150 Years of Faith150 Years of Faith

150 Years of Faith

When Canadians celebrate the country's 150th birthday, Ray Pennings asks, whom will we thank?

Ray Pennings
8 minute read
Like Convivium? , our free weekly email newsletter.

Attend a Dutch birthday party and you are expected, on arrival, to congratulate not only the person celebrating the birthday but also the spouse, parents, siblings, in-laws and anyone else with even the remotest relationship to the celebrant.

My immigrant cousins and I were selfconscious about being congratulated on our parents' birthdays, finding it a bit quirky to receive honour for something we really had nothing to do with. Not that this couldn't be masked by a self-deprecating quip and a quick transition to the occasion of fun and camaraderie that the birthday celebration afforded.

These reminiscences crossed my mind as I returned from a recent meeting of Calgarians who had been invited to brainstorm with the Governor General in preparation for Canada's sesquicentennial celebration in 2017. On the screen had been a website clock counting down the hours for an event more than five years and four months away. It had taken less than half that time from when I met my wife for us to marry. What was it about this occasion that required more than twice the amount of time we had taken to prepare for our marriage?

The discussion regarding Canada's 150th reminded me that in many ways, the occasion of a celebration instigates a reflection on the past and resolve for the future that can be helpful. Days, months and years follow each other like indistinct waves in the sea of time. Using natural markers to help us measure and to prompt a conversation that may inform and inspire seems not only useful but is in fact an opportunity not to be neglected.

To be sure, part of the opportunity is the excuse to have a national party. It's not as extravagant as it sounds—many in the room fondly reminisced about their memories of the Centennial celebrations in 1967 and how for many years it was a reference point for their patriotism and pride. Given that changing my diapers was part of my parent's centennial celebration, it wasn't a conversation I could really participate in. Still, I recall that the Centennial legacies of Expo 67, Bobby Gimby's Centennial song, "Ca-na-da," and the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill were prominent symbols of patriotic pride impressed upon me during my youth.

But what is it that we celebrate? The brainstorm evoked themes of challenge. "The Canadian project is suffering," said one person. "Not everyone views the 150 years of Canada as worth celebrating," warned another, clearly making reference to the challenges in our relationship with Aboriginal peoples Others in the room were more optimistic but still wanted to focus on "bringing a gift" to the party rather than preparing for a triumphal basking in our virtues. Shaping The Globe and Mail headline for July 1, 2017, seemed to be at least an implicit incentive for others. Through the brainstorm, a laundry list of interesting suggestions emerged, ready for feasibility considerations. The conversation was instructive and reflective, characteristically Canadian in simultaneously being concerned about how the occasion might reflect on how others see us while modestly promoting ideas that emerged from a confidence in ourselves.

Still, there was a subtext to the conversation that reminded me of the angst I felt as a kid, mindful that the way our family celebrated birthdays wasn't exactly the way the neighbours did. I teetered between pride that we had our own traditions and self-consciousness that if a neighbour showed up, we would be seen as different. It wasn't just the congratulatory handshake custom nor the special pastries reserved for these occasions. It was the religious framing that took priority during our birthday celebrations. These were times when we spoke of Divine Providence, read special passages of Scripture, and prayed for God's continued blessing while asking for a new measure of grace. All was well when it was only our family around, but when unchurched neighbours joined us, I was sometimes preoccupied about what they might be thinking.

So how do Canadians hold a national birthday party? Seguing from immigrant family traditions to that of a pluralistic multicultural country isn't as big a stretch as it sounds. A quick bit of Google research tells those of us who weren't there something about how we celebrated our national birthday in 1967. On Parliament Hill, the Queen and Prince were escorted to the platform by eight clergymen, and a nationally televised celebration included an atmosphere of worship as well as celebration.

