Speech of David RAND (Canada)
Spokesperson IAFT (Canada)
President, Atheist Freethinkers (Montreal)

Canada is not a secular country constitutionally, although secularism is a popular idea. The province of Quebec has moved further towards secularism than most of the rest of Canada, and popular support for secularism seems to be rising. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done even in Quebec, and the challenges are great. To understand those challenges, we must address the following aspects.

  • The colonial heritage: Canada’s history as part of the French empire, then as a set of British colonies, the British origins of the Canadian constitution, and the monarchy.
  • The influence of the American Religious Right: currently a major factor because of the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
  • Multiculturalism: a form of ethnic essentialism masquerading as a corrective for racism. Closely related to religious accommodationism.
  • English-French tensions: The “two solitudes” of Canada’s two founding language groups, with French-speakers concentrated (but not exclusively) in Quebec.

The Colonial Heritage

In 1534 when Jacques Cartier claimed what became New France for king François I, one of his expedition’s aims was to convert all native peoples to Christianity. Over two centuries later, the British conquered New France.

Another century later, in 1867, an act of the British parliament, the British North America Act, formed Canada by federating four colonies, the two largest being Quebec and Ontario.

The current Canadian constitution is an amended version of this act, transferred in 1982 from London to the Canadian parliament, with several additions such as a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and an amending formula, approved by all provinces except Quebec. Education is under provincial jurisdiction, but Section 93 entrenches any existing Catholic and Protestant “denominational school privileges” and the federal government has the power to enforce them. To eliminate this vestige of 19th century sectarianism, a province may negotiate a bilateral constitutional amendment with the federal government.

Of Canada’s 10 provinces, 4 were not burdened with such privileges when they joined Canada and 3 have eliminated them since: Manitoba in 1890, Quebec in 1997 and Newfoundland and Labrador in 1998. Such privileges persist in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan. In particular, the Ontario Catholic school system receives 100% public funding.

The 1982 constitution includes a Charter of Rights and Freedoms whose preamble states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” This is incompatible with section 2 of the Charter which guarantees freedom of conscience.

Canada continues to be a constitutional monarchy, with the same monarch as Great Britain. This means that Canada’s head of state is not only a foreigner, but must be a Protestant Christian! Large numbers of Canadians outside Quebec maintain an ill-considered loyalty to this anachronism.

Influence of the American Religious Right

Although the constitution of the USA is more secular than Canada’s, its population is more religious. The influence of American evangelical Christianity on Canada is significant. Of course this aspect is not all imported from south of the border, as the two countries share a common anglo tradition from which this religious current derives.

This right-wing Christian influence is more evident in recent years because of the Conservative party government of Stephen Harper, especially since it won majority government status in 2011. The Conservative Party is the result of a hostile takeover of the old, more centrist Progressive Conservative Party by the decidedly right-wing Alliance Party.

One serious manifestation of the religious orientation of Canada’s current government is its intention to establish an Office of Religious Freedom, modelled on the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom. There were already concerns that the Office would be too centred on western religions, especially Christianity. Then, in a speech to a Religious Liberty Dinner in May 2012 in Washington, D.C., Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird baldly declared, “We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.” Such an odious repudiation of freedom of conscience made by the person responsible for the new Office does nothing to reassure secularists.


Multiculturalism reinforces differences between groups based on ethnic and religious identities. It grants certain “group rights,” often to the detriment of individual rights. It favours tradition over modernism and community over fundamental human rights. It supports traditional religious leaders and is closely related to accommodationism, the practice of granting privileges — incompatible with universal privileges — on the basis of membership in a religious or ethnic community.

Multiculturalism was formalized and elevated to government policy by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1971. One of Trudeau’s goals was to drown Quebec nationalism in a sea of multiple cultures, thus replacing “bi” with “multi” in the now obsolete term “biculturalism.”

In Canada outside of Quebec, multiculturalism remains a sacred cow, although some voices of dissent are beginning to be heard. The term is often used in contrast to intolerance or even racism, as if anyone who criticizes it must be a xenophobe who hates immigrants. If Muslims are involved, accusations of “Islamophobia” fall upon those who question multiculturalism. But in reality, multiculturalism is itself a close cousin of racism — Djemila Benhabib calls it “multiracism” — because it exaggerates the importance of the community into which one is born, to the detriment of one’s individuality.

English-French Tensions

The split between English- and French-speaking Canadian, and in particular between Quebec and the rest of Canada, continues of be a major aspect of Canadian politics, with implications for secularism. Multiculturalism is less popular in Quebec, but still influential. Secularism is better understood and more highly valued in Quebec, undoubtedly because of the French heritage of laïcité. Nevertheless, many French-speaking Quebecers, even non-believers, maintain a sense of nostalgia and loyalty to the Catholic Church, comparable to loyalty to the monarchy in rest of Canada.

The Left

The political left in Canada, especially outside Quebec, is strongly supportive of multiculturalism. It was NDPer and former attorney-general Marion Boyd who in 2004 proposed including Muslim sharia law in arbitration of family law and inheritance. Fortunately, a widely based opposition, including the French Libre Pensée, succeeded in pressuring the Ontario government to reject this proposal.

The left is so enamoured of multiculturalism that it sometimes make the political right look very good in comparison. In late 2011, Jason Kenny, federal Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, adopted a policy banning the wearing of face-coverings when taking the citizenship oath, something which the multicultural left would probably never have had the courage to do. Kenny is no secularist, but in this case he stumbled, as if by mistake, upon a reasonable secular measure.

