Although 19.3 million people reported a Christian affiliation in the 2021 Canadian census (representing just over half of the Canadian population at 53.3 percent), this was a decrease from 67.3 percent in 2011 and 77.1 percent in 2001. Experts predict that this downward trend will continue. Despite this trend in waning Christian affiliation, a pervasive residue of Christianity remains in Canadian institutions, including the Constitution and legal system, and civil society. It is important not to underestimate the power of that residue, which takes the form of Christian prayers in state functions, symbols such as crosses in municipal council chambers, public hospitals and legislatures, and the inclusion of God beside the rule of law in the preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, among others. Policy makers with conservative Christian affinities have impacted access to reproductive services, including abortion, in a number of Canadian provinces; medical assistance in dying (which is legal in Canada); self-help programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous (participation in which is sometimes court-ordered); and arguably the legal and social conceptualizations of religion more generally.  

A Christian residue manifests in other places too. Foodbanks, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and immigrant settlement services are often supported by Christian organizations. For example, Ontario, the province which received most of the 60, 795 Syrian refugees admitted to Canada between 2016 and 2021, has 60 private sponsorship agreements as of January 2023, 44 (or 73 percent) of which are clearly associated with a Christian church or organization. Christian organizations have contributed to the Canadian social safety net and in some cases activism for social change. Moreover, the fight for the right of same-sex couples to marry was led by the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto (though a number of Christian groups voiced their opposition in public statements and as interveners in the 2004 Reference re Same-Sex Marriage case).

Despite the lingering influence of Christianity, Canada is also characterized as secular or a post-Christian society by a wide range of social actors depending on the issue at hand. The precise meaning of these terms is contested by academics especially, but both the decline of Christian affiliation and the increase in numbers of those who self-describe as having no religious affiliation are indicators of an important shift in Canadian society. The recent census data shows that approximately 12.6 million people, or more than one-third of Canada’s population, have no religious affiliation. To put this in perspective, in 2001, 16.5 percent of the Canadian population had “no religion”. In 2021, that figure was 34.6%.

Canada is a nation of immigrants who bring understandings of religious belonging beyond Christianity. According to Statistics Canada, as of 2021, almost one quarter of the population (23 percent) identified as being or having been a landed immigrant or permanent resident. This is not a recent phenomenon: in 1921, 22.2 percent of the population was foreign born. While numerically relatively small, the proportion of Canada’s population who reported being Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh has more than doubled in twenty years. From 2001 to 2021, these shares rose from 2.0 percent to 4.9 percent for Muslims, from 1.0 percent to 2.3 percent for Hindus and from 0.9 percent to 2.1 percent for Sikhs. The percentage of Jews has declined slightly from 1.1 percent in 2001 to 0.9 percent in 2021.

The story of Canada as a diverse nation is being complicated by scholars, policy makers, politicians, and civil society actors who recognize that the territory we know as Canada was not “terra nullius”. Colonization by the British and the French not only displaced Indigenous peoples but made it a project to attempt to destroy their culture, including their languages, knowledge, and lifeways. As reconciliation unfolds, the extent to which Canada as a nation is built on not only Indigenous territories but Indigenous knowledge, generosity, and trust is increasingly evident. This requires a fundamental reconceptualization and retelling of the story of who “we” are and how “we” became one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

In this “new diversity” (declining Christianity, increased identification as “non-religious”, religiously diverse past and present, and increased recognition of Indigenous peoples), majorities are not only numeric but also embedded in power relations. It will be some time before the entrenched position and privilege of Christianity becomes a more horizontal relationship with other religions and lifestances. Canada is not post-Christian yet. There are two dominant narratives that characterize social tensions in this shifting terrain: one constructs an “us” that enshrines Christian practices and symbols as “our culture and heritage”. These are imagined to be universal. The other narrative seeks to reconstitute the story of “us” as diverse, equal, and inclusive. 

Navigating the past and the future is an ongoing project in which diversity is not only a demographic descriptor but suggestive of a more robust social imaginary. Multiculturalism is part of this story. Section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, passed in 1982, states, “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canada.” The Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed in 1988. Both served to bring multiculturalism into public and legal discourse. The Supreme Court of Canada refers to Canadian values based on multiculturalism in the 2006 Multani case in which a Sikh school boy was ultimately successful in wearing his kirpan to school.

