Canada 150: A nation steeped in religious freedom

Originally published in the Voice of the Martyrs Canada newsletter, July 2017.

Canadians started celebrating #Canada150 early on the evening of December 31, 2016, but the focus of yearlong festivities is this month. July 1, 1867 to July 1, 2017 – Confederation to sesquicentennial!

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Confederation negotiations were sensitive to religious differences in the four founding provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario). Particular attention was given to the presence of minority religious communities, notably Protestant Christians in Quebec and Roman Catholic Christians in Ontario. While Canada was never constitutionally a Christian nation, the British North America Act (now known as the Constitution Act, 1867) included provisions to protect the schools of minority religious communities on a province-by-province basis.

As the new nation grew – adding the provinces of Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward Island (1873), Alberta and Saskatchewan (1905) (both established out of NWT), Newfoundland and Labrador (1949), as well as the Northwest Territories (1870, NWT), Yukon (1898) and Nunavut (1999) (both also out of NWT) – its churches expanded with it, a Mari usque ad Mare (From Sea to Sea) along waterways, railway lines and fledgling road systems. Small towns featured one or two churches at their heart and city centres had a church every few blocks.

Historian J.W. Grant wrote, “Canada grew up under the tutelage of its churches.”[1] The nation also grew up with continuing tension between religious communities, unresolved by constitutional division of powers between provincial and federal governments. Canadian courts were left to carry forward the work done earlier by diplomats, who brought peace between the French Roman Catholic and English Protestant factions a century earlier in the 1763 Treaty of Paris that formally transitioned New France (Quebec) to British control.

Religious difference, some historic and some resulting from changing immigration patterns, was addressed early in the Constitution Act, 1982, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this same Canada 150 year. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth II sat sheltered from the rain at a table on the front steps of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block when they signed the document that gave Canada control over its constitution for the first time. Canada, born July 1, 1867, became an independent nation April 17, 1982.

Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982 is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The first fundamental freedom noted is “freedom of conscience and religion.”

Many Christians perceive that an advancing secularism is trying to force upon Canadians a culture in which faith is to be private. However, decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada on the Charter’s first freedom tell a story that is not enough heard. The Charter guarantees, and the Court agrees, freedom of religion is more than the right to believe. It is more than the right to worship. It includes the right to declare religious beliefs openly, to teach and to evangelize without fear of reprisal. This is the Canadian story that needs to be better understood as our nation matures, and as new tensions surface around religion. More on that next month.


[1] John Webster Grant, The Canadian Experience of Church Union (London, UK: Lutterworth Press, 1967), 23.