Religion in Canada
Most immigrants want to know what Canada is really like – that is, how it compares to other countries and whether they will fit into Canadian society. Religions are of interest to many Canadian immigrants. Some of the most common questions are about the main religions in Canada, whether Canada defends religious freedoms, how religion influences government policy, and what role religion has in schools. These are important questions, and the answers reflect changing Canadian attitudes on religion.
As a country, Canada proudly accepts and defends religious beliefs. Canada strongly supports freedom of religion and believes everyone should be able to practice their faith without fear. Canada even created an Office of Religious Freedom in 2013 to help promote religious freedom and prevent religious persecution around the world (ref). Even so, the arrival of millions of immigrants over the last 50 years has changed the religious makeup of Canada, and some people find that threatening. Some Canadians have negative views of certain religions and some find it difficult to accept different religious customs. In a 2019 online survey, over two thousand Canadians were asked which religions they thought benefitted Canadian society and which they thought were harmful. The religions viewed most positively were Protestantism, Judaism and Hinduism. The religions people felt were more harmful than beneficial were Evangelical Christianity and Islam (Kurl, S, 2019). In other words, even though the Canadian government is committed to treating all religions equally, that does not mean every Canadian will do the same.
Even so, it is important to know that most Canadians accept and welcome changes in the composition of the country and its people. In fact, in 2021 Canadians were the most-accepting of migrants in the world (Esipova, 2020). Regardless of their religion, Canadians believe the government respects their faith. And many more Canadians think freedom of religion makes Canada better than think it makes the country worse.
Religion has been an important part of Canadian society throughout history, but shifting attitudes about religion and increasing diversity in faith communities is changing its role in society.
Most Common Religions
When Canada was formed in 1867, over 99% of people living here were Christian. Today, Christianity is still the main religion in Canada, but only 55% of Canadians are Christian.
Most Canadian Christians are either Catholic or Protestant, while Orthodox, Evangelical, Mennonite and other smaller groups make up the balance. Non-Christian religions including Islam, Sikhism, and Hinduism have more than doubled since 1991 due to increased immigration from India, Africa, and the Middle East. The greatest growth, however, has been in the percentage of non-religious. Canadians who say they are non-believers (atheist), doubters (agnostic), or “nothing in particular” (no religious affiliation) grew from 4% in 1971 to 29% in 2018. Although the proportion of Christians has decreased, the percentage of Canadians who consider themselves religious remains quite high at 71%.
Canada is serious about religious freedoms. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“The Charter”) states that everyone has the right to “freedom of conscience and religion.”
The right to freedom of religion is meant to prevent one religion or no religion from forcing its rules or beliefs onto others. It also supports religious customs and equal opportunities regardless of faith. However, it is important to understand that no freedom or privilege is without limit. Freedom of religion does not mean a person of faith can ignore or break the laws of Canada. And some Christian traditions remain despite our intention not to impose any one religion on Canadians. For example, God is mentioned in both the national anthem and The Charter. While this shows bias towards Christianity, it has no effect on how government does business. What is unfair to non-Christians is that Christmas and Easter, both Christian religious observances, are official holidays in Canada. This means people of other faiths may not have time off for their religious holidays. However, the right to freedom of religion means employers in Canada must make an extra effort to try and accommodate other religious observances.
Canadian employers are expected to try and meet the needs of different faiths. Most religions have a specified holy day of the week, which could be a Friday, Saturday or Sunday depending on the faith. Employers are expected to try and include an employee’s usual day of prayer as one of their days off. Employers are also expected to allow employees to practice their faith as long as it does not disrupt business. Muslim employees should be given access to a room suitable for prayer. However, the room can be used for other activities (not in conflict with the faith) and employees use their scheduled breaks for prayer, so no extra time off is needed. The courts will support the employee’s religious rights unless the employer can prove doing so will cause hardship to the business. Many faiths have special religious observances that happen once a year such as Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid. When possible, employers try to give these days off and have employees work Christian holidays instead. However, it is important for employees to understand that they cannot get more days off than any other employee, regardless of how many religious observances their faith has in a year.
Court Challenges to Religious Freedom
One of the first challenges to the Charter on freedom of religion considered The Lord’s Day Act, a law that prevented stores from opening on Sundays. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled “Any law, purely religious in purpose, which denies non‑Christians the right to work on Sunday denies them the right to practise their religion and infringes their religious freedom.” R. v. Big M Drug Mart,  1 SCR 295 Basically, the Court said The Lord’s Day Act was flawed because it forced all Canadians to observe the Christian tradition of Sunday as a day of rest.
Freedom of religion also protects employees. An employer cannot refuse to hire someone because of their religious customs or dress unless they can that prove it causes health and safety concerns or harm to the business. In 1990 the government of Canada allowed Sikh officers in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to wear turbans as part of their uniform (Hanomansing, 1990). Several RCMP officers tried to fight this decision by claiming that turbans were unsafe for police business. They argued that a turban could be used as a weapon to strangle officers or that officers with turbans might not receive the proper respect due an RCMP officer. The Supreme Court ruled that the religious freedom of Sikhs was more important than the concerns of the police officers (Ahluwalia, 2000).