Law offers an interesting laboratory from which to view the competing narratives mentioned above and to examine the envisioning, management, and revision of the “we” of nationhood. The Saguenay case is one illustration. The case originated in Quebec in 2007 with a complaint by Alain Simoneau, an atheist who regularly attended his local municipal council meetings. Mr. Simoneau objected to the recitation of a Christian prayer at the beginning of the meetings (after which the mayor also made the sign of the cross), and to the presence of a large crucifix (two feet long, a foot wide, and five inches thick) and a sacred heart statue in the council meeting room. The mayor and council refused to alter the practice of praying or to remove the crucifix. The Mouvement Laïque Québécois, activists on church-state separation (among other things), subsequently joined Alain Simoneau to file a human rights complaint. The case made its way through the courts, ending with the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2015 decision. Although there are important contextualizing factors that are specific to Quebec in this case, including a vigorous public debate about reasonable accommodation, the discourse about Canadian culture and heritage related to Christian prayers and symbols is Canada-wide.

A key argument in defense of the prayer was that it was not religious but cultural and part of “our culture and heritage”. Evidence was led by the city to demonstrate that the crucifix did not meet canonical standards but was in fact art, thus bringing it too under the realm of culture rather than religion. The prayer ritual and the crucifix were also positioned as being representative of universal values which the state had a duty to protect. State neutrality was refashioned as benevolent neutrality by the Quebec Court of Appeal (which supported the recitation of the prayers and crucifix) to justify the state’s ability to protect the prayer and artifacts. The state claimed that harm to Mr. Simoneau (who was harassed for his complaints by threatening phone calls and intrusion on his personal property and described as potentially having a problem of a “neuropsychological or psychiatric” kind [para. 174] because of his complaint) was trivial.

In its decision, which upheld that of the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the recitation of the prayer violated state neutrality and Mr. Simoneau’s right to freedom of conscience and religion. The Court considered the state sponsorship of one religious tradition to be ‘‘destructive of the religious freedom of the collectivity’’ (para. 64). The Court highlighted multiculturalism and diversity: “The neutrality of the public space therefore helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society enshrined in s. 27 of the Canadian Charter. Section 27 requires that the state’s duty of neutrality be interpreted not only in a manner consistent with the protective objectives of the Canadian Charter, but also with a view to promoting and enhancing diversity” (para. 74). Explicitly noted was that freedom of religion includes non-belief, atheism, and agnosticism. Religious minorities, the Christian majority, and the nonreligious are to be balanced by a neutral state that “may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others” (para. 76). Majoritarian religious groups cannot impose their views on others and religious minorities are protected from “the threat of the tyranny of the majority” (para. 96), as Justice Dickson famously stated in Big M(a 1985 landmark decision for religious freedom in Canada). There was no mention of Indigenous peoples in the Court’s Saguenay decision.

Critically, the Court in Saguenay seemed to reject the use of culture and heritage to justify majoritarian practices, holding that the prayer could not be defended through the “guise of culture and heritage” and that “tradition cannot be used to justify such a use of public powers” (para. 118). It described the municipal council meetings as “a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs” and acknowledged the cost to non-believers: “Although non-believers could also participate, the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization” (para. 120). However, the Court did not completely eliminate the possibility that religion and culture could intertwine to be protected: “[It] must be recognized that the Canadian cultural landscape includes many traditional and heritage practices that are religious in nature” and that “not all of these cultural expressions are in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality” (para. 87).

The Saguenay decision sparked intense debate across Canada, prompting outrage and retrenchment on the one hand and reconsideration and revision on the other. These two modes of reaction reflect the tension between a vision of Canada that remains firmly rooted in a Christian-centric imaginary of who “we” are and one that, while including Christianity, reconfigures its position in a diverse nation, which includes the nonreligious, practitioners of non-Christian traditions, and Indigenous peoples. Rather than a defense of Christian hegemony, we might read the Court’s comment on “traditional and heritage practices that are religious in nature” as an opening for a greater place for Indigenous knowledge and practices in the public sphere. It remains to be seen how Canada’s conceptualization of the “us” might shift as a result.