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Historical Survey

Before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century

Before the establishment of a permanent European settlement at the beginning of the 17th century, the religious landscape of what is now Canada consisted in the religious cultures of the great (...)

Before the establishment of a permanent European settlement at the beginning of the 17th century, the religious landscape of what is now Canada consisted in the religious cultures of the great variety of Indigenous peoples who, like other peoples of the Americas, had been established in the territory for millennia. The Indigenous societies with their religious cultures were highly diverse and characterized by a great variety of world views, mythologies, and ritual practices woven into the social, economic, political and cultural aspects of the societies. There was no differentiation of ’religion’ from other aspects of life, even in principle. There is likely a fair degree of continuity between these pre-settler religious cultures and those among contemporary Indigenous peoples in Canada, but these have also evolved and changed over the centuries as the European settler societies became ever more dominant and the Indigenous cultures marginalized and threatened.

D 20 June 2017    APeter Beyer

Europeans in early settlements and up to the British Conquest of 1759

The earliest arrivals in the territories that are today Canada were Norse peoples, who established temporary settlements around 1,000 CE in what is currently Newfoundland. For unknown reasons, (...)

The earliest arrivals in the territories that are today Canada were Norse peoples, who established temporary settlements around 1,000 CE in what is currently Newfoundland. For unknown reasons, these settlements were not continued. Something similar can be said of the European explorers of the 16th century, mainly from Great Britain and France. Early attempts to establish settlements failed. The chief activity of the Europeans was fishing off the east coast, and this by people from various European countries.

Near the beginning of the 17th century, French settlers, prominently under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain, finally succeeded in establishing what became permanent settlements, first on the east coast in what is now Nova Scotia and then gradually up the St. Lawrence river to today’s Montreal. These settlers were mostly Roman Catholic; in 1627, the French crown expelled or barred Protestants from its Canadian colonies and the Roman Catholic Church became the only and established church. The first Roman Catholic diocese was established in Quebec in 1658.

Although the economy of the colonies was largely based on the fur trade, especially beaver pelts, agricultural settlement began from early on and religious figures played important roles in establishing and solidifying the colonies. From members of monastic orders like the Jesuits and Recollets, to episcopal structures, to new orders like the Grey Nuns, the goal was to serve the growing colonist population, but also critically to convert the Indigenous peoples, including from very early on by establishing schools for their children. This 17th century was the era of Kateri Tekakwitha, a Christian Six-Nations convert who was eventually canonized in the late 20th century as the first Canadian Aboriginal Roman Catholic saint. It was also the era of religious figures now considered among the founders of French Canadian (Quebec) society, including, for instance, Jeanne Mance, Marie de l’Incarnation, Bishop Laval, and Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant, the latter two dying among the Wendat (Huron) people of what is now southwestern Ontario (Huronia) in the process of the destruction of that society by Haudenosaunee confederacy (Iroquois) people in 1649.

During this time, the religious cultures of the Indigenous peoples that had contact with the European settlers remained largely viable, although also undergoing change. Their viability was only undermined as Indigenous economies and polities were destroyed, beginning in some areas already in the 18th century, accelerating during the 19th century and into the 20th century in all areas.

British presence and eventual dominance began, in earnest, after 1713 with the British conquest of the Maritime colonies, what are today the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. In 1755, the British power expelled most of the French-speaking Acadians, many of whom settled in Louisiana, and many of whom then later returned to the area, especially eastern New Brunswick. British settlement increased throughout the 18th century in the Maritimes, but the population consisted increasingly of both a Protestant majority and a Roman Catholic minority, of whom the Acadians were only the most numerous group. In the later 18th century, the Baptist and Congregational movements arrived in the Maritime colonies from the American colonies to the south.

In 1759, in the context of the seven-years war between Great Britain and France, the British conquered the French colonies in Canada, and rendered that conquest permanent in the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

D 20 June 2017    APeter Beyer

British colonial era to Confederation

In 1763, the British parliament passed the Quebec Act for its new colonies in North America; it had the unique feature of tolerating the Roman Catholic Church in these colonies some sixty or more (...)

In 1763, the British parliament passed the Quebec Act for its new colonies in North America; it had the unique feature of tolerating the Roman Catholic Church in these colonies some sixty or more years before a similar toleration was extended to Roman Catholics in the mother country. The toleration was for strategic reasons, an attempt to keep the new colony, consisting mostly of French-speaking Catholics, loyal to the crown at a time when the 13 colonies to the south were going in the opposite direction. The act did not, however, allow further French settlement or especially the immigration of more Roman Catholic clergy. The new colony was in that regard dependent on its own resources, which it developed significantly over the next century.

