Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy, extending north into the Arctic Ocean, and sharing the world’s longest land border with the United States. Despite what should be strong constitutional protections for freedom of thought and expression, significant religious privileges are in force, both nationally and in several of its ten provinces and three territories.

 
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the right to the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a bill of rights from the Constitution of Canada. It details the following “fundamental freedoms” in section 2: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and of other media of communication, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association.

The symbolic supremacy of God

The recognition of the supremacy of God is included in the preamble of the Constitution Act 1982 (“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”) and the French version of the national anthem references carrying a sword in one hand and a cross in the other. While these are symbolic, and aren’t used to justify discrimination, the preamble was used as an argument from city lawyers in Saguenay (see below) for allowing governments to endorse prayer/religion as part of public office.

The Supreme Court of Canada has recently seen a case to prohibit the saying of prayers as part of municipal council business. A decision is still pending. This case was brought by a resident of Saguenay in Quebec and supported by the Mouvement Laïque Québécois.
<montreal.ctvnews.ca/supreme-court-hears-saguenay-council-prayers-case-1.2052696>

Provincial privileges

A crucifix hangs at the National Assembly of Quebec, right above the Speaker seat, and protocol rules give higher ranking to Catholic prelates than to elected ministers. Buildings used for worship or other religious purpose in Quebec are taxed at a much lower rate than others.

Also in Quebec, the mandatory course on “Ethics and Religious Cultures” is supposed to give all primary and secondary schoolchildren an understanding of the main religions. However the term “Atheist” was deemed to be too “negative” to be included in the course.

Discriminatory regulation of charities

The Canada Revenue Agency specifies criteria for what activities merit charitable status for an organization. One of these is activities for “the purposes for the advancement of religion.” There is no equivalent charitable status(and the fiscal benefit that entails) for the advancement of humanism or atheism. Non-religious charities that do seek charitable status have to do so under the criteria of educational organizations and therefore face a stricter scope on their activities.

Education and children’s rights

Education is the responsibility of provincial governments according to the separation of powers in the constitution. Six of the ten provinces provide partial or full funding to religious schools. Most of these publicly-funded religious schools are Roman Catholic, although five provinces allow other denominations to run publicly funded schools.

Publicly-funded religious schools can discriminate on religious grounds in hiring and in accepting students. Around 16 percent of the Canadian population claims no religious affiliation, yet in the low-population expanses of Canada, the religious school may well be the only public school within a reasonable distance for many non-religious students.

Section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 awards jurisdiction over education to the provincial governments, with a few exceptions:

  • Catholics have denominational school rights in Ontario;
  • Both Catholics and Protestants had these rights in Quebec until abrogated by the Constitution Amendment, 1997 (Québec);
  • Section 17 of the Alberta Act, 1905 also guarantees denominational school rights for Catholics in Alberta;

These additional rights for Catholics and Protestants would appear to contradict values of equality set out in sections 2 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Proving this point, while at the same time providing an ad hoc solution to it, section 29 states that these privileges cannot be legally challenged on Charter grounds. Political scholar Rand Dyck states in his book Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches (Third edition: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000, p. 443) that section 29 was inserted because the authors of the Constitution Act, 1982, did not want to be forced to dismantle immediately the privileges built in the old system and did not want to be held responsible for challenging the old system.

Catholic privileges

In some provinces, the government provides funding to Catholic schools but denies such funding to any other religion or belief. For example, Ontario province funds Catholic religious education and provides no funding for other religious schools. One third of Ontario’s public schools (around 1,400) are Catholic schools receiving 100% of their funding from the government.

Catholic schools discriminate against non-Catholics in hiring staff. Catholic schools can also exclude non-Catholic children.

Some Catholic school boards have in recent years have been trying to prohibit the creation of Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) in their schools, which required the Ontario government to create legislation specifically to require all schools — though resistant Catholic Schools were the clear target — to allow the creation of GSAs.

Catholic schools can discriminate in hiring, with a number of publicly-funded teaching positions are reserved for baptised Catholics. There are moves in the direction of abolishing them. You can find further details on the issue of public funding for Catholic schools at the one school system network site: oneschoolsystem.org.

Family, community and society

“Reasonable accommodations”

Over the last ten years, several rulings, some by the Supreme Court of Canada, have had the effect of giving unexpected weight to religious claims in the area of religious practice in public or private shared spaces. One of the most disturbing decisions, albeit regarding a minor dispute between co-owners of an apartment building, had the effect to give precedence of private religious practice over freely contracted obligations. This 2004 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada (opposing two lower court decisions) opens the door to abuse where a person claiming religiosity could decide to renege on a freely and duly signed contract because it now hurts his/her religious beliefs and, anyway, he did not read the contract!

