Canadian history has seen a host of religious influences such as the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage.


Canadian history has seen a host of religious influences such as the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage.

November 23, 2015

Greg Pennoyer calls it "living in a culture of amnesia." Canadians may know bits and pieces of their history - the date of Confederation, where Henry Hudson froze to death, how General Wolfe defeated the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. But we've lost the thread of the whole story.

You can't understand how Canada came to be the country it is today without understanding its religious foundations and history, Pennoyer insists.

Pennoyer works for the Cardus Foundation, a Hamilton, Ont.-based think tank started by Dutch Reformed Christians but which now has considerable input from Catholics.

Pennoyer has been put in charge of a Cardus project called Faith in Canada 150. The idea is to celebrate and to retell the story of faith in Canada's history. But it's not just about the past. The 14 projects envisioned under the Faith in Canada 150 banner are mostly about understanding the present and shaping the future of the country, Pennoyer said.

The major efforts Faith in Canada 150 is planning include:

A travelling photo exhibit of Canada's sacred architecture from First Nations sweat lodges to cathedrals, mosques and gurdwasas.

A $25,000 poetry prize that focuses on faith.

A gathering of faith leaders in Toronto on New Year's Eve, 2016 to religiously mark the beginning of a year of celebrations.

A summer conference in Winnipeg for Canadians under 35 called Be Not Afraid: Living Together in Difference.

A national conference of academics in the fall of 2017, also planned for Winnipeg, under the title of Spirited Citizenship to think about the role of faith in Canadian society.

A national billboard campaign.

The efforts to build a Catholic society in Quebec are symbolized by Montreal's Notre Dame Basilica.

The efforts to build a Catholic society in Quebec are symbolized by Montreal's Notre Dame Basilica.

These and other Faith in Canada 150 events and projects all come together at

There's no mistaking a kind of frustration behind the Cardus plans. Cardus is stepping into an enormous hole in Canada's self-image as it tries to promote recognition of Canada's religious history against a background of overwhelmingly non-religious birthday plans.

"So the story (of Canada) is being told, but the story isn't complete," said Pennoyer. "We simply want to complete it. I think it's an issue primarily of neglect and not being on the radar. I don't think anybody intended not to include religious people."

While it may be that in the popular imagination Canada has become a post-religious, secular country, historians know that Canadian history is religious history, said Mark McGowan, professor of history at Toronto's University of St. Michael's College.

"You can't understand the compromises at Confederation in 1867 without understanding the major religious compromise and the acknowledgement of collective rights, particularly over issues like denominational schooling," McGowan said.

"Sir Charles Tupper, himself a proud Protestant, said if it wasn't for the compromise in section 93 (of the British North America Act enshrining Catholic education rights in Upper Canada and Protestant education rights in Quebec), there would be no Confederation."

But of course nobody would begin Canada's history 150 years ago. Confederation was significant, but it wasn't the beginning of the country.

There were people here 10,000 years before Europeans arrived. Those people's whole sense of themselves, individually and collectively, was spiritual - rooted in religious traditions and stories. When New France was established it became the stage for an encounter between Counter-Reformation Catholicism and the spiritual world of the Huron, Mohawk, Iroquois, Algonquin and others.


Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve, didn't just decide to leave his massive estate in France to live in the wooden shelter of a fort with 50-odd people on the island of Montreal. He was part of a religious revival in France and a member of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrament that saw lay people and clergy living and working together in new ways to create a more truly Christian society.

In Montreal "they founded what they thought would be the new Jerusalem in the forest," said McGowan.

While English settlers in Boston also spoke of a new beginning for Christian culture, "it's a completely different vision," McGowan said. "Unlike the sort of American 'conquer and implant,' in New France it was to create a new people by the blending of les habitants and the French."

Religious visions of Canada didn't die on the Plains of Abraham. With the English conquest came an English vision of Canada as an extension of cozy British villages under the protective wing of the Anglican Church. One-seventh of all crown land was set aside as clergy reserve for the Anglicans. In 1791 the law in Ontario mandated that only Anglican ministers could register a marriage. It wasn't until the 1830s that Catholic weddings had legal standing.


By the 20th century, Protestant movements for renewal in society brought about a politically powerful temperance movement and imposed the Lord's Day Act to ensure a Christian stamp on society.

At the founding conference of the New Democratic Party in 1961, Tommy Douglas declared the purpose of the new party is to create a new Jerusalem.

"The thing is that for Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles and the crew that had gathered around them in the early '60s, this was part of the social gospel - the making of a new Christian commonwealth in Canada which included all, not just Christians," said McGowan.


If today religion finds itself sidelined in national debates it may be because moral absolutes don't make for political compromise, and Canada was founded on compromise, said John Milloy, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet member and professor of public ethics at Waterloo-Lutheran Seminary.

As a Catholic veteran in political life, dating back to his days as an advisor to Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Milloy has seen an exclusive focus on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage push his own Church to the margins of political debate.

"There is a reluctance or a misunderstanding of the role that faith can play," said Milloy, who recently brought out a book of essays called Faith.