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Budget cuts threaten Ontario Multifaith Council

By Stuart Mann

The diocese’s coordinator of Chaplaincy Services says the provincial government’s decision to stop funding the Ontario Multifaith Council (OMC) in March will end an important piece of infrastructure that supports cooperation and understanding between faith groups.

“The OMC is one of those organizations that contributes to making Ontario a relatively calm and peaceful diverse province,” says the Rev. Canon Douglas Graydon. “It provides us with a structure that that allows conversations to happen. If those underpinnings are slowly taken away, then the dialogue falters and we run the risk of becoming more strangers to each other than good neighbours.”

The OMC was created almost 40 years ago to provide the government with expert and balanced advice on spiritual and religious care in publically funded prisons, hospitals, mental health institutions and long-term care facilities. The OMC, which is made up of representatives of 30 faith groups, including the Anglican Church, also provides practical support for chaplains.

As the government got out of the business of running all of these institutions except prisons, questions were raised about the need for the OMC, says Canon Graydon, who is the Anglican Church’s representative on the council’s board. “About two years ago, it was obvious that the government was funding the OMC for almost $500,000 a year and was getting almost nothing back in return because it wasn’t providing direct services anymore,” he says. “The question was raised, ‘What are we getting for the dollar?’”

The OMC argues that it is promoting religious tolerance and a sense of harmony amongst faith communities and in society in general. It is the only body of its kind in Canada and has published a resource booklet that is widely used across the country.

The OMC also has a network of grassroots committees across the province that promote multifaith dialogue and action and advocate for chaplains in local facilities. “The OMC’s structure brings faith communities together,” says Canon Graydon. “On a regular basis, you’re in dialogue with each other and know each other and know who to reach out to if there is an issue.”

He says that grassroots network will be in jeopardy if the government withdraws its funding. The OMC has an annual budget of about $750,000, of which nearly $500,000 comes from the government. The faith groups say they cannot make up the shortfall if the government pulls its funding.

“It’s not a good step forward for multifaith diversity and initiatives in Ontario,” says Canon Graydon. “In many respects, it’s a step backwards.”

The government’s decision comes at a time when the federal government plans to eliminate funding to all but full-time Christian chaplains in penitentiaries. In addition, hospitals are also phasing out funding for chaplaincy positions.

Canon Graydon says the trend is due to governments and hospitals trying to balance their budgets at a time of fiscal restraint. “They’re throwing the gauntlet back at the faith communities and saying, ‘Look, if you’re serious about this, then you provide the resources for your community.’”

He says it’s understandable that governments and hospitals are doing this. “I believe what they’re saying is legitimate. If it’s a priority of faith communities to make sure that their faithful members are looked after when they’re in health care or long-term care facilities or prisons—if that’s really part of their calling—then maybe part of the challenge is for them to respond to that.”

One of the dangers of the government’s attitude, however, is that minority faith communities will have a much harder time looking after their people in institutions, he says. “The mainstream denominations will be increasingly challenged to provide the dollars to support chaplaincy initiatives. But when you’re talking about the minority faith communities, they haven’t got any resources at all. They won’t be able to respond.”

He says chaplains will be increasingly called upon to provide care and assistance to members of religious minorities who are not part of their faith group. Without the OMC to provide support, chaplains could feel isolated and uncertain of where to turn to for help.

Although faith communities have said they do not have the money to make up the $500,000 shortfall, they might be able to carry on the work of the OMC if they get more engaged in the sort of work that the OMC does, he says. “The challenge for the faith communities that make up the OMC is to convince their people to pick up the work and to advocate for it.” He says the faith groups need to be more intentional about recruiting volunteers for chaplaincy work and advocacy.

Canon Graydon says the Diocese of Toronto will carry on its chaplaincy efforts despite the OMC’s loss of funding. “The diocese has held its ground financially over the years. The diocese’s chaplaincy department is one of the few departments to have no significant cutbacks. As for the future—it’s unknown at this point. I think the diocese would always be open to new chaplaincies, but at present there are no plans for additional paid chaplains.”

The diocese currently funds three full-time chaplaincies—at Mount Sinai Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, and Sunnybrook Hospital—and has about 20 Anglican chaplains for who paid for by the institutions they work in.

For related information, see Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care in the Diocese of Toronto.