1791 saw the passage of the Constitution Act which, although it established the Church of England in British Colonies after the American Revolution, also granted representative political institutions to the British colonies, including in Lower Canada (today Quebec) with its dominantly Roman Catholic and French-speaking population. The legal framework was set for the French Canadians to develop in the subsequent decades a distinct French-speaking, Roman Catholic nation with an increasingly strong national identity in this direction, especially after the 1837 Lower Canadian rebellion, and the ensuing Simcoe Report of 1840 that ineffectually recommended the assimilation of French speakers into the English-speaking population. From that point forward the Roman Catholic Church in Canada East and then mostly Quebec gradually became the strongest institution among the French Canadians, a situation that lasted until the 1960s.

In the other British North American colonies, especially Upper Canada (today Ontario), but also the Maritime colonies, the period from the late 18th century onward was witness to substantial and steady immigration. Initially, this was heavily from the recently independent USA; these immigrants brought new religious diversity to the territory, consisting as it did mostly of Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists and other -from the Church of England perspective- dissenters. After the War of 1812 between the British and the new Americans, colonial policy changed to encourage the dominant source of immigration to switch to the British Isles, including especially Ireland, and (northwestern) Europe. Irish immigration was particularly heavy -and largely Roman Catholic- in the wake of the potato famines of the late 1840s. The constantly increasing proportion of the Canadian population that was Catholic came to be less and less concentrated among the French-speaking population.

At the same time, in the English-speaking parts of British North America, the growing numbers and influence of Protestants who were not of the established church led by 1850-55 to the disestablishment of the Church of England (and the Church of Scotland). If a kind of shadow establishment remained, nonetheless, it consisted more and more of very few Protestant churches, the Anglican (as it eventually was called), the Presbyterian, and the Methodist churches especially.

D 20 June 2017    APeter Beyer

Confederation to Second World War

After 1840, the British North American colonies were granted more and more independent political structures, leading eventually in 1867 to the Confederation of most of them, and the beginning of (...)

After 1840, the British North American colonies were granted more and more independent political structures, leading eventually in 1867 to the Confederation of most of them, and the beginning of modern-day Canada as we know it today. The British North America (BNA) Act, which created what was then later called the Dominion of Canada contained a significant clause regarding religion: article 93 guaranteed that publicly funded, already legislatively established religious minority schools (namely either Protestant or Roman Catholic) in any of the provinces had, in effect, a constitutional guarantee to such public support. The effect of this article is that in certain of these provinces, notable the largest one, Ontario, even today, the state supports a separate Roman Catholic school system beside the national one, but such public support is denied to any other set of what today are called ’faith-based’ schools.

The latter part of the 19th century also witnessed, first, the progress union of the diverse Presbyterian (1875) and Methodist (1884) churches so that each had, for the most part (the small historical black churches, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, were excluded), only one national denominational organization. Second, however, the era witnessed the consistent growth of these dominant churches such that, by the time of the 1891 census, over 90% of the entire Canadian population professed to belong to one of them: they were Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Roman Catholic; with all other denominations, churches, and religious identities constituting the remaining 10%.

The post-Confederation period was also highly consequential for the Indigenous peoples of Canada. In 1876, the new Dominion passed the Indian Act which, among other provisions, prohibited most Aboriginal religious practices such as Sun Dance, Potlatch, or Sweat Lodge; provided for the expansion of Indian Residential Schools, whose aim was to Christianize and ’civilize’ Aboriginal children. The aim was to eliminate Indigenous cultures, if not Indigenous people. The school system, in particular, was greatly elaborated thereafter; and these schools were largely run by churches, especially Roman Catholic, Anglican, and (later) the United Churches.
As in other parts of the Western world, the late nineteenth century saw the birth of a number of new Christian developments, in particular, the rise of the Holiness movement in the form of such bodies as the Nazarenes and the Salvation Army; and then around 1906 and even a bit before, the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement in Canada. The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, still the largest Pentecostal body in the country, was formed in 1918. In many cases, and for many decades, the mainline churches, both Protestant and Catholic, looked askance at these movements; and this negative attitude very much included the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who in the 1930s and 1940s, struggled greatly for toleration, especially in Quebec; in the process, they were coincidentally instrumental in seeing the Supreme Court of Canada develop its powers as the highest judicial body in the country.