This ruling had also a second effect, which was to define what is meant by a “religious belief” in a court of law, namely any “sincere belief” which needs not refer to an external authority. How a belief will be ascertained as “sincere” is left to interpretation by whatever court will be faced with such a challenge.

Wedding licences

While Ontario Humanists now enjoy the availability of Humanist Wedding Ceremonies accepted by the Ontario Registrar General, the Humanist Officiants in Quebec may not performed such weddings on the ground the Civil Code of Quebec, section 366, reserves wedding privileges to a limited set of civil officiants and recognized religion ministers. Since Humanism is not recognized as a religion in Quebec (and Humanists generally do not consider their movement a religion), Humanists Officiants cannot perform weddings according to the same rules as ministers and priest. A challenge to this discriminating law has been set in motion in 2011 by the Association humaniste du Quebec with the help of the Quebec “Commission des droits de la personne» but the proceedings are extremely slow.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

“Blasphemy” law

Section 296(1) of The Criminal Code says that “Blasphemous Libel” is an indictable offence and is punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. There has been a de facto moratorium on the use of this law since the 1930s, and would probably be found unconstitutional if challenged. However, it remains on the books, and therefore perpetuates both the potential to chill free expression about religion, and poor international standards.

“Religion” as an exemption to anti-hatred legislation

In sharp contrast to the law against “blasphemous libel”, some remarks that may constitute incitement to hatred may be protected if they are alleged to be based on “religion”. Section 319 of The Criminal Code makes the public incitement of hatred of identifiable groups an offence punishable by an imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. However, section (3, b) of same law exempts such hatred speech from prosecution “if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text”. As a result, some religious leaders take advantage of this exemption and continue to indulge in gay or atheist bashing and ethnic hate speech with full impunity providing they use quotes from “sacred” texts. In 2002-2004 an amendment proposed by NDP MP Svend Robinson failed to pass (Bill C-250).
<carters.ca/pub/bulletin/church/2004/chchlb02.htm>

Highlighted cases

A father, Oliver Erazo, wanted his son, Jonathan, exempt from having to attend religious programmes in a Roman Catholic school in Ontario. The case began in early 2013 and a panel of three judges ruled in favour of Mr Erazo in April 2014. The law this relates to is Education Act, R.S.O. 1990, CHAPTER E.2, Section 42(13).
<www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_90e02_e.htm#BK47>

Mr Erazo took the school to court and won the case, he has since set up a website, myexemption.com, detailing the case and informing other parents how they can effectively exempt their children too.
<news.nationalpost.com/2014/04/08/father-wins-right-to-have-son-exempted-from-all-religious-programs-at-ontario-catholic-high-school/>

In October 2014 a former Hassidic Jew, Yohan Lowen, living in Quebec, sued the schools and authorities whom he claims deprived him of the capacity to work in a professional job. He is suing for $1.2 million two Hasidic schools in Boisbriand, near Montreal (Yeshiva Beth Yuheda and the Rabbinical College Oir Hachaim D’Tash), the Quebec Government, the Seigneurie-des-Mille-Îles School Board and the Direction of the Youth Protection (DPJ), which, according to his suit, have closed their eyes on the dire situation in those religious schools while he was a pupil there. The two named schools, according to the formal notice, failed to conform to the provincial mandatory curriculum, choosing to offer instead a program centered on the Torah. Thus, Mr Lowen “was not able to benefit from the free, mandatory, education expected from the laws ruling the Quebec province”. Mr Lowen complains he was not properly taught English or French because of this religious program, hence his difficulties now to find a job.

Mr Lowen is now a minor celebrity in the French speaking media of Canada, however his case seems to have failed, so far, to strike a chord in the English media. The non-compliance of religious schools is a recurrent theme in Quebec with each successive government easily satisfied with empty promises from many guilty schools to correct their deficiencies, for sure, by the next academic year…
<ici.radio-canada.ca/emissions/telejournal_18h/2014-2015/Reportage.asp?idDoc=355525>

Testimonies

“It is also becoming increasingly common under our current conservative government to publicly invoke God or endorse prayer at public gatherings and in speeches. “God bless Canada” did not used to be a thing, but we are hearing it more and more from our prime minister and others.”

— Anonymous