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Religious practices

Funeral and Burying Traditions in Canada

Funeral and burial trends in Canada have been changing steadily over the past few decades. These changes may be a reflection of a number of factors, including a changing religious landscape and (...)

Funeral and burial trends in Canada have been changing steadily over the past few decades. These changes may be a reflection of a number of factors, including a changing religious landscape and a growing interest in environmentally neutral or ‘green’ disposition options.

Although many Canadians still mark the death of a loved one with some sort of formalised observance, the look of “the funeral” is more varied than ever before. Many funeral homes now offer services for any and all religious traditions, though a person is more likely to find a funeral home familiar with specific religious traditions in larger cities as opposed to rural areas. In terms burial practises, while many cemeteries still retain an affiliation with a specific religion (e.g. those connected to a particular church), some non-denominational cemeteries now offer dedicated burial space for specific religious or cultural groups (e.g. Muslims whose right side must face Mecca).

Meanwhile, an overall decline in the number of people who identify themselves as belonging to any religious tradition has contributed to more flexible attitudes toward end-of-life rituals in general. While some people still maintain funeral practices closely tied to one particular religious practice or another, there has been a significant rise in the number of memorial services that do not conform to any specific set of burial customs. In this respect, a memorial may be conducted with or without the presence of clergy and far from a place of conventional worship. In fact, a significant number of funerals in Canada are now conducted by laypeople or “celebrants” who may or may not be affiliated with any organized religion.

Another indication of the changing look of funeral and burying traditions in Canada is the rise of individualised memorials. The self-styled “Celebration of Life,” which has gained popularity in recent years, offers an opportunity to design a memorial service that reflects the unique characteristics and interests of the deceased. These memorial services may not include aspects of any specific or formalised religious tradition. Indeed, a growing number of funeral homes now advertise themselves as “non-religious” and offer services that permit an individual to design a completely personalised memorial service.

Of course, modifications to funeral service during the COVID-19 pandemic, including government-mandated social distancing restrictions, also required people to reshape or even forego some end-of-life customs altogether. It is not yet known how these modifications (e.g. memorial services conducted on ZOOM, “delayed” funeral services and burial, lack of access to clergy or place of worship) have changed attitudes toward end-of-life rituals, if at all, nor whether these changes to traditional practice are permanent.

Though not all religions traditionally permit cremation, the past few decades have nevertheless revealed a robust demand for the process. The Canadian Funerals Guide and Directory cites the rising cost of earth burial (i.e. interment of a loved one in a casket) as one of the main factors contributing to this trend. The cost of funeral service in general - and earth burial in particular - has also led some Canadians to actively seek less expensive alternatives. So-called no frills funeral services are now a significant player within the funeral business sector, offering basic disposition services at a lower price. Another money-saving trend sees Canadians taking the opportunity to plan their own funerals in advance to offset some of the cost.

At the same time, there is some evidence that an interest in cremation also stems from exposure to new religious and cultural traditions. According to the Cremation Association of North America, increased travel over the past few decades has influenced people to “loosen” ties to their places of origin, resulting in less rootedness to home communities and the corresponding adherence to traditions.

Finally, increased environmental awareness also means that “green” or “natural” burial options are becoming more and more popular within Canada. Some conventional cemeteries that wish to take advantage of this trend now advertise themselves as hybrid, offering dedicated spaces for environmentally friendly disposition alongside spaces for traditional burial. Dedicated “green spaces” include woodland or forested areas and meadows. While “green” cremation services (i.e. alkaline hydrolysis or “aquamation”) have not yet achieved mainstream status, there is increasing interest in these techniques as a means of lessening one’s environmental impact, even in death.

D 12 July 2022    AMarypat Weber

Municipal Prayer in Canada

In December 2006, Alain Simoneau, an atheist and resident of the City of Saguenay, Quebec, raised concerns that the mayor was beginning council meetings with an overtly Catholic prayer. Simoneau (...)

In December 2006, Alain Simoneau, an atheist and resident of the City of Saguenay, Quebec, raised concerns that the mayor was beginning council meetings with an overtly Catholic prayer. Simoneau asked that the practice be ended. When his request was ignored, he took his complaint to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ), a body that investigates violations relating to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

After considering the complaint, the CJPD found the prayer discriminatory on the basis of religion, but the organisation chose not to pursue further action. In July 2008, with the assistance of the secular advocacy organization the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ), Simoneau filed a case with the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, alleging discrimination on the basis of religion. The Tribunal ruled in Simoneau’s favour; it recognized the “prayer was religious and was a breach of religious neutrality,” ordered the practice be ended, and awarded Simoneau $30,000 in damages. The City appealed, and when the Quebec Court of Appeal reviewed the case, it reversed the decision of the Tribunal.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) that including prayer in a municipal council meeting violated the state’s duty of religious neutrality and was therefore not permitted. In a unanimous decision, the Court sided with the ruling of the Tribunal, and ordered the City of Saguenay to end the practice. In the ruling, Justice Gascon made clear that the inclusion of prayer at council meetings violated the state’s duty of religious neutrality. True neutrality “requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any religion, and that it abstain from taking any position on this subject” (Saguenay, para. 137). Justice Gascon elaborated that this duty was a ‘democratic imperative,’ and that the state must ensure “that it preserves a neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not to believe is enjoyed by everyone equally, given that everyone is valued equally” (Saguenay, para. 74).