Any challenge to religious freedom must prove that harm to the public interest exceeds the harm of denying someone the right to practice their religious beliefs. For example, when a Sikh child wanted the right to carry a kirpan (a religious dagger) at school and, a Muslim woman objected to having to remove her hijab in a courtroom, the courts ruled in favour of the individuals and their religious freedom. The courts found that there was no harm to the public by having a boy carry a religious dagger sewn into his clothes (CBC, 2006) or in having a Muslim woman wear a hijab in a public building. Canadian Courts believe that the right to practice one’s faith is more important than minor concerns or inconveniences.
Although Canadian Courts are respectful of all religious beliefs, they will limit freedom of religion if it interferes with the rights of others. For example, any religious custom that allows or promotes something that is illegal in Canada (e.g. discrimination against LGBTQ persons, marriage of girl less than 16 years, female circumcision, or marriage to more than one person ) is forbidden even if it is accepted practice by the individual’s faith.
An important challenge to freedom of religion involved a Christian university in Ontario. The University teaches that marriage is only acceptable if it is between a man and a woman and they refuse admission to openly LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) students. The Christian university wanted to graduate lawyers eligible to practice law in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that they could not have an accredited law school because the University imposed their religious beliefs on law students, which interferes with the protected rights of LGBTQ people. Thus, even though this impacts the school’s religious freedom, the right of the LGBTQ community to have fair access is more important than the university’s desire to form an accredited law school.
Religion in Government
Canada is a secular country, which means religion has no official role in government. A secular government makes decisions based on real-life conditions rather than religious ones, but still allows free expression of religious belief so believers and non-believers can govern together. Canada does not favour or oppose any religious belief or lack of belief. This is also sometime referred to as religious pluralism (meaning many religions). But – there are Canadians who think a secular country should remove religion from any part of public life.
The province of Quebec wants to limit public expressions of faith in order to separate church and state. The province passed a law to remove religious symbols from government buildings and to forbid anyone in public service (including teachers, nurses, bus drivers, police, and prison guards), from wearing religious symbols (such as Muslim hijab, Sikh turban, Jewish kippa or Christian cross) while serving the public. This law is very controversial and emphasizes the strong desire of some Quebeckers to keep religion out of the public eye and maintain strong separation of church and state. (Cardus)(montreal.ctv) If the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says Freedom of Religion is a right, you might be wondering how Quebec can do this. Well, back in the 1980’s, to get all the provinces to sign the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the federal government gave each province the right (via something called the ‘notwithstanding clause’) to ignore a specific Charter right or freedom that might get in the way of a law it would like to pass. This allows a province to suspend certain freedoms (like freedom of religion) for up to 5 years without it being challenged at the Supreme Court. The time limit means the provincial government must win another election to keep the law in effect.
So, why is Quebec’s view on religion so different from that of the Canadian government? English-speaking Canadian provinces mostly support the idea of religious pluralism and accommodating religious beliefs. The province of Quebec is the only province with a majority French-speaking population. Increased immigration from non-French speaking countries is seen by many in Quebec as a threat to French culture. This may be at the core of the calls to reject religious accommodation (Jukier, Woehrling; 2010).
Religion in Schools
When Canada was founded in 1867 provinces were given control over education. However, Catholics and Protestants at the time could not agree whether schools should be religious or not religious (also known as ‘non-denominational’). The decision was made to allow any religious schools that existed at the time to continue, and to protect the rights of minority religions in the provinces. (https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/PDF/CONST_RPT.pdf) Provinces still have the right to decide how to educate their students. As of 2021, most provinces have a single public (not religious) school system. Only Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan still have Separate (Catholic-based) school systems in addition to their non-denominational public school system. Although separate schools are exempt from Charter rules requiring protection of religious freedom, the courts try to balance freedom of religion with provincial guidelines for education.
A good example of how the courts attempt to balance these rights comes from Quebec. In 2008, the Quebec government required high schools to teach a program called Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC). The ERC was created to teach the beliefs and ethics of various world religions from a neutral and objective standpoint. A private Catholic high school in Quebec asked the Quebec Minister of Education if they could teach this course from a Catholic perspective instead. The Minister said no, and the case went to the Supreme Court. The Court decided that the ERC program was not harmful to religious freedoms because nothing taught in the course differs from what children experience in the world outside the family home. However, the Court also found that making a private Catholic school explain Catholicism in a neutral and objective way seriously interferes with their freedom of religion. The Court ruled that the Catholic school experienced the greater harm in this case, and that they should not be required to teach the ERC explanation of Catholicism. However, the Court did not find any harm to the Catholic school in teaching the rest of ERC program material providing neutral and objective information on other religions.
Opportunities and Challenges
The increasing diversity of faiths in Canada creates opportunities and challenges. The greatest opportunity for Canadians is learning to value and accept all faith groups. The goal is to maintain support for the rights of individuals to practice their faith. The challenge is to ensure that increasing numbers of non-religious and people who feel threatened by the changing balance of religions do not negatively impact religious diversity and acceptance. It is important to know that most Canadians (73%) say belief in God is not necessary for someone to have good values and morals. In other words, Canadians understand that faith is important, but they also recognize that non-religious people can live morally and ethically. This is diversity in Canada.
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