From before the founding of this nation, chaplains have been involved in ministry to inmates and to their families. During that time, chaplains have been on the forefront of some of the most significant social issues in our country, including movements for human rights, care for the families and victims of offenders, calls for the abolition of capital punishment, the establishment of effective programmes for healthy and accountable reintegration at the end of prison sentences, and an emphasis on the importance of literacy.

On June 6th, 1966, the Commissioner of the Canadian Penitentiary Service, Alan J. McLeod,wrote to the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) with a request that the CCC should participate in the selection and rotation of full-time chaplains in the federal penitentiary system.

A time of consultation followed, and included the request from the CCC that the Commissioner send a similar request to the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. This request was made so that a wider spectrum of Canadian faith communities and religious organizations would participate in this responsibility. This request was honoured with the result that in 1968-1969 terms of reference for the newly formed “Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy” were established.

Included in these discussions were the Commissioner’s own thoughts about chaplaincy’s dual role–that is, to represent the church in the penitentiary and the penitentiary in the church. Understandably, there was an emphasis on the abiding by security regulations and the care of all inmates, and an acknowledgement that the religious and spiritual needs of inmates differed from he the types of services offered by the psychiatric and medical professions.

As the 1970’s unfolded, the focus of the IFC and of religious and spiritual care evolved, leading to ongoing discussions about the dual (and sometimes more than dual) responsibilities in which chaplains were called to function. Chaplains had a responsibility to the inmates; to the co-workers and staff of the correctional service; to families of the inmates; to the community at large; and to their own denominational affiliations. As the Commissioner stated, “none of these relationships implies that a chaplain has a divided loyalty, but unless he gives each its due, he is not conducting a well-rounded ministry.

The ration and number of chaplains in each institution has always been a source of discussion, and in the 1970’s it was typical to have two chaplains in each institution. In the late 1970’s, however, a crisis erupted when the cutting of funding for public services led to a freezing of unfilled chaplaincy positions. The IFC protested against this, and a wide-ranging conversation ensued which explored new models for the provision of chaplaincy services, and which included the possibility of cutting chaplaincy staff, new regional configurations, and/or a movement towards contracts for chaplains.

The Memorandum of Understanding

When the “dust settled”, a recommendation was made in 1980 that a “memorandum of Understanding” be established between the faith communities and the government in relation to the structuring, ratio, relationship and responsibilities of chaplains in federal institutions. The first MOU was signed in 1982, and subsequent revisions to the MOU have been signed on a five to seven year cycle since that time.

The MOU established the nature of the relationships and different loyalties for the chaplains in a way that was morally, if not always technically, legally binding on the government and the faith communities. It has been helpful in certain times of conflict including situations in which there were proposed cutbacks in the system that would have reduced the number of chaplains below the MOU-established minimum ratios of chaplains to inmates.

As well as addressing the relationship between the CSC and Canadian faith communities in relation to the provision of religious and spiritual care, each MOU reflects emerging issue and priorities. Over the years, these concerns have included:

the emergence and growth of new religious communities in the Canadian context
the relationship between the adherents and practitioners of aboriginal and native spirituality
the differing need of certain populations, e.g. differing need of women inmates and chaplains in women’s institutions
questions of ratios in times of cutbacks in funding
emerging priorities in relation to community chaplaincy, reconciliation and reintegration ministries
restorative justice initiatives
major administrative issues, including the clarification of liability issues and questions related to contracting models

Evolving Membership on the IFC

But it has not only been the MOU which has reflected a level of change and evolution. The Interfaith Committee itself has also evolved over this period of time. While it began as a Christian/Jewish organization, membership on the IFC now includes many other faith communities and includes active participation from representatives from Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, and other Canadian faith groups and organizations. On a regular basis, requests are made from other nationally representative faith communities and organiztions for inclusion on the IFC.

Throughout all of these changes, the IFC has sought to keep concerns of chaplains, the needs of inmates, and the health of the Canadian society at the forefront of their conversation.