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Church-State Relations in Canada and Jie Gui

Paper spoken to by Hon. David Kilgour, Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific)
And Member of Parliament for Edmonton Strathcona
at a Roundtable for Members of a Delegation on Religious Affairs
from the People’s Republic of China
East Block, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa
February 17, 2003

Your excellency, Director General, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a privilege to have been asked to host this roundtable. I hope that from your time in this country you will gain an understanding of the dynamics of church-state relations here and just how important our faith communities and freedom of religion are to the long term social well-being of Canadians generally. It goes without saying that Canadians can learn much about the 5000-year-old civilization that is China; perhaps this is an area where our experience might be of interest to modern China.

Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms in our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but, perhaps more importantly, our courts are mandated to ensure that this principle is not violated. In more practical terms, however, some would say that it is equally important that no municipal government across Canada levies any taxes on property used as places of worship. There is also the old legislated rule that anyone donating to a registered faith organizations can obtain a moderately generous income tax deduction. Another which might interest you is that it is now established by our courts that parents cannot rely on their religious convictions to deny their child necessary medical treatment such as blood transfusions.

Jie Gui

We might keep in mind today the concept of “Jie Gui”or the “connecting of rails.” As China’s markets, regions and peoples open up to the world following your accession to the WTO, you will face new pressures. This reality in the context of “Jie Gui” will perhaps have a harmonious result if China’s leaders continue to dialogue on the successful practices of other friendly countries, including Canada. Our nation has something to share with respect to positive relations between faith communities and governments.

Senator Lois Wilson’s Council of Churches delegation concluded after its visit to China in 1999 that “there has been considerable progress in China towards protecting the rights of religious believers and religious freedom since the cultural revolution.” I was thus surprised to find recently when entering the term “persecution of Christians in China” on a Google search engine that fully 46,300 entries appeared. Some of the items I read were deeply troubling.. For “persecution of Muslims in China”, there were 19,500 entries; for Buddhists, 7400 ; for Falun Gong, about whom there appears to be an article almost daily in our media, fully 54,700.

The Canadian experience has been that religious believers, celebrating and living their faiths, make–with some well-publicized exceptions-- large contributions to societal well-being. Some of the reasons for this are well-documented. For example, research indicates that Canadians who attend weekly religious services report having happier, less stressful lives than others. Frequent service attenders report less depression, shorter stays in hospitals, and less abuse of alcohol. Regular attendees are more likely to volunteer time and to establish charities. Among the 70,000 registered charities across Canada today, more than 40%, or 32,000, are faith-based. Regulars at religious services account for about half of all hours volunteered across the country. Those who regularly attend faith services provide 42% of the donations received by direct giving even to non-religious charities. In short, people who maintain a spiritual life contribute much to their communities across Canada and probably everywhere else on earth. Don’t believe our media, which too often spread negative views about believers.

A friend who spent his youth in Hong Kong before coming to Canada reminded me recently that many immigrants to Canada from China become active members of religious organizations here soon after they arrive. Churches continue to flourish in Hong Kong, he noted, adding that during the 1930s and 1940s he believes all 13 universities then functioning on the mainland had been founded by missionaries. Faith communities in Hong Kong continue to provide a wide range of educational, health and social welfare services.

Church-state Relations

Our national, provincial and municipal legislators know that Canada was founded in part upon liberty of religious belief and that many of our citizens came here to escape religious persecution elsewhere. In practice, the freedom to act upon one’s beliefs cannot be absolute; it is subject in this country to such limitations as are necessary to protect the rights of others. As someone put it, “Your freedom to swing a baseball bat stops at the point where it reaches my nose” Our legislators and courts alike have over time attempted to strike a reasonable balance, particularly in an increasingly diverse religious country, where we’ve welcomed newcomers of all faiths and none. In one recent census, I might add here, only 15% of Canadians claimed no religious affiliation, so presumably the rest do identify with one or more of our faith communities.

Many observers-local and international- continue to miss the enormous contribution religious communities have made to the nature of Canada today. Long before Canada was born in 1867, faith bodies assumed key roles in establishing education, health, and other agencies of public service.

The generally positive working relationships between church and state have created much of our institutional and social infrastructure and no doubt helped us become the number one country on the United Nations Human Development Index six years in row until recently. Three components of the UN survey, health, education and welfare, are all areas in which Canadians of religious faith have been active for more than a century.

Consider only a few of the contributions that some representative faith communities made and are making within Canada and abroad.

Roman Catholics

Canada’s Catholics have cared for many of our citizens, educated our children, and improved the lives of many individuals and families for centuries. Today, the denomination represents almost half of our population. The largest gathering of Canadians in our entire history–800,000-1.2 million, depending on the estimate–took place in Toronto last summer when Pope John-Paul celebrated the final mass at World Youth Day.

The denomination continues to influence primary, secondary and post-secondary education in major ways. There are currently 19 Catholic universities and colleges across Canada. Many of our public universities, moreover, were founded as Catholic institutions, including St. Francis Xavier and St. Mary’s, both in Nova Scotia, and Laval University and many others in the province of Quebec. Catholics are active in policy and curriculum development on school boards across Canada. In some provinces, including my own province of Alberta, Catholic school systems operate alongside public ones.

