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Research and higher education

Religion and Post-Secondary Education in Canada

The earliest institutions of higher learning in what is now Canada were seminaries and parochial schools of the two colonially established religious groups: French Roman Catholics and the Church (...)

The earliest institutions of higher learning in what is now Canada were seminaries and parochial schools of the two colonially established religious groups: French Roman Catholics and the Church of England (Anglicans). The French instituted the Séminaire de Québec in Quebec City in 1663. It was not chartered to grant degrees until 1852 when it was renamed Université Laval. In the British territory of Nova Scotia, Loyalist Anglicans founded the English-language University of King’s College (1789) for “God, Law, King, People.” In Upper Canada they established King’s College (1827) that would later become the University of Toronto. Other Anglican and Catholic universities were established across the country and are the original educational institutions of larger secular universities today.

Canada’s Constitution Act of 1867 enshrined religious rights and freedoms in law, to facilitate peace between French Catholics and English Protestants. Over time, religious rights were extended to other groups, who also took an interest in expanding educational opportunities across the new nation. Presbyterians took the lead for Dalhousie (1818), Queen’s (1841), and the University of Winnipeg (1871). Baptists were responsible for Acadia (1838) and McMaster (1887). Methodists headed Mount Allison (1839) and the University of Regina (1974); Lutherans started Waterloo Lutheran University (1960).

Institutional symbolism and heraldry still in use today show that even putatively secular universities were based on the Christian values of their founders. For example, McGill University (1821) one of Canada’s most prominent secular post-secondary institutions still uses the heraldic crest of its founder, James McGill, that includes an open book with the words Domino Confido (I trust in the Lord). The University of Saskatchewan (1907) was launched to enable “all people without regard to race, creed or religion to take the fullest advantage” under the motto “For God and Country.” The University of Alberta (1908), founded by Alexander Cameron Rutherford, a Baptist lawyer from Ontario and first premier of Alberta, retains as its motto quaecumque vera (whatsoever things are true), taken from Philippians 4:8 of the Christian New Testament. Memorial University (1925) was established in Newfoundland under the headship of John Lewis Patton, the son of a Congregationalist minister and retains a coat of arms that includes “a cross, a symbol of sacrifice” and colours to “remind us that courage tempered with mercy may be enlisted in the service of noble causes”. The MacDonald Institute (1903), co-founded by Presbyterian educational reformer Adelaide Hoodless, was one of the founding colleges of the University of Guelph (1964), along with the University of Toronto-affiliated Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) and Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). Her work was also inspirational to the Women’s Institute (AWI) of Allanburg United Church who envisioned and led the multi-year effort to create Brock University (1964). The new university held its first classes in a local United Church.

Despite a predominantly Christian past, most Canadian higher education is public and secular. Some institutions were created as a rejection of values historically imposed on education in Canada. The Université du Québec à Montréal (1969), for example, was a product of growing dissent in Quebec against the authority of the Catholic Church and Anglophone elitism. Its networked institutions emphasise modern, industrial, technical and scientific priorities. Canada’s first post-secondary institution based in Indigenous beliefs was established in 1976 as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in association with the University of Regina. In 2003, it became First Nations University of Canada with a mission that combines higher education with Indigenous “ceremonies, knowledge keepers, languages, and traditions”. The most recent university charter granted in Canada was to Yukon University (2021). Its institutional mission includes a commitment to “honour the cultures and heritage of Yukon First Nations, and […] value the contributions of traditional knowledge and Indigenous world views”.

Pluralism, secularisation, and increasing diversity have caused many post-secondary institutions to adapt or reform their mission statements, symbolism and mottos to be more inclusive or more emphatically secular. However, because the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects religious freedoms for all Canadians and confirms multiculturalism as a central pillar of Canadian society, university charters continue to be granted to religious and secular institutions alike.

Further reading:
- Colleges and Institutes Canada.
- Universities in Canada (includes university-college partnerships).

D 7 May 2021    AJoanne Benham Rennick

Research projects

Addressing Islamophobia in Newfoundland and Labrador (2017-2019) aimed at increasing local knowledge about countering Islamophobia and xenophobic discrimination, and fostering the development of (...)

- Addressing Islamophobia in Newfoundland and Labrador (2017-2019) aimed at increasing local knowledge about countering Islamophobia and xenophobic discrimination, and fostering the development of anti-Islamophobia strategies in communities.

- After Church Atlas (2019-present) is an online portal that documents church closures and transformations in Canada and beyond.

- Canadian Muslims Online (2013-2018) studied how English and French Muslims used the Internet and the role that digital technology played in their lives.

- Flourishing Congregations Institute (present) is conducting in-depth case studies with several Catholic, mainline and conservative Protestant congregations across Canada.

- Muslims in Canada Archives (2019-2022) is a community archive that presents the rich histories and diverse experiences of Muslims in Canada.

- Nonreligion in a Complex Future (2019-2026) aims at identifying the social impact of the rapid rise of nonreligion in Canada (the focal point of international research sites), Australia, the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland), the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Argentina.

- PLURI (2003-present) is an online database of hundreds of documents on the management of cultural and religious diversity.

- Religion and Diversity Project (2010-2017) identified the contours of religious diversity in Canada and the potential benefits of approaches to diversity that promote deep equality.

- Religion, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest (2018-2022) seeks to understand the complex social implications of secularization in the Pacific Northwest, including how individuals and communities in the region are re-imagining religion, spirituality and society.

- The Faith in Rights: Christian-Inspired NGOs at Work in the United Nations (2016-2021) seeks to document the work of faith-based activists at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

D 4 March 2021    ALauren Strumos

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