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Religion, faith and the public square



Angus Reid Institute

“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”

The inclusion of “God” in the preamble to Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act was a last-minute addition by Pierre Trudeau.

Thirty-three years later, as his son Justin presided over the swearing in of a new Liberal cabinet, over half of its members chose to drop the words “so help me God” from their oath of office. In a little more than a generation, the religious beliefs that were once the central tenets of Canadian society have been swept aside, And Canadian public opinion ─ sometimes leading other times following ─ has marched in lock step with this transformation.

The era when churches and religious leaders held sway over public policy in Canada has come to an end. There are important pockets of religious opposition to abortion, assisted dying, and gender neutralization, but in the final analysis secularism seems to have won the day.

Religion and religious influence declined in Canada after the Second World War. (In Quebec during the 1960s the process accelerated, and the province moved from being the most to the least churched society in the modern world). In the 1980s, not long after Pierre Trudeau wrote the word “God” into the constitutional preamble, regular church attendance in Canada was at around 40 percent. When Justin Trudeau formed his first cabinet in 2015, regular attendance had decreased to around half that.

With this decline in influence, the era of religious dominance in the public square has come to an end. But this is not the end of the story.  The role of religion in setting public policy has been replaced by a new issue: religion itself as a topic for public policy.

The highest-profile example of this is the controversy over the clothing worn by some Muslim women. In Quebec ─ once more at the centre of a religion-versus-state tangle ─ Bill 62 would require citizens to show their faces when receiving public services. Squarely aimed at niqabs and burkas, this legislation is wildly popular in Quebec, but less so in the rest of Canada, where such moves have failed to garner majority support.

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