UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Joseph Sohm/meunierd/Birdiegal/KeFelepchuk/Shutterstock.com; iStock.com/zennie/jameslee999

Our national folly

Canada endeavours to be secular and multicultural at the same time. Who are we trying to kid?

By Trisha Elliott

Canadians are a diverse lot, and we’re proud of it. Ever since former prime minister Pierre Trudeau set Canada on a multiculturalism course in 1971, we have progressively woven diversity into our self image and legalized the vision through legislation: the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988). Assuring ourselves that we are a mosaic, not a melting pot, is quintessentially Canadian self-talk. The mantras of cultural diversity and tolerance have become as foundationally Canadian as maple syrup.

Yet for all our multicultural self-talk, our relationship to religious diversity is ambivalent at best and hateful at worst. In 2013, Statistics Canada reported that religion is the second most cited reason for hate crimes after race and ethnicity. The way Canada treats religion is part of the problem. Secular values bolster the belief that religion can be cut out of the multicultural equation. But religion is to culture what air is to breathing. To embrace multiculturalism requires embracing religious diversity.

Canada has never been more religiously diverse, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that religion is increasingly at the forefront of public policy debates: whether public servants can wear a turban, hijab, kippa or crucifix. Whether male university students can opt out of interacting with female classmates based on religious values. Whether Catholic schools should receive provincial funding. The list goes on. Confusion and ambivalence toward religion not only registers in courtrooms but also constrains public conversation in less obvious ways.

Val Lieske’s voice strains as she describes falling through the cracks — too religious for some and not religious enough for others. For 14 seasons, Lieske has been the artistic director of Fire Exit Theatre, a company based in Calgary. Her productions centre on spiritual themes and challenge traditional notions of God. She’s been rejected by both religious and secular funders. “Shockingly, when I wanted to be part of the secular world, funders would say, ‘Well, you’re religious,’ or, ‘You have some sort of agenda.’” She says she would respond: “If by agenda you say I have a mission and a mandate, so does every theatre company and every artist.” The situation perplexes her. “I think, wait a minute, I’m not allowed to talk about my religion?”

In the last 50 to 60 years, Canada has turned over its religious leaf. In the 1950s, 96 percent of Canadians registered as Christian. The United Church of Canada boomed until 1966 when it logged its first decline in membership. Several commentators predicted the death of religion in our nation. No one would be surprised to see fewer bums in Canadian pews this Easter than ever before.

Despite the doomsday scenarios, religion in Canada isn’t dead. Far from it. A poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute reported last March that 26 percent of Canadians reject religion, 30 percent embrace it and 44 percent register as “somewhere between the two positions.” The in-betweens “hold many conventional beliefs and sometimes engage in religious practices, including occasional religious service attendance. They do not see themselves as particularly devout; but they also have not abandoned religion.”

In sum, about three-quarters of Canadians are in some way religious. What’s changed is that we’re more diverse, more connected to and thus more influenced by religiously motivated events elsewhere in the world and more apt to colour outside the traditional religious lines. And, perhaps most significantly, we’ve bought into the idea that religion belongs behind closed doors, an attitude that prevails even at the federal level.

“Canada’s multiculturalism program spent all kinds of money promoting culture but pretended that culture was different than religion and refused to support religion. Maybe you can tell me how you can support Punjabi culture in Canada without promoting Sikhism? Is the turban part of the culture or part of the religion? You can’t draw these neat lines,” says David Seljak, associate professor of religious studies at St. Jerome’s University, part of the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “If you support an Italian ethnic group, chances are that in Canada, they are going to form that group in a church basement and Roman Catholicism is going to be an important element of that identity.”

In his essay “Protecting Religious Freedom in a Multicultural Canada,” published in Canadian Diversity in 2012, Seljak writes that three solutions have been attempted to address diversity in Canada: “a state-supported Christian church with little religious freedom (1608-1841); a ‘Christian Canada’ with no official church, but a decidedly Christian culture and state cooperation with a limited number of ‘respectable’ Christian churches (1841-1960) and a secular society with a greater ‘separation of church and state’ and a multicultural approach to religion (1960 to present).”

The word “secularism” is commonly used to refer to the separation of church and state. It also describes a way of being that is a-religious or even anti-religious. But the origin of the “secular state” dates to the 17th-century Post-Reformation era when Catholics and Protestants were literally at each other’s throats. Secularism was embraced so that one denomination wouldn’t be privileged. Far from vanquishing religion from the face of the earth, secularism was initially conceived to promote peace and religious equality. It was an ideal.

“After Canada had begun the process of secularization (a process promoted by Christian Canadians before the liberalization of immigration policy in the late 1960s), secularism became a ‘silent partner’ of multiculturalism,” explains Seljak in an email. “Along with the culture of human rights, it became seen as necessary for the open, egalitarian society that multiculturalism was meant to introduce.” In other words, a tidy way of addressing Canada’s diversity.

