Joe Gunn

January 17, 2011

Last month, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney "lashed out" at the Catholic Bishops' critique of his anti-human smuggling bill (WCR, Dec. 3). Kenney used demeaning language that tracked closer to an ad hominen scolding than a principled disagreement on the issues involved.

The minister opined that the letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops reflected "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."

Readers who followed this story should have two questions in mind: Did the bishops intervene appropriately and is Kenney's bill beyond reproach?

Of course, there have been moments when bishops have intervened inappropriately.

I remember once accompanying a delegation of Canadian bishops to a conference in Brazil. Bishops from all over the Americas discussed their issues and concerns.

At one point, an archbishop passionately decried the reign of President Hugo Chavez, and distributed a pastoral letter of the Venezuelan hierarchy. I remember reading the letter with astonishment, thinking that if I'd ever written such a letter for Canada's bishops, I'd have immediately lost my job.


Next morning at breakfast, the president of the Latin American bishops' council (CELAM) was at my table. Knowing him a bit, I asked if he'd read the pastoral letter. Did he think the Venezuelan hierarchy really intended to write about their president, using Gospel references where Jesus cast out demons and turned them into pigs?

The CELAM president, who had a wicked sense of humour, immediately rushed over to the Venezuelan prelate and asked if his pastoral letter really asked the people to cast out the country's president.

The Venezuelan made small talk and eventually returned to his breakfast. Sitting back at our table, the CELAM president winked mischievously at me and said, "There's your answer, Pepe."

It might be understandable that Kenney's frustration with the bishops stems from his knowledge that Bill C-49, referred to by the government as the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act, is politically dead in the water.

Every political party in opposition has publicly slammed this legislation, as reasonably pointed out in Bob McKeon's article, "Refugees held hostage in proposed legislation" (WCR, Nov. 15). The government's response has been to call down a pox on all opposing houses, claiming they are unprepared to be tough on the internationally recognized crime of human smuggling.


A minority government that wanted to successfully introduce new legislation through a fractious Parliament might have been expected to negotiate an amenable agreement in advance with politicians from other parties.

But the Conservatives decided to usher in legislation that was quickly opposed by those who have hands-on experience working with refugees. The Canadian Council for Refugees stated that the people who would suffer under the proposed legislation were asylum-seekers, not smugglers.

The Canadian Bar Association said the bill would infringe upon Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as deny our international obligations.


Other churches and groups were also opposed. Kenney's response was to dismiss the "fake grassroots coalitions" and the "special interest groups in the immigration industry."

Kenney needn't have feared that "ideological bureaucrats" could lead the bishops astray. In 1994, there were four full-time staffpersons in the social affairs department. Today, after waves of cutbacks, this entity no longer even exists.

Anyone close to the Ottawa scene knows that "ideological bureaucrats" are omnipresent in every minister's office, not lying in wait in church buildings.

The real origins of the CCCB letter lay in the Church's concern to raise its voice for those people (asylum seekers) who have no voice of their own in this matter.

The many refugee ministries active in the Catholic Church contacted Archbishop Brendan O'Brien, former CCCB president and current chairman of the bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, and convinced him that the minister should be asked to "reconsider" his bill.


CCCB President Bishop Pierre Morissette, one of Canada's wisest prelates, signed off on the commission's draft. These experts provided the "specialized knowledge" that the minister accused the bishops of lacking.

The CCCB request for reconsideration of Bill C-49 is prudent and well founded, as was the excellent letter of Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver on this same topic.

Minister Kenney should not only graciously take the bishops' advice to heart, he might also attempt to adopt the respectful tone of those with whom he does not agree.

("Pepe" Gunn was what some call "an ideological bureaucrat" in the employ of the Canadian bishops from 1994-2005. He is now the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)