The Quebec School System

In 1997 Quebec eliminated its constitutional obligation to maintain separate Protestant and Catholic school systems. About a decade later, it finally put an end to religious school boards and installed an ostensibly secular educational system with language-based (i.e. French and English) school boards.

But this new secular system, paradoxically, includes even more religious content that the old system because in September of 2008 the Ministry of Education introduced a new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) programme which is compulsory at all primary and secondary school levels (11 years). This programme covers a few major religions, especially Christianity, but gives little or no consideration to atheists and other non-religious persons. The implication is that everyone has a religion, without which they have no cultural identity. The title implies that ethics belong to the religious domain, as if morality without religion were impossible. This new programme was astutely promoted by a strong religious faction, mainly Catholic, which remains entrenched in Quebec’s Ministry of Education and which has succeeded in maintaining religious instruction in an ostensibly secular system.

In addition, Quebec taxpayers continues to fund private schools — many of which are religious — to the tune of 60%.

The Ontario School System

In Ontario, the injustice of 100% public funding for a separate school system dedicated to one and only one religious group — Catholics — is becoming increasingly obvious and public sentiment is increasingly sympathetic to the idea of ending the separate system. The United Nations has officially censured Canada twice — in 1999 and again in 2005 — for violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by allowing a privilege accorded to one religious group and denied to others. The expense of maintaining two parallel public systems is also a major issue. The Catholic system has attempted to forbid gay student associations, in violation of basic human rights, and this too has increased public support for ending the separate Catholic system.

First Nations and the Residential School System

For over a century, this special residential school system funded by the federal Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches (Catholic, Anglican and others) was in place, finally ending in 1996. Large numbers of children of First Nations, Métis and Inuit were separated from their parents and forced to attend these schools in which their native languages were forbidden and they were often subject to physical and sexual abuse. In 2008 the Canadian government issued an official apology. An Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and its hearings are currently ongoing.

Municipal Council Prayers

Many municipalities throughout Canada, including Quebec, continue to use a religious prayer at the beginning of council meetings. In Quebec, the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ: www.mlq.qc.ca) has scored several victories in its effort to have such imposed public prayers removed. The most recent case involves the city of Saguenay, whose mayor is a notorious Catholic fundamentalist who refuses to accept the decisions of a human rights tribunal and a lower court which have gone against him. The case will be heard by the Quebec Court of Appeals in late November.

A Secularism Charter for Quebec?

Provincial elections in Quebec were held recently (September 4th) and the Parti Québécois (PQ) led by Pauline Marois was victorious, although it won only a plurality of seats in the National Assembly and thus forms a minority government. During the campaign, the PQ promised to adopt a Secularism Charter which would forbid obvious religious symbols worn by civil servants on duty. However, Marois also indicated that wearing a small visible crucifix while on duty as a public servant would be acceptable.

Another political party, Québec Solidaire (QS), a promoter of Quebec independence like the PQ but further to the left, won only 2 of 125 seats but appears to have the wind in its sails. QS supports maintaining the right for civil servants to wear the Islamic veil. This is in line with the decision taken in 2009 by the Fédération de Femmes du Québec (FFQ, Quebec Women’s Federation) to oppose any restriction on civil servants wearing the veil, a decision which created widespread indignation among supporters of women’s rights. The position of QS and the FFQ falls into the category known as “open secularism” or “laïcité ouverte” which involves an abandonment of secularism by opening public institutions to religious influences.

A large crucifix is prominently displayed above the speaker’s chair in the main chamber of the Quebec National Assembly. This obvious violation of secularism dates from the year 1936 when the Duplessis government of the day installed it to symbolize its alliance with the Catholic Church. In 2007, all parties including the PQ voted to keep the crucifix.

Thus the PQ position is inconsistent: it claims to want a Secularism Charter but would maintain certain Christian symbols. QS is also inconsistent, claiming to support secularism but allowing civil servants to wear the Islamic veil while on duty. It is as if the PQ promoted secularism for everyone except Christians, while the QS promotes it for everyone except Muslims.

Well known author and critic of Islamism Djemila Benhabib was an unsuccessful candidate for the PQ in the riding of Trois Rivières. Benhabib, a consistent secularist who was recently awarded the International Secularism Prize by the French Comité Laïcité République, distinguished herself from her party’s position during the campaign by calling for removal of the crucifix.

At any rate, given the PQ’s minority status and the lack of support for the idea from opposition parties, it is doubtful that it can succeed in getting a Charter adopted.

Although Quebec secularists are sometimes accused of “xenophobia,” in reality the opponents of secularism are more likely to display this attitude. During the recent election campaign the previously mentioned mayor of Saguenay declared his anger at foreigners with unpronounceable names dictating rules to Quebecers like him. He was referring to Djemila Benhabib.


I would like to close by stressing that the opponents of secularism regularly use the popular fear of atheism — a widespread and ancient prejudice called atheophobia — in attempts to frighten the public at the prospect of a State with no religious foundation. It is necessary to remind everyone that religious believers would of course not be excluded by such a State. However, that is not sufficient. We must address the issue of atheophobia directly and frankly by denouncing it as the baseless and odious prejudice which it is. Religion is not the arbiter of morals. We must insist that freedom of religion is impossible without freedom from religion, and that anyone who claims to promote the former while simultaneously denying the latter is at best foolish, and probably dishonest.