But secularism isn’t one size fits all — even within Canada. Quebec is a case in point. Unlike other provinces, Roman Catholicism gripped the social and political reigns in Quebec well into the 1960s. Quebec’s version of secularism is wary of any role for religion in public life beyond the symbolic, similar to France’s model where public life must be devoid of religious content. Atlantic Canada is significantly less wary of institutionalized religion than other parts of the country, observes Seljak.

Overall, Canada isn’t nearly as secular as we make ourselves out to be. For example, six of the provinces fully or partially fund faith-based schools. Religious charities receive federal government grants. Churches and other places of worship don’t pay property tax. Christian holy days are still statutory holidays, and we continue to sing “God keep our land.” But our nation as a whole has an uneasy relationship with religion. The headline of the Angus Reid study captures it: “Religion and faith in Canada today: strong belief, ambivalence and rejection define our views.”

In this highly diverse religious context, Canada’s “best seen and not heard” approach to religion is problematic. Not least of which because it encourages Canadians to misrepresent themselves.

“If someone wants to open a bar or a strip club in your neighbourhood and you want to oppose it and your real reason for wanting to oppose it is because of your reading of the Qur’an or the Bible or your religious convictions find it problematic for women to be taking off their clothes, when you go to City Hall to oppose the bylaw, you have to make up other motivations like the noise or someone urinating on your flowerbed because the court basically says, ‘I don’t care about your religious convictions,’” says Paul Bramadat, director for the Centre for Studies in Religion at the University of Victoria.

Worse than encouraging religiously oriented Canadians to lie, the kind of closed secularism that espouses eliminating religion — and multiculturalism — from the public sphere, leaves Canadians vulnerable to rising religious discrimination, threatening the fabric of community that secular ideals originally intended to protect.

A hate crimes tracker is now embedded on the National Council of Canadian Muslims website enabling Canadians to self-report incidences. Reports span the country and range from vandalism (“Muslims go home. We do not want you here,” scrawled on an apartment wall) to verbal and physical assaults and death threats.

In an interview, Renu Mandhane, the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, explains that in the last decade, Ontario has seen a rise of severe forms of creed-based prejudice, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. “Ontario is much more diverse than it was 20 years ago. In the last few years, we’ve seen more discrimination and profiling particularly against the Muslim community. . . . We’ve seen a real marked shift toward a secular society. More and more people are identifying as not being religious.” Mandhane says these conditions are ripe for a new kind of discrimination: the kind that “sees all people who are religious as inherently less tolerant, less progressive, less smart, less capable.” Last September, the Ontario Human Rights Commission published an updated “Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed.” The new policy defines “creed” more broadly, covering non-religious belief systems like atheism, a section on Indigenous spirituality and references new case law involving freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is a hallmark of multiculturalism. But defining religion has never been more tricky. The new cosmopolitan and composite style of religiosity in Canada makes it more complicated than checking a box beside a recognizable world religion.

Professor Peter Beyer teaches sociology of religion at the University of Ottawa and is also a member of the Religion and Diversity Project, a major collaborative research initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “The laws generally on the one hand go by the fact that religious diversity means different religions are represented in Canada. But then when you get down to the details of what that precisely means, you start to swim a bit,” he says in a phone interview. “For example, how do court cases decide whether someone’s religious freedom is being infringed on or not? There is this expression that courts in the U.S. and Canada use: ‘sincerely held beliefs.’ You can imagine what kind of problems that introduces.”

Chief among the problems: exactly how can freedom of religion be constitutionally protected if what constitutes religion is up for grabs? Enter the Pastafarians, a so-called religious group who believe that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe after an alcoholic bender. Since 2005, Pastafarians have challenged freedom of religion claims. In 2014 for example, Obi Canuel, a British Columbia based ordained minister in the Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster claimed that his freedom of religion was violated because the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia refused to allow him to wear his religious headgear — a colander — for his driver’s licence photo. Sounds goofy but it does underscore an important fact: it’s easier to give religious freedom lip service than to define what we mean by religion.

According to Beyer, Canadian courts are not using religious authorities or religion scholars as points of reference but are letting individuals decide what constitutes religion. “Therefore the criterion for deciding ‘is this practice/belief a legitimate part of that religion and therefore subject to protection under the freedom of religion provisions in the law,’ is taken from the ‘sincerely held beliefs’ of the individual involved — not from the religious leaders or experts.”

