Our faith communities and freedom of religion in Canada are important to
the long term social well-being of Canadians generally. Let me quote on
this from a section on religion in a book, Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, the
American David Jones and I co-authored late last year (www.david-kilgour.com).
What follows refers to religion in recent years in Canada:
Canada several years ago sampled persons over 15 living in private households
in all ten provinces on their frequency of attendance at religious services.
Nationally, one-fifth of those sampled—or about 6.4 million individuals,
assuming, probably to err substantially on the high side, that the same
attendance level applies to those under 15 as over—attend religious services
on a weekly basis. Even if there is exaggeration in the total of those
reporting weekly attendance, no other voluntary activity across the country
would appear to attract anything like this number of regular
participants. Most of our media continue to overlook this
"Canada's religious situation in fact contrasts strongly with
those of our southern neighbour. In The Churching of America:
1776-1990, authors Rodney Stack and Roger Finke assert that fewer than
one-fifth of Americans were active in churches in 1976, compared to more than
60 percent in 1990. The ongoing link between faith involvement and
"the American way" of life remains very strong. Weekly church attendance
in the 1990s among Americans—40 percent nationally—is higher than in
the 1930s (35 percent). Congregational membership at 69 percent is
only slightly lower than in, say, the 1950s (73 percent). Reg Bibby of
the University of Lethbridge notes the now well-known phenomenon that
both attendance and religious belief are stronger in countries like
Canada and the U.S. where there are numerous competing
"Just over four in five Canadians nationally continue to
believe in God. The Project Canada survey conducted by Reg Bibby found that
about 70 percent of Canadians across the land, as of 1990, believed there
is life after death, with only 14 percent ruling out the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenched in our constitution since
1982 guarantees freedom of religion, but, perhaps more importantly, our
courts are mandated to ensure that this principle is not violated. In
practical terms, it is equally important that no municipal government
across Canada levies any taxes on property used as places of worship.
There is also the legislated rule that anyone donating to a
registered faith organization can obtain an income tax deduction. It is now
established by our courts that parents cannot rely on their religious
convictions to deny children necessary medical treatment.
The Canadian experience has been that religious
believers, celebrating and living their faiths, make -- with some
well-publicized exceptions-- enormous contributions to societal well-being.
Some reasons 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. Regular goers
to 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 to non-religious charities. In
short, women and men who maintain a spiritual sense of
themselves contribute positively to their communities across Canada and
probably everywhere else.
Canada and our national,
provincial and municipal governments are founded to a considerable degree
upon liberty of religious belief. In practice, the freedom to act upon one's
beliefs cannot be absolute; it is subject even in open societies 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
Our legislators and courts have attempted to strike a
reasonable balance, particularly in an increasingly diverse religious
country, where we've welcomed newcomers of all faiths (or none). I
might add that in one recent census, only 15% of Canadians indicated
no religious affiliation, which presumably means that the rest of us
do see ourselves as part of one or more of our faith families. What many
observers miss is the enormous contribution that religious communities have
made to the nature and shape of Canada today. Long before Confederation in
1867, faith bodies assumed key roles in establishing educational, health, and
other agencies of public service.
The generally positive working
relationship between church and state has 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
quite recently. Three components of the UN survey, health, education and
welfare, are all fields in which religious Canadians have been active for
more than a century.
Consider only a few of the contributions that
some representative faith communities are making within Canada and
Catholics have cared for many of our citizens, educated our
children, and improved the lives of many Canadians 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 several years ago
when the late Pope John-Paul celebrated the final mass at World Youth
Day. Catholics continue 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, large Catholic
school systems operate alongside public ones.
Catholics impacted the development of our health care
systems profoundly. Many hospitals and health organizations 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. Many health care centres across
the rest of Canada are Catholic. St. Michael's hospital in Toronto,
for instance, was founded in 1892 by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The
Grey Nuns Hospital in southeast Edmonton is one of many others.
Many believe that it was devout and caring sisters who laid the
foundation for health care excellence in Canada and in other countries
where they served.
Protestants of various denominations constitute Canada's second largest
Christian grouping, accounting for approximately 36% of our population.
