Canada briefs – July 10

The Roman Catholic archbishop who administered holy communion to the prime minister last week says he believes Stephen Harper meant no disrespect when he consumed a communion wafer during the funeral of former governor general Romeo LeBlanc.

Archbishop absolves PM over communion

MONCTON, N.B. — The Roman Catholic archbishop who administered holy communion to the prime minister last week says he believes Stephen Harper meant no disrespect when he consumed a communion wafer during the funeral of former governor general Romeo LeBlanc.

Archbishop Andre Richard, head of the Moncton archdiocese, said Thursday it’s considered “sacrilegious” for non-believers to take part in the rite, but only if it is meant out of disrespect.

“In the context, it’s obvious that no disrespect was meant, I’m quite sure,” he said.

Richard said a protocol officer told him before the ceremony that anyone who wanted to take part in communion would signal their willingness to do so.

Video of the state funeral in Memramcook, N.B., shows Harper — a Protestant — reaching out to take the host with his right hand. “I think it’s sort of an unfortunate incident,” Richard added.

“I’m sure he (Harper) didn’t mean any desecration or nothing of the sort. Somehow, the gesture was misunderstood. I think he should have been briefed by the protocol of what has to be done in a Catholic ceremony.”

Earlier reports suggested the Catholic church makes exceptions for non-Catholics receiving communion at special occasions that involve a mix of religious and civic functions.

But Richard said that’s not the case.

“They’re not supposed to, it’s as simple as that” he said. “It’s church law. But many people don’t know this and they come (to participate) as though it was a gesture of brotherhood, which we can appreciate.”

Under church doctrine, it is understood that through the sacrament of the Eucharist the wafer offered at communion actually becomes the body of Jesus Christ, a belief that is rejected by Protestants even though they have a similar communion service.

Debate over the significance of Harper’s religious faux pas is still attracting national attention as the prime minister prepares to have a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday.

Harper is in Italy to attend a Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila.

Gay Tory senator praises cabinet Pride Week support

OTTAWA — A gay member of the Conservative caucus is applauding junior cabinet minister Diane Ablonczy’s financial support for Toronto’s Pride Week, a decision that put Ablonczy in the hot seat with some social conservatives.

And Senator Nancy Ruth says the MP who publicly criticized Ablonczy is one of only a handful who grumbled about the $400,000 tourism grant at a June caucus meeting.

“I give Ablonczy 100 per cent credit for choosing not politically to discriminate against something Pride Toronto had a legitimate reason to apply for and met all the criteria,” Ruth said in an interview Thursday.

“It takes guts not to discriminate when you know there is a faction within your party who isn’t going to like it. That takes guts and courage and I admire that.”

Ruth was appointed to the Senate as an independent in 2005 by Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, but joined the Conservative caucus a year later.

She is a well-known women’s rights activist, one of the founders of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and a member of the Order of Canada.

She says she has never felt any awkwardness about the fact she is gay from Prime Minister Stephen Harper or any of his staff.

“It just isn’t an issue. I’m first and foremost a women’s rights activist.”

But Ruth says a small minority in the caucus have made it known to her in subtle ways that they don’t approve of her sexual orientation.

“This isn’t party specific, I think it’s more religion specific or philosophy specific — there are those who don’t like gays and don’t want them around,” said Ruth, who is an ordained United Church minister.

Ablonczy announced the grants under the new Marquee Tourism Events Program at a June caucus meeting. When she mentioned Toronto Pride among the other names, Ruth says, a few MPs made audible sounds of disapproval. But the issue was never discussed, and their indignation was not acknowledged at the time by Harper.

Saskatoon MP Brad Trost told a socially conservative website on Monday that most of the caucus and the Prime Minister’s Office were upset about the grant. He also suggested Ablonczy had lost control of the tourism program shortly after the Pride Week announcement.

Ottawa won’t change polar bear strategy

OTTAWA — The federal government will not change its strategy for polar bears despite a recent international report suggesting the Arctic predator is increasingly threatened.

“(The report) doesn’t change the work we are doing as part of the listing process for polar bears under Canada’s Species At Risk Act,” says an email from an Environment Canada spokeswoman.

The response is to a report from one of the pre-eminent scientific groups on polar bears which concluded that the increasingly rapid disappearance of Arctic sea ice is a growing threat.

The Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that the number of declining bear populations has increased to eight from the five listed in its 2005 report.At least one polar bear expert says the mighty hunter is not threatened.

“It’s not quite as big a crisis as some people have tried to make out,” said Mitch Taylor, a retired biologist with the government of Nunavut and former member of the polar bear group.

Taylor acknowledges that some bear populations are declining in the southern part of their range and concedes that Arctic sea ice is declining.

But he holds that decline is primarily due to natural forces such as ocean currents, not greenhouse gases.

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