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Seeking Explanation for Religious Naming at Public Hospital

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Canada often holds itself out to the world as an example of how people of different races and creeds can live in multicultural harmony as equal partners.
by Terry O’Neill | Source:
But if a mid-November political event in the province of British Columbia is any indication, some of those partners may be more “equal” than the Christians who comprise the large majority of the Canadian population.

The event took place Nov. 15 in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, where B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell announced that the entrance to a new emergency- and urgent-care facility at a public hospital would be named in honor of the founder of the Sikh religion.

“The naming of the entrance to the Surrey Memorial Hospital’s new emergency center after Guru Nanak Dev Ji is a fitting and lasting tribute to the dedication of the South Asian community to health care in this region,” Campbell, leader of the province’s Liberal Party, said in reference to the large number of Sikhs who live in the area and who have contributed to the hospital’s charitable foundation. “The guru reminded us all that devotion of thought and excellence of conduct is our first duty.”

The announcement warranted only scant news coverage and generated no local media commentary. Yet, several observers noted later that the naming appears to disprove an assertion, often advanced by secularists when Christians try to influence public policy, that a rigid church-state separation exists in Canada.

Moreover, the observers noted that a very different media response would have ensued had Campbell named the facility in honor of the founder of another religion practiced by many area donors — Christianity.

“I think the real question is why the respect being given to the Sikh religion isn’t likely to be given to Christianity any time in the near future,” said Paul Schratz, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. “Politicians have no difficulty making political stops in mosques and temples, and yet I don’t know when a politician attended an Ash Wednesday Mass with his entourage.”

Campbell was not available for an interview, but Dave Hayer, British Columbia’s parliamentary secretary for multiculturalism (and a Sikh himself), suggested the government wasn’t close-minded on the subject.

“Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with [naming a public facility after a Christian figure],” Hayer said. “It doesn’t offend me.”

The issue of church-state separation was prominent in Canada in 2005 when Catholics and evangelicals were fighting federal legislation legalizing homosexual “marriage.” In response, the foreign affairs minister of the then-Liberal federal government, Pierre Pettigrew, indicated the Church should butt out.

“I find that the separation of the church and state is one of the most beautiful inventions of modern times,” Pettigrew said.

Yet, only three months earlier, researcher Laura Barnet, of the non-partisan law and government division of the Library of Parliament, published a special report on the relation between the church and state in Canada. It concluded, in part, “that no policy exists in [Canada] to officially separate church and state.”

Barnet’s finding is reflected in a variety of areas. Several provincial governments fully fund separate Catholic school systems, for example.

And dozens of municipal councils in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec begin their meetings with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, a fact that infuriates Canadian secularists.

Mark Robinson, founder of the Clarington Durham Region Humanists Association in Ontario, thinks all religion should be kept out of the public square. And he thinks that principle should have prevented Campbell from naming the British Columbia hospital facility after Guru Nanak.

“I think it’s almost an advertisement for the faith at the front door of the hospital,” Robinson said.

Andrew Irvine, a civil libertarian and professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, noted that, in Canada at least, the concept of separation of church and state is a convention that holds that government has no right to interfere with the rights and functioning of religious institutions. “It’s not that religious institutions [and religious groups more generally] don’t have the right to participate in, or try to influence the decisions of government,” he said.

Consequently, he doesn’t see Campbell’s naming decision as anything worse than a political blunder.

But the incident would likely have generated massive media criticism if a politician like Campbell had tried to honor a Christian figure rather than one from another religion, other observers suggest.

Then again, it’s highly unlikely that British Columbia’s current government would even consider such a move, said Robert Stackpole, professor of theology at Redeemer Pacific College in Langley, British Columbia.

Said Stackpole, “Sadly, I doubt that we will see our ‘politically-correct’ provincial government naming a new public library after one of the four Evangelists, or a new public park after one of the Twelve Apostles — not even in the Christian ‘Bible Belt’ in [B.C.’s] Fraser Valley.”

Terry O’Neill writes from Vancouver, British Columbia.
Source: National Catholic Register - January 20-26, 2008 Issue

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