They have also helped make modern Canada what it is today.
Protestant denominations influenced Canada particularly deeply in
the field of higher education. Queen's University in Kingston,
Ontario, for example, was founded by what is now the Presbyterian Church.
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 the Ontario School Act (1871), which created universal education
and became a model for much of English-speaking Canada.
Protestants have been active in numerous 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. An estimated 1.5 million
Canadians participate in and benefit from YMCA programs and services
alone annually currently, with about 30,000 volunteers donating a
million hours of time each year in support.
The Christian churches have not been alone in helping mould
Canada's social union. As our population happily becomes more diverse,
other faith communities have flourished, helping motivate Canadians to
be better citizens generally.
Judaism has also long been a proud contributor to the Canadian
mosaic; its members have worked to educate and to help Canadians of
all cultural backgrounds, and have worked to combat all kinds of
racism everywhere in Canada. B'Nai Brith has been an active charity and
human rights body in Canada since 1875. The Canadian Jewish Congress
based in Montreal, similarly, has long worked to help define Canada's
legal and social framework to make us a more inclusive society.
Examples include advocating better and more inclusive education and
social policies. Mt. Sinai hospital in Toronto is one of our
best-regarded health care institutions. Similarly, Montreal's Jewish
General Hospital accepts patients and employees from all
Although relatively young among Canada's faith communities, Muslims have
already contributed much to nation-building as well. 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
numbers in the 700,000-one million range. 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. Each Muslim must donate 21/2 % of their net
salary to the poor and orphans.
Sikhs have contributed much to the development of Canadian society. Now
almost 400,000 in numbers, there are more than 100 Gurdwaras 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
Regrettably, I can't mention all religions, not the least of
which include Canada's substantial and growing Hindu and
Buddhist communities. Nevertheless, hopefully 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 free their souls and express their beliefs
together encourages them to be good and caring citizens.
political system also enables Canadians to influence public policy formation.
Members of various faith communities are often invited to testify in
front of parliamentary committees. Examples are evident in the
formation of foreign, refugee, health, social and immigration policy, to name
only a few. In all cases, their political views, necessarily nurtured
by their respective faiths, have a direct impact on how our legislators in
various assemblies, pass Canada's laws. In our experience, allowing
for the open and free expression of one's religious beliefs has allowed
Canadians of different religious backgrounds, who often have very different
opinions, to find common ground.
This approach in my mind will be of
great importance everywhere 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 rapidly. Indeed, it is the God-is-dead advocates who are on
the defensive in many lands. Few, if any, political philosophies
today have the same appeal for large numbers of men and women. As a
result, we will need to explore common paths of understanding between
faiths in an open and honest manner.
Let me close with congratulations to the Canadian Institute
of Interfaith Dialogue, which seeks to remove the roots of chaos,
enmity, and intolerance through conversation and dialogue with people
of varying faiths. As it's website notes "…now is the time for
all people who love peace, security, and tranquility to stand side by
side and shoulder to shoulder… as practicing Muslims, the Prophet
Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was and remains a beloved part
of the Muslim family. While we live in an age where few people
are respected and honored, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings
be upon him) is for Muslims a person who epitomizes honor, dignity,
"…The practicing Muslim strives to follow the guidelines
and principles of the Holy Qur'an and the actions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and
blessings be upon him) in every aspect of his
or her life. The Messenger (peace and blessings be upon
him) never ever allowed anyone to push him into violence. Thus if Muslims
are in any way adding to violence stemming from various forms of tripe circulating across
all forms of media, then they are acting upon
their own desires and not of the teachings of the
Holy Qur'an, and thus they are not supporting
the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon
"Many people have challenged the founding members of CIID by asking- Why
are you speaking with people from differing religions? To this we have
said, "We are in communication with others because of our love, admiration,
gratitude, and respect for our Prophets Adam, Enoch, Noah, Hud, Salih,
Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Lot, Jacob, Joseph, Shuaib, Job, Moses, Aaron,
Ezekiel, David, Solomon, Elias, Elijah, Jonah, Zachariah, John, Jesus, and
Muhammad Peace and blessings be upon them all."