Q What is your connection with The United Church of Canada?
A I was baptized at Cheverie United in Nova Scotia, and I taught Sunday school there. I was married there, and we [Brison and his husband, Maxime Saint-Pierre] intend to baptize our two-year-old twin daughters there as well. My uncle was a United Church minister. I have two cousins who are married to United Church ministers. My cousin, a lay minister, is acting as our minister in Cheverie. So our family has a long history with the United Church.
I remember the controversy in the 1980s about ordaining gay ministers and the discussions around it in our family. It was a divisive topic. That was during a time when I was struggling with my own sexual orientation. I feel fortunate to have grown up in a church as progressive as the United Church. Its presence in rural and small-town Canada has been important in terms of its role as a leader in socially progressive issues. There are times when I don’t always agree with my church in the same way that I don’t necessarily always agree with my party about politics or religion. Some of the United Church’s positions on foreign policy I don’t always agree with. And I’m not always comfortable with some of the positions on energy, but I continue to be a part of, and support, the United Church.
Q Does your sense of spirituality shape your political perspective?
A This is one of the few times I’ve talked about my faith in the context of what I do as a public servant or politician, and to be honest, I often feel uncomfortable when politicians talk about religion. There are times when politicians say things and do things that they defend based on religious grounds. It’s sometimes done in a way where religion is used as some sort of weapon or some way to bolster public moral superiority. I feel uncomfortable with religion being used as a source of division. I have friends who are agnostic, and I have friends who are atheist, and their views are just as sound as mine in terms of being good people. But for whatever reason, I do derive some level of strength from my faith.
Q What role does faith play in Canada today?
A There are uniting and positive values within faith that I think we benefit from understanding, appreciating and supporting. I want our kids to be raised with respect for other religions and other faiths, and to have an understanding of faith and comparative religion. There are so many misunderstandings, particularly with regards to the Muslim faith. I feel that I have benefited from having faith in my life and feel compelled to provide that same benefit to our children.
I spoke at the multi-denominational Acadia University chapel [in Wolfville, N.S.] a while ago and wrote an op-ed piece in the National Post about the Charter of Rights as applied to religious freedom, particularly around the Muslim faith. What I said was that I might not be totally comfortable with niqabs, and some Muslims might not be totally comfortable with same-sex marriage, but the beauty of the Charter is that it compels us to rise to the occasion, confront our fears and accept our differences.
Q Why do you think it’s increasingly hard for us to talk about our faith publicly?
A Sometimes I think that politicians talk about religion almost as part of their brand, courting the religious vote. My faith is just a part of who I am. My religion is a private thing, and in some ways I feel that I’m betraying it even just by talking about it. I don’t want to come across as preachy, because I’m not.
Q Switching gears — with falling oil prices, the deficit and a slow economy, how positive is Canada’s fiscal future?
A Compared to some of our peer countries, we have been in a slower growth mode since 2011. Falling oil prices have taken us from slow growth to virtually no growth, to where we are in a technical recession as of the first half of 2015. In this slow-growth economy with bond yields at historic lows and real interest rates negative and a soft job market and crumbling infrastructure, now is the right time to invest in communities, to invest in strategic infrastructure and to invest in people and skills. I feel very strongly about that. We have the opportunity to create jobs for people today, but also more livable communities and a more competitive economy in the future. Also by investing in people, particularly [in their] skills, we can help in terms of equality.
Equality, by the way, is also very good for the economy. Inequality is bad for growth. If large segments of your society don’t have opportunities to compete and succeed in the economy, don’t have access to the economic levers that others have, that is bad for the economy. So inequality is bad for the economy as well as bad for the society.
Q Historically, Christianity has held that money is worldly and spirituality belongs to a higher realm. Do you think of money and how we interact with it as a spiritual exercise?
A I believe very strongly in equality of opportunity. And I have real concerns about inequality. In fact, as an opposition member, it was my motion that was passed in the House of Commons that led to a study of income inequality by the House of Commons finance committee. Income inequality and inequality of opportunity are things that worry me. I worry about how we can have social cohesion and a healthy society if there is not a basic equality of opportunity in terms of things like high-quality early learning, basic shelter and nutritious food.
There is no doubt my daughters are growing up in a privileged environment. While I think of the opportunities we are able to provide to them, I think all the time about the challenges being faced by other parents and other families. We read to our children, but there are a lot of parents out there with literacy challenges. Often the people with literacy challenges are also people with income challenges. There are virtuous cycles if you are a person of privilege, and there are vicious cycles if you are not. I’m not sure if this is something that comes from my faith or the United Church or, to be honest, it might be a sense of fairness that came from my parents. I don’t know if it’s a religious thing for me at all. Religion was part of my upbringing, and good values were part of what we were taught.
Part of being a good citizen is that you don’t only think of your own kids, you also think of other people’s kids.
This interview has been condensed and edited.