Canadians confront questions daily that call us to reflect on who we are and who we are called to be. That includes the role of religion in shaping the fabric of our communities.
Religion in Canada
As a minister I’m fascinated by the evolving story of religion in Canada. I wrote about the good influence of religion in democracies.
A majority of Canadians say that their faith and religious belief is important to them in terms of defining their personal identity, overcoming challenges in life, and affecting how they view problems in their society. For some people, especially people of Christian faith, they don’t like to associate their cherished beliefs with religion. They speak of having a relationship not a religion.
Do you know which city is the world’s most diverse? It is home to a plethora of different nationalities, ethnicities, and religious affiliations. And given that it’s located in Canada illustrates the opportunity our nation affords with religious freedom. The answer is below. (1)
For Canadians, religion is a fundamental framework through which we interact with life. Former Prime Minister P.E. Trudeau said, “The golden thread of faith is woven throughout the history of Canada from its earliest beginnings up to the present time.” (2)
The history of religious freedom extends back more than eight hundred years, to the Magna Carta (1215), firmly situating religious freedom within the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It’s important to note in any discussion about Judeo-Christian tradition that Canada was not “founded” but conquered with Judeo-Christian values. Those with Judeo-Christians values put Indigenous people on reservations, separated thousands of children from their parents, and attempted to destroy their language and culture in the name of religion.
That is one reason to account for the recently targeted antagonism toward religion in Canada. Adding to the angst are the sexual abuse and crimes committed by members of the clergy, and the perception that churches are self-serving and undeserving of charitable tax status.
Some argue that religion should solely be a private matter.
Here’s where a succinct history lesson is helpful.
A Very Brief History of the Freedom of Religion in Canada
French Catholic and English Protestant explorers arrived in Canada from Europe 700 years ago. Decades of endless wars, treaties, and alliances ensued invovling whites and Indigenous peoples.. In 1759, the British defeated the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Québec City.
In the wake of the failure to assimilate French Canadians, the British government enacted the Quebec Act in 1774. Article 5 guaranteed the French Canadians the maintenance of their language, religion, and civil law.
The British North America Act of 1867 assured that Canada was not based on the removal of religion from public life. It secured a constitutional recognition of religious difference and distinctiveness as illustrated in Catholic schools operating outside of Quebec and Protestant schools free to operate inside Quebec.
The BNA Act acknowledged that religious devotion, expression, and practice have a role to play in informing the public good.
Bill of Rights
The Canadian Bill of Rights established global human rights standards, including freedom of all religions. Passed in 1960 under Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, the preamble to the Bill of Rights reinforced the role of religion in Canada. It acknowledged “the supremacy of God” and affirmed respect “for moral and spiritual values and the rule of law.”
The Constitution Act in 1982 recognized “the supremacy of God.” The presence of freedom of religion affirms its relationship to other fundamental freedoms, and the state’s obligation to protect this.
In 2013 the Office of Religious Freedom was mandated to protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat; oppose religious hatred and intolerance; and promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.
In 2023 some secular advocates continue to call for a separate right to “freedom from religion.” The call fails to recognize that freedom of religion includes the right not to have any religion.
Canadian society is profoundly multicultural and multi-religious. Our nation benefits from religious groups engaging with one another over our most deeply held beliefs. When amnesia settles in on culture regarding freedom of religion, we face imminent danger.
This post is in conjunction with my thoughts around religion being good for us all. Please join the conversation and post a comment below. Thank you.
- Toronto, Ontario
- Pierre Elliott Trudeau, “Salute to Canada,” Global Network, June 20, 1981.
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