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Religious Tolerance logo

Religious intolerance in Canada

Legal overview.
Long-term intolerance.
1997 - 2008: Examples of recent intolerance.

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Legal overview:

Approximately 77% of Canadians identify themselves as Christians. However, this is often a nominal adherence. Canadian culture is more highly secularized. The percentage of adults who "say" that they attend regular church, circle, mosque, synagogue or temple services is about 20% and is dropping 1% point per year. In the US, about 40% of adults report attending regular services; that number is fairly constant.

Recent studies in which attendees were actually counted have revealed that these numbers are about double the actual number in both Canada and the U.S.

The high ratio of liberal to conservative Christians is probably responsible the current status of controversial religious topics in Canada. These differ significantly from the US:

bullet There are few active protests against women's access to abortion. Women can obtain abortions in every province except Prince Edward Island. The cost for women having abortions in hospitals is born by the universal health care system. Canada is believed to be unique, at least among the developed countries. It has no legislation limiting abortions. However, individual provincial medical associations do have regulations which restrict late-term abortions.

bullet Private sexual behavior between any two consenting adults of any gender in private had been decriminalized across Canada in 1969. In 1996, discrimination against the LGBT community was added to human rights legislation.

bullet Of the ten provinces, only one (Alberta) has no plans to expand provincial civil rights to include persons of all three sexual orientations -- heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual. Canada restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples, until a federal law legalized same-sex marriageacross Canada in 2005-JUL, except for Prince Edward Island (PEI). PEI made same-sex marriage available only when threatened with a lawsuit. Sexual behavior between any two consenting adults in private had been decriminalized across Canada, including that by both heterosexuals and homosexuals. 9

bullet Canada has been spared many of the excesses of the anti-cult movement which targeted new and emerging religious groups, until it became discredited in the 1990s. Also, the conservative Christian counter-cult movement which attacks minority Christian groups with non-traditional beliefs is rarely heard from.

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of  of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, peaceful assembly, association and expression (including freedom of the press and other media of communication). Some results of the Charter (and previous constitutional documents) are:

bulletMost Canadians enjoy considerable freedom of religion.

bullet Although polygamy is theoretically against the Criminal Code, the Attorney-General of British Columbia until recently decided to not prosecute members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) -- a splinter Mormon group which practices polygyny. He felt that the province would probably lose a constitutional challenge because of the freedom of religion guarantees of the Charter. A hearing started in the British Columbia Supreme Court to test the federal anti-polygamy law.

During 2011-NOV, Chief Justice Robert Bauman released a 335 page decision, ruling that Section 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada -- the section that criminalizes polygamy and bigamy -- is constitutional. He acknowledged that it does restrict religious freedom and freedom of association. However, these restrictions are justified because of the harm that polygamy causes to children, women and society. More details.

bullet Separate Roman Catholic religious schools have been guaranteed and financially supported by various provincial governments since Confederation. However the number of supporting governments is decreasing.

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Long-term examples of religious intolerance:

bullet Anti-semitic activities continue at a low but rising frequency.

bullet Economic and physical attacks by individuals against those Neopagans who are open with their religion, once made them the most persecuted religious group in Canada, on a per-capita basis. Greater awareness of Neo-Paganism and acceptance of those Wiccans and other Neopagans who have gone public with their religious beliefs resulted in a massive reduction of discrimination in the 1990s and 2000s.

bullet From time to time, battles are fought in the courts over child custody by separated or divorced parents. A parent sometimes ends up being prohibited from teaching his or her religion to their child. That spouse usually follows a minority religion, like Jehovah's Witnesses or Wicca.

bullet Under pressure from the Roman Catholic church, the government of Quebec withheld the vote from women until the mid 1940's. This made the province the last political jurisdiction in North America to eliminate special rights for men, and to extend the vote to all adults. The Roman Catholic church made an sincere apology to the women of Quebec on the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage in Quebec.