Including a prayer in meetings created a situation where the state “adopted or favoured one belief to the exclusion of others,” and that doing so, turned the council chambers into a “preferential space for people with theistic beliefs” (Saguenay, paras. 113 and 120). While the prayer in this case was an overtly Catholic one, the Court ruled that had it been more inclusive, it would still not be permitted, noting that “even if a religious practice engaged in by the state is ‘inclusive’, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers (Saguenay, para. 137). The Court also noted that in abstaining, the state did not endorse of unbelief, but rather “no such inference can be drawn from the state’s silence” (Saguenay, para. 134).

The Saguenay decision was very clear: prayer could not be included in municipal council meetings in Canada. Following the case, one study found that, as a result, many municipalities changed their practices after the ruling, though many did not. In Manitoba, six (of 101) municipalities featured prayer in their 2018 inaugural meetings, and four continued to include prayer in regular council meetings. Inaugural meetings follow elections, feature the swearing in of new council members, and tend to include numerous ceremonial elements. A similar study of Ontario found that 156 (of 328) included prayers in their 2018 inaugural meetings, and nine (of 360) included prayers in their regular meetings. An examination of municipalities in British Columbia (BC) found that 26 (of 162) included prayer in their 2018 inaugural meetings, all of them Christian prayers. A subsequent study found that only seven (of 161) BC municipalities included prayers in their 2022 inaugural meetings. Between these two inaugural meetings, the BC Humanist Association, a secular advocacy organization, engaged in extensive advocacy around the issue, leading many municipalities to change their practices.

Compliance with the Saguenay ruling seems to be increasing, though some municipalities persist in including prayer in their meetings, typically their inaugural meetings. Civil society actors, through their ongoing advocacy, are working to ensure that municipalities acknowledge the ruling and their duty of religious neutrality outlines therein.

References and additional reading here.

D 9 January 2024    ATeale Phelps Bondaroff

Legislative Prayer in Canada

The practice of opening daily sittings of legislative assemblies in Canada with prayer has deep historical roots, originating in Westminster parliamentary traditions. It is believed that the (...)

The practice of opening daily sittings of legislative assemblies in Canada with prayer has deep historical roots, originating in Westminster parliamentary traditions. It is believed that the practice was first adopted by the British Parliament in 1558, during the reign of Elizabeth I, and prayer has been a part of daily proceedings in the Canadian Parliament since 1877. The practice was codified into the Standings Orders in 1927.

At the federal level, both the House of Commons and the Senate begin daily sittings with the speaker reading a standard ‘non-denominational’ prayer, with the custom being that it is delivered in a blend of English and French. A moment of silence follows the prayer, after which time the galleries are opened, the first item of business is called, and television coverage begins. The exclusion of the public and lack of recording mirrors the British practice, which is intended to reflect the ‘private nature’ of prayer.

There is considerable variation in practices across provincial and territorial legislatures, with differences reflecting historical and cultural contexts. In the Yukon, the Speaker reads one of four standard prayers. In the Northwest Territories the Speaker may deliver a prayer, or ask a member to deliver one of their own devising, which has occasionally included a ‘drum prayer.’ In Nunavut, a member is asked to deliver a prayer of their own devising. In British Columbia (BC), sittings open with a member delivering a ‘prayer or reflection’ of their own devising. In Alberta, the Speaker reads a prayer of their own devising. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Speaker reads a standard ‘non-denominational’ prayer, and in Manitoba, this is followed by an ‘Indigenous Land Acknowledgement.’ In Ontario, the Speaker reads the Lord’s Prayer, followed by the reading of a prayer from a rotating schedule “reflecting Indigenous, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i and Sikh faiths.”

In Quebec, sitting of the National Assembly begins with a quiet ‘moment of reflection’ – the practice of opening sittings with prayer was abolished in 1976. In Prince Edward Island, a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) reads separately a Christian prayer for the King, the Legislature, and the Lord’s Prayer. A similar practice is followed in New Brunswick, but prayers are offered in French, English, or a blend of the two. In Nova Scotia, the daily sessions begin with a ‘Moment of Reflection.’ Sessions of the legislature of Newfoundland and Labrador have never opened with prayer.

While the prayers included in legislatures that have standard prayers tend to be overtly Christian, studies have examined the religiosity and content of prayers when MLAs are given the opportunity to craft their own prayers. In 2019, the BC Humanist Association, a secular advocacy organization, published a study of prayers delivered in the BC Legislature between 2003 and 2019 (873 prayers). They found that 71.2% were of prayers were religious, and where the religion could be identified, 93.1% were identified as Christian. In a subsequent study, following updates to procedures relating to prayers in the BC Legislature (described above), 70.4% of prayers and reflections delivered between 2003 and 2020 (974 prayers) were religious, and where the religion could be identified, 94.1% were identified as Christian. This study found that the procedural changes did reduce the amount of religious content in prayers and reflections, but argued that these changes do not address the issue that opening meetings with prayer is an exclusionary practice.

Controversies surrounding legislative prayers in Canada are not recent phenomena. Instances of opposition date back to the 1960s, when Ontario MPP Elmer Sopha raised objections to the practice, and again in 2008, when Premier Dalton McGuinty abolished the practice, with the subsequent ‘controversy’ resulting in the current practices in that legislature. Objections to the practice have also been raised by MLAs in various provinces, including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and by civil society organizations in Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. Objections tend to frame Canada as a diverse and secular nation, and they highlight the importance of ensuring that legislatures are welcoming to all regardless of belief, or lack thereof, and that including prayer in legislatures excludes and discriminates.

References and Additional Reading here.

D 9 January 2024    ATeale Phelps Bondaroff

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