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January 2022

Freedom of religion and conscience is one of the fundamental freedoms defined in article 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada is a diverse country with immigrants coming from different cultures and religions. People see diversity in their workplaces and schools. Canada’s roots lie in the Judeo-Christian tradition and 67.3 percent of the country's population are Christians, yet this does not limit religious freedom in Canada. In recent years, the population of Canadian Muslims grew by 316%, Hindus by 217%, and Sikhs by 209%. 

While Canada has a heritage of remarkable religious freedom, there remain significant controversies over the public place of religion, such as that surrounding Bill 21 in Quebec.

Pierre Trudeau once referred to faith as the “golden thread” woven throughout the history of Canada.  Indeed, many Canadian leaders have recognized the foundational nature of freedom of religion and conscience to citizens' lives.  One of the first steps in the accommodation of diverse religious faiths came with the Quebec Act of 1774.  Rather than seek to assimilate French Canadians, under Article 5 of the Quebec Act, French Canadians were guaranteed their language, religion and civil laws.  This Act also gave the Crown's French Canadian subjects the same civil rights as Catholics as their co-religionists in the United Kingdom. It stood as the first step in establishing religious freedom as a foundation for pluralism and intercommunal relations in Canada.

The Indian Act of 1885 was a significant development in Canadian history. It led to dark moments of failure in how the Canadian government treated indigenous communities. The Act was amended to criminalize some traditions held among aboriginal peoples, such as the potlatch (a gift-giving feast typical to most Northwest Coast First Nations) and ritual dancing, which were considered sacred practices. In 1888, the federal government established the first residential schools, which were run largely by churches. Unfortunately, some schools banned traditional Indigenous practices and rituals as a method of assimilation and a form of cultural genocide.

The Manitoba School Crisis highlighted one of the most controversial questions in Canadian public life:  should religion have an impact on the educational system?  Manitoba had a common school system (Protestant) and a Roman Catholic school system until 1890. The Public School Act of 1890 required all school fees collected to go toward the common system. However, the Catholic Church opposed the provisions of the Act, and it eventually became a national crisis, resulting in the resignation of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell, who had supported the extension of funding to Roman Catholic schools. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier later sponsored a compromise whereby Catholic education would follow regular classes.  This won the support of Pope Leo XIII. 

In the 1960s, the government of Canada launched a national campaign to pass a Bill of Rights, mirroring the passage of global human rights standards at the United Nations.  The Bill of Rights was passed in 1960 under Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker.  It formally addressed the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Quebec. Section 1 includes protecting fundamental freedoms – with S.1 (c) providing for "freedom of religion." It also sought to "acknowledge the supremacy of God" and affirmed that "institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values and the rule of law.

In 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was included in the Constitution. The public engaged heavily in discussions on the content of the Charter.  It established the government's relationship to fundamental freedoms and the state's obligation to protect them. The Constitution Act of 1982, Section 2 of the Charter affirms fundamental freedoms, the first of which is "freedom of conscience and religion." Additionally, Section 15 protects individuals from discrimination based on religion.

In 2004, an issue arose between Hasidic Jews and a high-rose condominium building over the observance of the Jewish festival of Sukkot.  The condominium association had demanded that Jewish residents dismantle tents known as sukkahs used during the holiday.  The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the observance of religious practices, emphasizing the individual over their religious institution as the source for religious doctrine, based on individual autonomy. The government emphasized respect for religious diversity in Canada.  In the judgement it reinforced the principle that people as individuals hold religious beliefs.

Where religious institutions are concerned, the Supreme Court of Canada has been more equivocal.  In 2001, the Court found in favour of Trinity Western University when the British Columbia College of Teachers had denied accreditation to its teacher training program based on a community covenant rooted in Christian religious beliefs.  Seventeen years later, in 2018, the Court reversed its finding, ruling against the same institution in its bid for a law school.  On the other hand, the Court ruled in favour of a Roman Catholic high school’s bid for an exemption from a provincial ethics and religious culture program in the 2015 Loyola decision.

In 2013, the Government of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (now known as Global Affairs Canada) established its first office of international religious freedom.  The office was created to “protect, and advocate for religious minorities under threat; oppose religious hatred and intolerance; and promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.” It was created under Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Ambassador for Religious Freedom Dr. Andrew Bennett. It represented a first effort at institutionalizing Canadian respect for religious freedom in the nation’s foreign policy.

The history of religious freedoms has a somewhat different trajectory in the province of Quebec.  In September 2013, Bernard Drainville, a member of Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois government and minister of democratic institutions, introduced a controversial Charter. It claimed to create a “secular society” where religion and the state were separate and unassociated. The Charter included five proposals. One of the most controversial was a ban on wearing any visible symbol indicating a religious affiliation, including turbans, large crucifixes, hijabs, or kippot, by public servants, employees of daycares, public schools, universities, and others. As a result, all of the federal political parties excepting the Bloc Québécois publicly opposed the Charter, culminating in a 2014 electoral defeat for the Parti Québécois.

However, Bill 21, An Act respecting the Laicity of the State, or La Loi sur la Laïcité de l’État, was tabled on March 28, 2019, by the government of Quebec.  In spite of the objections of many religious groups in Quebec and the rest of Canada, the bill passed on June 17 in the Quebec National Assembly by a 73-35 vote.  Bill 21 prohibits Quebec citizens who work in public service from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab, the turban, the kippah, and the cross while fulfilling their civic duties.  While the law likely violates the right to freedom of religion guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the law invokes Section 32, also known as the notwithstanding clause, of the Constitution Act, 1982, permitting such a violation.

Practicing faith in public is essential for all citizens in Canada. The Constitution Act 1982 ensures that citizens have the fundamental freedom to religious beliefs. Freedom of religion is a crucial foundation for a country to grow pluralism in a society. Despite the commitment to freedom of religion, there remain restrictions to the full embrace of religious freedom in Canada. Still, believers and unbelievers are all entitled to protect their rights in Canada.

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