Bibles return to Canadian citizenship courts

September 24, 2010 – Relaxing a ban imposed in citizenship courts in 2004, Canadian immigration officials are preparing to once again allow the distribution of Bibles to new immigrants who wish to use them for the swearing of allegiance ceremony.

This Canadian Bible Society (CBS) ministry began in the early 1900’s when representatives of the society were present at Pier 21 in Halifax greeting the immigrants arriving on ships from the old countries. By the end of the fifties the presentations were happening in more organized ceremonies in citizenship courts across the country. While a Bible had been on hand in other legal courts to swear in witnesses before testifying for instance, many new immigrants welcomed the idea of a keepsake Bible of their own that they could keep as a souvenir after the citizenship ceremony. CBS responded to the unique opportunity to connect new Canadians with God’s Word, eventually even designing a specific Bible for the program and distributing almost 25,000 copies in the last year the program was offered.

In a September 1st editorial, Lloyd Mackey, a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa, noted that the 2004 ban apparently came as a result of “complaints that the Citizenship Court appeared to be plumping too closely in favour of religious belief. “Individuals being received as immigrants remained free to bring their own copy of their preferred holy book, but groups making them available were no longer welcome in the process.

Disappointed by the lost opportunity, some of CBS’ field district staff developed an alternate plan that would eventually connect new immigrants with the Bible earlier after their arrival. Many churches that serve immigrant communities had begun offering English second language courses, often using Bible texts and stories to teach vocabulary, grammar and reading skills. This added an additional incentive to immigrants anxious to understand and adapt to their new homeland where the Bible and Christianity are very much a part of the social fabric.

From the first few local staff members who offered discounted Bibles to local church based ESL groups, the new initiative eventually developed into a full-fledged national program at CBS. A team of ESL teachers worked collaboratively with the organization to develop a Bible based on the easily readable Contemporary English Version and that includes a basic dictionary and a number of other helps.

Once Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney officially gives them the nod, dozens of citizenship courts across Canada will once again be free to make arrangements with local groups willing to make the Bibles available.

The proposed guidelines include the suggestion that religious organizations be discreet when they are present, that their books be available at no cost, in both official languages and be displayed on a table where individuals can serve themselves, rather than being overtly distributed.

In making the announcement, Minister Kenney gave particular credit to two members of the parliamentary opposition, Peter Stoffer of the NDP and Liberal John McKay.

“This represents both an opportunity and a challenge for CBS,” notes national director Ted Seres. “We are absolutely thrilled to see the reopening of this important link with new Canadians who are open and inquisitive about the spiritual values and the historic Christian tradition that has helped to make this country what it is. We are also excited because this is a piece of our own history at CBS. Through the ongoing generosity of our donors the Citizenship Bible program became one of our longest standing grant programs.”

Seres noted that during the years after the ban, it was many of these same donors who had provided strong support for the development and distribution of ESL Bibles.

“We’re thinking carefully about now committing resources to both programs,” Seres says, “But we can’t help but wonder whether this might not be the kind of initiative new Canadian donors will want to support to help CBS make a clear statement about the role of the Christian faith – and the Christian Scriptures – in the public square.”

The Word of Welcome Bible distributed to new immigrants taking ESL classes

Canadian Bible Society workers welcome new immigrants in the early 1950s.

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