Canadians are without doubt free to believe what we want and gather with whom we want. Freedom is crucial if we value diversity. But what if we want to erect a sukkah (hut) on our balcony to observe the Jewish festival of Sukkot, and we want to be exempt from a condominion provision that prevents owners from such a construction? Or if we are a Hutterite community that wants to be exempt from the requirement to provide photo identification to obtain a driver’s licence?

These two actual Canadian cases, stemming from Montreal and rural Alberta respectively, are the tip of the iceberg. Freedom of religion isn’t open and shut. Seljak not only argues that freedom of religion isn’t entirely possible but also that we wouldn’t want it. “If someone says that their religion dictates that they practice female genital mutilation, Canadians are perfectly in their right to say, ‘No, that’s not an acceptable practice here.’ You never have perfect religious freedom in the same way you don’t have any freedom. We are all free to travel down the street in our cars but the state can stop us and [force us to] take a breathilizer test to protect the safety of other drivers. Our freedoms are never absolute.”

When it comes to religion — its freedom, its boundaries, its failures, its contributions — there is much to discuss in Canada. It’s difficult to have an open discussion about something you’ve been conditioned to keep private. And there’s a lot riding on the conversation. Canada is a more pronounced mosaic than ever; Canadians will need to learn to “speak religion” in order to get along.

The old privileged ways of “speaking religion” and the more recent climate wherein religious leaders are socially pressured to keep their perspectives to themselves won’t serve us well. Neither will our present talk of tolerance and accommodation.

“When we turn it back on ourselves and imagine ourselves as being the recipient of tolerance, it doesn’t feel as lovely as we think it should when we use it the other way. It’s the same with accommodation,” says Lori Beaman, the Canada Research Chair in the Contextualization of Religion in a Diverse Canada, based at the University of Ottawa. “My objection to it is really about power. It really preserves a certain kind of power in the majoritarian culture. . . . It’s almost as if there is a gift given.” Beaman has collected stories where people navigate difference outside the courtroom for a book called Deep Equality, which has been proposed for publication. There’s a story about a non-Sikh soccer team in Brossard, Que., that donned turbans in solidarity with Sikh players who were forced to remove their turbans in order to play. Another story about a group of parents who decided that at birthday parties and other social events, they would specify what sort of food would be served. “I think that by focusing on what does work we can generate stories, which in turn generate models of inspiration, maps toward problem-solving, that can help us to see that there are other ways to do things.”

Bramadat thinks the way forward is to embrace “open” secularism, an idea espoused by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. “Open secularism is religiously literate secularism. It’s when religion still has a place in the public arena and where religions might inform or improve [society]” but where religion is still kept at arms-length, says Bramadat. In other words, the values of religion may underpin democratic life but the state doesn’t promote the specific worldviews or convictions of citizens. Which is entirely different than ignoring them. “A better way forward seems to be a more respectful and informed way to talk about these questions, rather than to say, ‘Let’s just not talk about them anymore,’ or to be told to leave convictions, texts and traditions at home when entering the public arena.”

Canadians can’t afford to sweep religion under the tapestry: it proves shaky ground on which to build a peaceable future in a country with a multicultural agenda where one in five people is born elsewhere. Multiculturalism is based on a desire to know and welcome, not just to tolerate or co-exist uneasily.

Hopefully, a new, more honest epoch is on the horizon, one where religiosity is recognized as a cornerstone of cultural identity, where religious literacy is encouraged, where no religion has a monopoly on the state but where religious contributions are welcomed — perhaps even valued. Maybe, around the bend, there is a Canada more fully strong and free, where religious perspectives are acknowledged, studied, celebrated and together unashamedly contribute to our nation’s flourishing.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

FOR DISCUSSION: Is a multicultural country without religion a contradiction?

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

A ticking time bomb

Promotional Image


Merle Robillard

ObserverDocs: Out of Syria

by Observer Staff

For nearly half a century, the Elnabrees family has fled one war after another: Palestine, Kuwait, Iraq and, more recently, Syria. This year, they arrived as refugees in Canada, sponsored by relatives and United churches. Ayman Elshafiy, his wife, Sonia, their two daughters, his sister and mother, were among them.

Promotional Image


October 2016

Ghost whisperers

by Elena Gritzan

Do the dead remain among us? Paranormal investigators are determined to prove what science rejects, Christianity scorns — and half of Canadians believe.


October 2016

Books behind bars

by Vivien Fellegi

A novel idea: reading clubs for inmates that foster literacy, empathy and a sense of belonging


June 2016

All the lonely people

by André Picard

An estimated six million Canadians live in isolation. Social researchers are now calling it a hidden epidemic.


May 2016

Are vegans right?

by David Macfarlane

The writer is in the midst of a radical six-month change of diet. He’s discovering that no cheeseburger tastes as good as being ethical feels.


March 2016

The Walrus Talks Spirituality

by Observer Staff

Promotional Image