Recent examples of religious tolerance, freedom, liberty & intolerance:

bullet1997-NOV-8, Blainville, Quebec: Michel Pynard, a Jehovah's Witness was preaching door-to-door with his wife and daughter and three others. 1 Five of the group, presumably the adults, were fined on the spot for breaking a city bylaw which prohibits knocking on doors and preaching without a permit. Blainville is located about 30 minutes northwest of Montreal

bullet1995-1998, Newfoundland: Until recently, this province had four, government supported, religious school systems, but no secular public school system. Two public referendums and a constitutional amendment finally terminated government support for religious systems. Public schools in the province are now secular. The most recent referendum was held in 1997. 73% of adults voted in favor of the change. More details

bullet 1998-SEP-9, Nova Scotia: 229 people died in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off of Peggy's Cove, NS in 1998. On SEP-9, an inter-faith memorial service was held to comfort the families and friends of the victims. Carolyn Nicholson, a minister of the United Church of Canada, was selected as the Protestant clergyperson to take part in the service. She maintains that the Federal government's protocol officer asked her and a Roman Catholic priest, to submit their parts of the service to the protocol office for advance approval. She said that she was told to make no references to Jesus Christ, and to not use any readings from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). 2 A Native Canadian was permitted to speak of her people's beliefs; a Jewish Rabbi read from the Hebrew Scriptures; a Muslim read from the Qur'an. But she and the Catholic priest read only from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Prime Minister stated on 1999-JAN-17 that no Federal employee restricted the content of the service. The situation remains a mystery.

bullet 1999, Quebec: The province has historically operated two school systems: one Protestant and the other Roman Catholic. This arrangement was scrapped and replaced by two secular school systems: one French, the other English. This is viewed by many Christians as a restriction on their religious freedom. It is seen by many secularists as a major positive development.

bullet 2007, Humbolt SK: Humboldt and surrounding communities had previously agreed to contribute $13 million for construction of the new Humbolt Uniplex -- a large medical center that would replace the local 85 year old St. Elizabeth's hospital. The municipalities later decided to withdraw their support, if the new hospital is run by a Roman Catholic board. Although there might have been some religious bigotry involved in this decision, the main concern was over the Church's prohibition of family planning clinics, tubal ligations, vasectomies and other fertility-related topics. The Saskatchewan Health Region decided that Uniplex the will be run as a public institution rather than by Saskatchewan Catholic Health Corporation. 3,4

bullet 2008, Toronto ON: Miss Canada Plus 2007 was invited to be a judge at the Miss Toronto Tourism pageant. The invitation was later cancelled because the pageant directors considered her interest in Tarot cards to be un-Christian. The competition is a secular one, but the organizers are conservative Protestants. More details.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Canadian Press, "Five fined for preaching," 1997-NOV-9
  2. Various articles, United News, at:
  3. Lana Haight, "Rally hears of woman's tubal ligation fight. Debate over hospital includes fear-mongering, doctor tells crowd," The Star Phoenix, 2007-MAR-01, at:
  4. "Catholics won't be allowed to run hospital," The Toronto Star, 2007-MAR-08, Page A8.
  5. "Federal Safety Minister Toews nixes Wiccan chaplain for B.C. prisoner," The Canadian Press, 2012-SEP-05, at:
  6. Diana Swift, "Ottawa axes non-Christian prison chaplains," Anglican Journal, 2012-OCT-05, at:
  7. Dene Moore, "B.C. inmates suing over Ottawa’s decision to cut minority faith chaplains," The Globe and Mail, 2013-MAR-19, at:
  8. Bruce Campion Smith, "John Baird’s defence of gay rights ‘offensive,’ women’s group says," Toronto Star, 2013-AUG-07, at:
  9. John A. Lee, "Homosexuality," The Canadian Encyclopedia, undated, at:

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Copyright © 2002 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002
Latest update: 2013-SEP-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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