Catholics also impacted the development of our health care systems profoundly. Many hospitals and health bodies across Canada are affiliated with the denomination. For example, the Providence Health Care organization delivers care, teaching and research at eight locations in British Columbia. St. Michael’s hospital in Toronto was founded in 1892 by the Sisters of St. Joseph; the Grey Nuns Hospital in southeast Edmonton is one of many other Catholic facilities. Many believe that it was devout and caring sisters who laid the foundation for health care excellence in Canada and in many other countries where they served.


Protestants of various denominations constitute Canada’s second largest Christian grouping, accounting for approximately 36% of our population. They also helped make modern Canada what it is today.

Protestant influenced this country particularly in the field of higher education. Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, for example, was founded by what is now the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The University of Toronto was founded by John Strachan, the first Anglican bishop of the city, who as an educator and religious leader helped shaped education practices. Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist who began preaching as a young man in the 1820's, was later appointed superintendent of education for Canada West (Ontario).His work led to its School Act of 1871, which created universal education and became a model for much of English-speaking Canada.

Protestants have been particularly active in service organizations. The Young Men’s And Young Women’s Christian Associations ( YMCA and YWCA), for example, began as institutions for Christians, but grew into ones open to persons of all ages and faiths. Today, many provide recreational facilities, housing for the homeless, children’s summer camps, and employment programs. Today, an estimated 1.5 million Canadians participate in and benefit from YMCA programs and services annually, with about 30,000 volunteers donating a million hours of time each year in support.


Although relatively young among our faith communities, Muslims have already contributed much to nation-building. In my home city of Edmonton, North America’s first mosque was built in December of 1938. Islam is one of our fastest growing religions, with a community that already has approximately 700,000 members.

Muslims are active in many professions. For example, more than 4000 of Canada’s medical doctors are Muslims. The community also provides aid and humanitarian support. The public services of members in this city alone include hospital visits to patients wishing visits of any or no faith and summer camps for children. Islam requires that members donate 21/2 % of their net salary to the poor.. Muslims are leaders in post-secondary education. Dr. Tyseer Aboulnasr is Dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Ottawa. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, one of Canada’s top experts on digital microchip design, is a professor of computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and is president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.


Sikhs have also contributed much to the development of Canadian society. Now almost 400,000 in numbers, there are more than 100 Gudwaras across Canada. Many thousands of volunteers work in food banks, organise blood drives, and contribute to the well-being of local communities. To honour Sikh contributions, our government last year released a postage stamp honouring the community.

The community has become noticably active in public service. My colleague Herb Dhaliwal from Vancouver is our Minister for Natural Resources. Gurbax Malhi is a Toronto Member of Parliament. So is Gurmant Grewal, who was elected to Parliament from British Columbia only 51/2 years after he immigrated to Canada. Ujjal Dosanjh is a past premier of British Columbia. Baltej Dhillon became the first turbaned member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the basis that wearing his turban was a religious requirement.


For time reasons only, the final community I’ll mention is the Jewish community. Jews have endeavoured to educate and to help Canadians of all cultural backgrounds. B’Nai Brith has been an active charity and human rights body in Canada since 1875. The Canadian Jewish Congress, based in Montreal, has long worked to enlarge Canada’s legal and social systems to render us a more inclusive society. Examples include advocating better and more public education and social policies. Mt. Sinai hospital in Toronto is one of our best-regarded health care institutions.

Good Citizenship

This brief survey illustrates how, in a largely unregulated environment, it’s been our experience over the decades that religious communities contribute much to the well-being of Canadians generally. The key point is that allowing for the freedom of religious beliefs and actively encouraging communities of people to express their beliefs together encourages them to be good and caring citizens. It permits spiritual communities to lead more complete lives with serious social problems such as suicide being reduced from already far too high levels in their own communities if not always beyond them.

This model in my mind will be of even greater importance in the new century. Whether some like it or not, the power of religious faiths to move people in many parts of the world is increasing briskly. Few, if any, political philosophies today have the same appeal for large numbers of men and women. The various God-is-dead movements seem to be on life support. In consequence, church-state relations and fostering inter-faith harmony are becoming more and more important issues in many parts of the world.

One author, Philip Jenkins, recently made a number of interesting points about this world-wide phenomenon from a Christian perspective. By 2050, he estimates that about a third of the world’s population will be Christian, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with about three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide. For China, he thinks the best estimate is about 60 million Christians by 2050 compared to perhaps 50 million today. He sees Buddhism struggling over the next forty or fifty years to reassert its former role in much of Asia, including China.

He accepts that the numbers of Muslims in China today may run into the tens of millions.


In closing, I salute the stated goals of your delegation. You have a good opportunity to learn much about Canadians from this visit, including the strong faith practices of many Canadians of origin in China. One Chinese Baptist church in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, evidently has a membership of 14,000 adults and an annual budget of $2.5 million.

China is already one of the most influential countries in the world, economically and politically. In dealing with the pressures that this brings, “Jie Gui” can be of enormous help and importance to China. Canada is here as a partner and a friend.

Thank you.

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