RELIGION COLUMN: Religion in Canada as it celebrates 150 years

RELIGION COLUMN: Religion in Canada as it celebrates 150 years


If you’re looking for a place to visit this summer, let me suggest Canada. Quebec and the maritime provinces are less than a day’s travel away, a 6-7 hour drive from central Connecticut north to Montreal, 8-9 hours northeast to New Brunswick.

2017 is a special year: the 150th anniversary of the Confederation back in 1867 when Canada was officially born. There is free admission to all the national parks, concerts and street performances are numerous, winery, storytelling and other tours are plentiful, and 40 tall ships have been stopping at various ports in the east.

I have a particular fondness for Canada. Our village of Swanton in Vermont’s northwest corner was only a few miles from the border. My Roy grandparents were from Quebec and we would go there to visit relatives and occasionally to shop in Montreal when the exchange rate favored American currency.

A sign near Swanton, on the 45th parallel, read: “You are now halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.” All the border across New Hampshire,Vermont and part of New York State is designated as the Swanton sector, patrolled by federal agents on the lookout for illegal drugs, human trafficking, illegal immigrants, and with an emphasis on potential terrorists since 9/11. Unlike earlier times, Americans visiting Canada now need a passport or an equivalent travel document.

Settlers from France were the first Europeans in Quebec. Skirmishes between the French and the English were frequent, many occurring in New England. Religious bigotry intensified the hostility. Catholic settlers were not welcome in New England and Protestant settlers were barred from New France. In 1759 the British won the historic battle on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City, giving England control of eastern Canada. Rule by British Protestants intensified the loyalty of French-Canadians to Catholicism.

Over the past half-century Quebec has changed dramatically. As a teenager I twice hitchhiked to a Trappist monastery at Oka, Quebec. I have fond memories of the congenial “Guest Father” — one of the few monks permitted to speak — who did his best to interest me in converting. That monastery closed years ago, once nearly all the monks had died. Back then Quebec was one of the most devoutly Catholic areas in the world. As many as 85 percent faithfully attended mass. Today estimates run from 10-15 percent.

What happened? It started with what is referred to as the “silent revolution” beginning in the 1950s. Some of it has been attributed to a backlash, a feeling that the Church had exercised too much power. An increasingly secular government began to replace the Church in education, medical care and social services. The sexual revolution, including the pill, challenged the moral values of traditional Catholicism which condemns artificial birth control. More and more people wanted to end compulsory celibacy of priests, favored the ordination of women, and opposed the Church’s firm stand against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Others began to question various theological teachings of the Church, concluding that too many of them were at odds with reason or science. Added to this was the negative impact of the sex scandal involving predatory clergy and efforts of the hierarchy to hide it.

Even so, 75 percent of the people of Quebec continue to identify themselves as Catholic, and mass at Christmas and Easter still can draw crowds. Cultural Catholicism is deeply rooted. This is supported by that large faction devoted to the preservation of French-Canada, and especially of the French language. Some readers may recall how close Quebec came to becoming independent in 1985 when voters chose to remain in Canada by a narrow margin. There are still ardent separatists, though polls suggest that an increasing majority of young French-speaking citizens take pride in being Canadians.

The current Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, identifies as a Catholic. He and his wife were married in a Catholic Church and they are raising their children as Catholics. Even so, Trudeau embraces a strongly pro-choice position on abortion and supports limited legalized euthanasia, both policies loudly denounced by the Canadian bishops.

Protestants have little to cheer about, especially those in mainline liberal churches. Catholics are 38 percent of the population of about 36,000,000, and Protestants 29 percent. As in the United States, such issues as abortion and homosexuality have been very divisive. In 1925 Methodists, Congregationalists and many Presbyterian parishes merged to form the United Church of Canada, the largest of the Protestant denominations today. Next are the Anglicans, kin of the Church of England and of American Episcopalians. Others range from Baptists, Lutherans and continuing Presbyterians to Mennonites, Pentecostalists, and Seventh Day Adventists.

Though their totals are still relatively small, the religions that have been growing rapidly are the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists. Canada claims the most prosperous immigrants, and last year welcomed 320,000 newcomers, about three times per capita the rate accepted by the United States. Over 20 percent of Canadians are foreign-born, twice the American percentage. Multiculturalism seems to be popular. Two of the last three governor generals, an important if mainly ceremonial position filled by an appointee of the Queen, were foreign-born, one from Haiti, the other from Hong Kong. In recent decades the position of governor general has rotated between an anglophone and a francophone. Half of all Canadian immigrants arrive with a college degree, about twice the percentage that bring one to the United States. Four Sikhs are in the cabinet, more than in the cabinet in India, where most Sikhs live.

Issues have arisen, usually involving Muslims. Islam regards Friday as a day for special prayer and some Muslim parents insist that schools permit their children time off from class.

They may also ask for a prayer room in the school. Groups such as Kroops pinpoint their goal in their full name: Keep Religion Out of Public Schools. Observers have noted that among the fiercest opponents of such Muslim demands are Hindu immigrants, suggesting that the Muslim-Hindu conflict in India may have followed some of them to Canada.

If you do head for Quebec, you may want to check out the Eastern Townships, not far above the border. While the majority of their residents are of French background, those of English heritage usually trace their families back to the American Revolution when their fore bearers fled to Canada to remain under the crown. Tory ancestors of a childhood neighbor settled in what became Swanton because they thought they had reached British territory.

Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is a retired United Methodist minister. Email:

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