state.
Kenney’s remarks were used as fodder by opponents in the last federal election as both Liberals and the New Democratic Party sought to win Catholic voters. However, on issues of life, marriage and family, and religious freedom, Kenney has expressed views in line with those taught by the bishops.
Powers noted the CCCB’s executive committee decided to invite the minister to the plenary and authorized him to make the arrangements.
Kenney spent an hour and a half in his visit to the CCCB last spring, discussing many issues and “contacts with him since have been very, very helpful,” said Msgr. Powers.
One area where various bishops and the immigration minister have had an opportunity to work closely is in the refugee sponsorship program that has seen many Catholic parishes help families fleeing from persecution in countries like Iraq to settle in Canada. In 2010, Kenney praised the leadership Toronto Cardinal, then Archbishop, Thomas Collins had taken on this issue.