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Freedom of Religion in Canada

Freedom of Religion in Canada

by Marion Van Driel


With Canada’s 150th birthday comes the opportunity to pause, giving thanks for our country – its beauty, its diversity and the privileges we enjoy as Canadian citizens. This year also marks the 35th anniversary of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, passed in 1982. One of our fundamental freedoms – in fact, the first one mentioned in the Charter – is that of conscience and religion, followed by freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.

Religious roots

Even though Canada was already considered largely a secular society at the Charter’s signing, its opening statement reads, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law …”, giving credence to our country’s Christian roots from its British settlement and influx of European immigrants after WWII.

Historically, Canada’s Christian understanding of defending the gospel has been at best, coercive and at worst, abusive. Majority Christian groups (Protestant mainstream and Catholic) owned a privileged status, with other faiths and even minority Christian groups falling outside that circle. From the formation of our country until the 1960’s, the prevalent assumption was ‘to be a good Canadian is to be a Christian.’ The church and government together saw their role as defending this identity to the point of coercion; hence their collaboration in forming the residential school system for Aboriginal children who were robbed of their culture, families and spirituality. Additionally, the first century of Canada’s British influence saw anti-Catholic sentiment targeting French Canadians, and immigrant groups of Irish, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Italians and Germans.

Challenging the status quo in 1947, Baptist minister Tommy Douglas, then premier of Saskatchewan, passed legislation in that province (heading up several others across the nation) that required governments to treat people with equality and respect, to set aside prejudicial behaviours. One year later, the Declaration of Human Rights was passed at the United Nations.

Until the Charter became our official guiding document, Canada was ruled by an act of British Parliament passed in 1867, with various amendments along the way that depended on approval by Britain. In 1980, provincial collaboration began the onerous process to own the constitution, resulting in the Queen’s signature two years later on April 17. The Charter guides government decisions, its laws and policy-making. To a great degree, Canada’s identity is shaped by the rights and freedoms as outlined in the Charter and Constitution.

Secularism emerges

Religious scepticism has grown in Canadian society over several decades. Since the 1960’s, the protection of religious freedoms has been challenged by a secular philosophy that labels any brand of faith as unenlightened, tribal, biased and potentially violent. The former assumption – to be Canadian is to be Christian – changed. To be a good Canadian was now to be secular, or at least someone who kept their faith private. This perception led the Christian community to step aside, to a large degree, from involvement with their neighbours, communities and government.

But, interestingly, secularism as defined by the constitution also includes ‘religion’. For a state to be neutral, there must be space for every citizen to speak from his or her own system of thought. So although Canada is known as a secular society, that definition includes those who hold religious beliefs.

Engaging public spaces

Christian lawyer and former chair of Canada’s Christian Legal Fellowship, Don Hutchinson has a long history of engaging Canada’s Supreme Court and Parliament Hill. He recently authored Under Siege: Religious Freedom and the Church in Canada at 150 (1867-2017), a resource for Christians to understand the constitutional and biblical context to allow them confident participation in Canada’s public discussions. Hutchinson wrote the book because “the vast majority of Canadians and Christians are unaware that the Supreme Court of Canada has given a very strong, robust definition to freedom of religion that allows us not just to believe, not just to worship, but also to carry our faith, to share it with our children, to share it even with our neighbours.”

But every freedom has limits. The Canadian Government website provides clarity:

“There may be limits on how you express your religious beliefs if your way of doing so would infringe on the rights of others or undermine complex public programs and policies. For example, you may have religious reasons to object having your photo taken for your driver’s license, but this requirement may be linked to a need to stop others from unlawfully using your identity. In addition, the Charter does not protect expression such as hate speech that involves threats of violence or that takes the form of violence. “

There is the perception, Hutchinson says, that “if you’re going to engage in the public arena, you should do so using neutral, or secular, language (but) if you come from a minority community, then you can use the language of your minority community.” He explains that some minority groups are sometimes mistakenly seen as a culture, but they are in fact, a religion. “There has also been this myth that Christianity is the majority religion, therefore Christianity should not be favoured. The reality is that Christianity is not homogenous.”

Hutchinson’s goal is to convey the significant freedom offered in our Canadian Charter of Rights to inform public policy – a freedom largely ignored or misunderstood by the people for whom it was intended.

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