“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” Constitution Act, 1982.
The inclusion of “God” in the preamble to Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act was a last-minute addition by Pierre Trudeau.
Thirty-three years later, as his son Justin presided over the swearing in of a new Liberal cabinet, over half of its members chose to drop the words “so help me God” from their oath of office. In a little more than a generation, the religious beliefs that were once the central tenets of Canadian society have been swept aside, as the courts and Parliament moved to assert a person’s individual liberty over their body, their identity and their relationships, from birth to death. And Canadian public opinion — sometimes leading, at other times following — has largely kept pace with this transformation.
The era when churches and religious leaders held sway over public policy in Canada has come to an end. There are important pockets of religious opposition to abortion, assisted dying and gender neutralization, but in the final analysis secularism seems to have won the day.
Religion and religious influence declined in Canada after the Second World War. (In Quebec during the 1960s the process accelerated, and the province moved from being the most to the least churched society in the modern world.) In the 1980s, not long after Pierre Trudeau wrote the word “God” into the constitutional preamble, regular church attendance in Canada was at around 40 percent. When Justin Trudeau formed his first cabinet in 2015, regular attendance had decreased to around half that (figure 1).
With this decline in influence, the era of religious dominance in the public square has come to an end. But this is not the end of the story. The role of religion in setting public policy has been replaced by a new issue: religion itself as a topic for public policy.
The highest-profile example is the controversy over the clothing worn by some Muslim women. In Quebec — once more at the centre of a religion-versus-state tangle — Bill 62 would require citizens to show their faces when receiving public services. Squarely aimed at niqabs and burkas, this legislation is wildly popular in Quebec but less so in the rest of Canada, where such moves have failed to garner majority support (figure 2).
The niqab/burka issue is part of a larger drama playing out in Canada concerning rising levels of religious diversity, how Canada should adapt to this multifaith reality and the importance Canadians place on religious freedom guarantees enshrined in the Constitution.
The current debate over religious freedom isn’t limited to the Muslim religion. Indeed, major issues of religious freedom that have recently been before the courts involve Christian organizations attempting to assert their rights: for example, in British Columbia, Trinity Western University’s policies that impose moral standards on their students; in Ontario, the fight with the College of Physicians and Surgeons over exempting health care workers from activities related to abortion or assisted dying; and in Quebec, Loyola College’s demand to be able to set its own religious instruction curriculum, independent of the one established by provincial education authorities.
Beyond the legal aspects, the fate of religion in Canada ultimately depends on public attitudes. On this, the results of surveys by the Angus Reid Institute in 2017 reveal there is cause for concern among religious communities and faith groups. The most startling finding is the relatively tepid support for the very concept of religious freedom. Asked whether the inclusion of religious freedom in the Constitution makes Canada a better or worse country, only slightly more than half (55 percent) of 1,500 respondents in an October 2017 poll said “better.” A sizable minority — roughly 1 in 7 — said “worse” (figure 3).
These findings, which reflect deep division in Canada over the country’s increasing religious diversity, follow decades of immigration from non-Christian countries. Canada may prize its multiculturalism, but when it comes to the religious roots of this diversity, Canadians are divided.
When asked if religious diversity in Canada is good or bad, 26 percent said “good” and 23 percent “bad,” and the rest were unsure or felt the impact is “mixed.” (Not surprisingly, Quebec is the outlier on this question, with those who said “bad” outnumbering those who said “good” by nearly 2 to 1.) This finding is supported by another from our polling, which asks Canadians if they think the country does too much to accommodate different religious and faith groups (figure 4). Here we find opinions massively on the side of doing too much (53 percent think the country does too much to accommodate religion, only 9 percent say it doesn’t do enough, and the rest think it strikes the right balance).
The lack of deep support for religious freedom and religious diversity suggests that faith communities could come under increased scrutiny in the future, especially if political leaders sense an advantage in limiting the special status enjoyed by these organizations in taxation, education and health care.
On taxation, recent polling shows Canadians divided — 55 percent in favour and 45 percent against — on special tax status for religious organizations; in Quebec, the percentages are reversed (figure 5). The same pattern is evident on opinions about religious schools and about regulations that would curtail the right of faith-affiliated hospitals to opt out of assisted dying.
Starting with the election of Stephen Harper, and continuing into Justin Trudeau’s government, there has been an increasingly politicized debate over religion. Although Harper appointed a special ambassador for religious freedom, he also voted against a motion proposed by members of his own caucus to set up a parliamentary committee to study when life begins. Trudeau, in contrast, did not hesitate to ban pro-life candidates from running for the Liberal Party. When the Governor General he appointed used her maiden speech to disparage those who believe in “divine intervention,” he was quick to jump to her defence.
It’s still early days in this political chapter, where leaders are seeking to change public expression and institutional arrangements associated with religious belief. Ironically, the diversity that is at the heart of this emerging debate may impose the greatest limits on those who would seek to limit religious expression: Canadian immigration policies favour vibrant Islamic, Sikh, Hindu and Christian communities.
The late Richard Neuhaus, one of the 20th century’s great activists and thought leaders on matters of religion and the public square, was born a few miles down the Ottawa River from Canada’s parliament. He understood better than most that politics is a function of culture, and culture is ultimately a function of religion. Canada, which so proudly celebrates its multiculturalism, is witnessing a growing debate over religious diversity that eventually will have far-reaching political consequences. How the debate evolves depends on whether the different religions and traditions can cooperate and have sufficient impact in the political sphere to withstand the forces of secularism that are driving large elements of public policy in Canada.
This article emerged from a November roundtable in Ottawa on Spirited Citizenship: Care, Conflict, and Virtue, a joint Cardus/Angus Reid Institute initiative, marking Canada’s Sesquicentennial.
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