Such religious conflict or tension was not unique to the situation with Christian sectarians. Throughout the post-Confederation period, Canada was very much divided along Protestant/Catholic lines, a division that, in spite of the many English-speaking Catholics throughout the country, was more or less considered by the majority as coterminous with the English/French divide. The tension manifested itself in a number of ways, not the least of which was, on the occasion of the 1885 Northwest rebellion by French-speaking Métis against the expansionary politics of Canada into what had until 1871 been under the formal jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company (somewhat parallel to the role of the East India Company in South Asia), and the subsequent execution of their leader, Louis Riel; also, when in 1917 the Ontario government adopted Regulation 17, which sought to abolish French language schools, but was just as much an anti-Catholic policy.

Among the dominant Protestant mainline, the most significant development of the earlier 20th century was the 1925 founding of United Church of Canada, which gathers almost all Methodists, Congregationalists, and the larger part of Presbyterians to constitute what remains today the single largest Protestant denomination in Canada, and a church that has throughout its history thought of itself as the most national church.

The late 19th and pre-World War I 20th century was, in percentage terms, the period of the most significant immigration to Canada in its history. From 1891 to 1911, the population increased from 4.8 to 7.2 million, a jump of 50% in two decades. The increased population from abroad brought yet more unprecedented religious and cultural diversity to the country. Significant, if small numbers, of non-Christian people from Asia and especially Jews and Eastern Christians from east and southeast Europe joined the ever-growing number of mainline Christians in their increasing internal variety. This diversity in the immigration was, however, not without controversy, and a dominant vision that saw the country as exclusively white and Christian (not to say British) resulted in the progressive restriction of the ’non-white’ immigration after 1885, a process that formally culminated in the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, commonly known as the Exclusion Act, which effectively barred entry to anyone from Asia, not to mention any non-whites from other parts of the world, including the United States. Significantly, Jews were not included in this negative impulse in any consistent way, and thus Jewish migration was significant in this period, and consisted largely of Eastern European Ashkenazim.

D 20 June 2017    APeter Beyer

Post-WWII to present

As elsewhere in the world, the post-World War II era saw a halting, gradual, but eventually dominant change in the hitherto prevailing religious and socio-cultural patterns in Canada. In 1949, (...)

As elsewhere in the world, the post-World War II era saw a halting, gradual, but eventually dominant change in the hitherto prevailing religious and socio-cultural patterns in Canada. In 1949, the anti-Japanese policy that had seen their internment during the war and partial deportation thereafter, was finally halted; in 1951, previously proscribed restrictions on the practice of Indigenous religious ways, such as the Potlatch, began to be lifted. The 1960s saw the beginning of the end of the residential school system for Indigenous children (the last school closed only in 1996). Nevertheless, perhaps most significantly, Canadian immigration policy in the early 1960s changed radically: rather than selecting immigrants effectively by racial and origin criteria, the new laws and policies introduced an immigration points system in 1967, one, which used predominantly educational, linguistic, and skills criteria, and certainly not cultural origin, race, or religion, to decide who would be admitted. The result was, from a religious identity perspective, a rapid influx of non-Europeans and non-Christians, not to mention an increased diversity of Christians.

The 1960s witnessed what came to be called the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. Essentially, it dismantled the institutional power and place of the Roman Catholic Church in what became increasingly called Québécois society; and it brought about the much greater shift of the French-Canadian identity to a territorial and political emphasis, something that manifested itself in the later 20th century Quebec sovereignty movement, but also in the rapid and serious decline in the importance of (Roman Catholic) religion in the lives of the average Quebecer. A parallel secularization was happening in most of the rest of Canada at the same time. In response to these developments, the federal government moved toward greater recognition of the ’French fact’ in Canada, a process that eventuated in the declaration of official (federal) bilingualism and, perhaps somewhat ironically, in the promulgation of Canada’s first official multiculturalism policy under Pierre Trudeau in 1971. This bilingual and multicultural orientation was then further developed and entrenched in the 1982 Constitution Act with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The result has been a broad valorization, not just politically but also culturally, of Canada as a culturally and, by that token, a religiously diversified country, the nationally slightly different view in Quebec notwithstanding.

The 2011 National Household Survey (which replaced the federal census of that year) showed Christians of all stripes down to 67% of the population. The old ’shadow establishment’ had been particularly hard hit: the 39% Roman Catholics and 14% mainline Protestant figures are a far cry from the over 90% that this group claimed at the end of the 19th century. Non-Christians now constituted a little over 8% (Muslims about 3%, Hindus & Sikhs about 1.5% each, Jews and Buddhists about 1% each) of the population; but the most significant growth has been among those who declare having no religion, at that time constituting almost ¼ of the population.

D 20 June 2017    APeter Beyer

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