The gospel calls us to fight slavery, MP says

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A woman sits in a small silk factory near Mandalay, Myanmar. “As the world shrinks, we actually are…passively unknowing—[or] possibly willfully ignorant—of elements in the supply chain of the products that we consume that are produced in slave or slave-like or child labour conditions,” says John McKay, MP for Scarborough-Guildwood. Photo: CatwalkPhotos/Shutterstock

An MP who introduced a private members’ bill in Parliament targeting modern slavery says his Christian faith was part of his motivation.

“There’s a manifest inconsistency between faith and enslavement,” John McKay, who tabled C-423, the Modern Slavery Act, in the House of Commons last December, says. “All the rationalizations [of it], in my view, are entirely inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“We’re called to freedom, we’re not called to enslavement, and for those of us who directly or indirectly participate in the enslavement of other human beings—you need to examine your own conscience but also your own behaviour, and if your consumption behaviour is such that you are supporting enslavement, then I have to wonder how seriously you take your faith.”

McKay, Liberal MP for Scarborough-Guildwood in Ontario, is not an Anglican; he worships at The Peoples Church, a non-denominational Christian church. But his political hero, he says, is William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the evangelical Anglican who led the movement to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.

The Modern Slavery Act would require large, publicly traded Canadian companies—listed companies, that is, that have two of the following: at least $20 million in assets, at least $40 million in annual revenue or at least 250 employees—to file an annual statement with the federal government, reporting the steps they have taken to prevent and reduce the risk of forced or child labour at any step in their supply chains. They must also provide other details, including their anti-slave labour policies and information on where in their activities there is a risk of slave labour. Governments in the U.K., Australia, France and California have passed similar laws.

The bill was drafted with the assistance of World Vision Canada, a Christian aid organization which, McKay says, has done a considerable amount of work fighting modern slavery.

Supply chains are the systems by which raw materials are transformed, step by step, into goods for consumers. The integration of economies across the world in recent decades has resulted in highly complex supply chains, involving sometimes a myriad of suppliers for a single finished good, in which the presence of slavery can be difficult to detect.

The Global Slavery Index, produced by an Australian foundation, ranks G20 countries by the value of possibly slave-produced goods they consume. Canada is sixth on this list.

“As the world shrinks, we actually are…passively unknowing—[or] possibly willfully ignorant—of elements in the supply chain of the products that we consume that are produced in slave or slave-like or child labour conditions,” McKay says. “Now I would think that if there was a methodology whereby…the supply chain had been examined and the purveyor/ seller was satisfied that there is no element of slavery in the supply chain, Canadians could then make an informed consumption decision.”

McKay says he’s not expecting his bill will be passed in the current session of Parliament, and perhaps not anytime soon.

“My sense of it is that the government really hasn’t thought its way through this, that they haven’t been confronted with something that requires a decision point,” he said. “I just think it’s more caution than anything else, really.”

He says, however, that he hopes to make slavery an issue for debate in the upcoming election scheduled for Oct. 21, and to get his bill on the Liberal platform.

Fighting human trafficking and slavery has been a priority for the Anglican Church of Canada since at least June 2017, when Council of General Synod endorsed an Anglican Consultative Council anti-human trafficking resolution. Since then, the church has been organizing consultations on the issue in each ecclesiastical province (see “Human trafficking consultations wrap up in B.C.“).

Meanwhile, at least one church has also been attempting to call attention to these issues. On March 13, St. Matthias’ Church in Westmount, Que., held a free forum on human trafficking and slavery with Anthony Housefather, Liberal MP and chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, giving the keynote address. Organizer Penny Rankin, a member of St. Matthias’ and chair of the diocese of Montreal’s mission standing committee, says she was delighted with the turnout, which exceeded 150—even though it was an English-only event in the majority French-speaking city.

The focus of the event, Rankin says, was a particularly disturbing form of sexual slavery: the cyber-sexual abuse of children, which involves the Internet streaming of video of children being sexually molested, in real time, as per the instructions of the viewer. She says she hopes that drawing attention to the problem will spur people to act to reverse some of its underlying causes.

“The poverty and the isolation and the desensitization, the commodification, of people is a process—it’s not something that happens idly. And I think that we need to really call out in our societies the evil of this behaviour.”

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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