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Church-State Relations in Canada
Remarks by Hon. David Kilgour
Interfaith Dialogue Talk Series, Canadian Institute of Interfaith Dialogue (CIID)
Carleton University, Ottawa
July 9, 2008

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 ( What follows refers to religion in recent years in Canada:

"Statistics 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 phenomenon.

"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 churches."

"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 possibility completely…"

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. 

Church-State Relations

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 my nose".

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 abroad.

Roman Catholics  

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 religious backgrounds.


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 the community.

Good Citizenship  

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.

Our open 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, and respect".

"…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 him). 

"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."

Thank you. 

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