To cite Queen's University historian Marguerite Van Die's account in "The End of Christian Canada: Past Perspectives, Present Opportunities for Faith and Public Life": " 'A hundred years ago today,' read the distributed programs, 'our ancestors witnessed the birth of a new nation. Now a century later, some twenty million Canadians share the heritage of freedom and material prosperity for which, on this historic occasion, all will wish to join in thanksgiving to God.' In the half-hour, nationally-televised ceremony that followed, Canadians across the country began their Canada Day [sic] celebrations of the country's one hundredth birthday with prayer, Bible reading, and song: a call to worship from Psalm 33 and 95, read [by] a prominent member of the Montreal Jewish community, representing the Canadian Interfaith Conference; the singing of the hymn "O Lord My God" by the Centennial Choir and the audience; a confession of sin and a reading from 1 Peter 3 by Prime Minister Lester Pearson.

The ceremony was concluded with a communal litany as thousands of voices repeated the refrain, 'We re-dedicate ourselves, O Lord.' "

This is not to suggest that Canada was a homogeneous Christian country in which such collective expressions of worship would reflect the full story. In fact, later that year Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau described the spirit of the times to Parliament using a different frame.

"We are now living in a social climate in which people are beginning to realize, perhaps for the first time, that we are not entitled to impose the concepts which belong to a sacred society upon a civil or profane society. The concepts of the civil society in which we live are pluralistic, and I think this Parliament realizes it would be a mistake for us to try to legislate into the society concepts which belong to a theological or sacred order. These are very important concepts no doubt, but they should not by themselves be considered as the sole guide for government."

My guess is that as we think about our celebrations in 2017, neither of these captures the predominant thinking about where expressions of faith might fit in. Perhaps the most current barometer of the prevailing attitude might be illustrated by the public services that followed the events of 9/11. Again borrowing from Van Die:

"[Contrast] another gathering, held twenty-four years later, again on Parliament Hill, on September 14, three days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. An unprecedented crowd estimated at over 100,000 people had gathered. Prime Minister [Jean] Chrétien expressed the feelings of most Canadians when he conveyed, in the presence of the American ambassador, heartfelt support for the United States and its leaders. On this occasion, however, there was no reference to God, and the language and music were studiously neutral of any religious tones. Religious faiths were, indeed, represented in the front rows of the audience by clergy and officials from many Canadian religious communities. They were there at the explicit invitation of the Department of Canadian Heritage, but they sat in silence. Everyone observed a moment of silence for the dead, yet no one was called upon to say a public prayer. The country's faiths had become silent symbols, but of what remained unclear."

At the planning meeting to which I had been invited, I made an intervention seeking to highlight the importance of including recognition of the role that faith and faith communities had played in the history of our land.

Are you enjoying this article?
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and never miss another one.

What is the history of Canada without an account of the role that religion plays, not just as the sum of the private worship practices of individuals, but also as the public contribution to society of identifiable communities? Confederation involved the creation of a national polity within which two separate societies (French Catholic and English Protestant) could unite. Whether one accounts for the constitutional protection for religious education, the contribution of the social gospel in developing both State and civil society social programs, or the ethos that sustained immigrant communities in an often harsh climate, one cannot account for 150 years of Canadian history without acknowledging that religion in general, but particularly Christian faith and practice, was among the forces of cohesion that, according to Mark Noll, in his book Whatever Happened to Christian Canada?, helped bind "a widely scattered people—indeed two peoples—into a prosperous, well-ordered, and reasonably stable nation-state."

This certainly has looked different during the various phases of our history. UBC Professor George Egerton suggested in a 2006 speech three distinct phases regarding "the status and functions of religion in Canadian constitutional history." In the first phase, which he calls "Christian pluralism" and identifies as the dominant paradigm from before Confederation through the mid-20th century, "the Christian religion was central to the defining elements of politics, law, culture and imperial purpose." Canadian churches, while competing as denominations, informally "functioned as 'the conscience of the state,' performing priestly functions (public prayers, rituals, legitimating government authority); pastoral functions (health, welfare, socialization/schooling, chaplaincies); and prophetic functions (guardian of family/sexual morality; temperance crusades, social gospel criticisms of capitalist injustices)." As our post-war national discussions moved toward the subject of human rights, prompted by our own checkered record during the war as well as the passage of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the "Liberal governments of both King and St. Laurent, however, with trans-party concurrence, insisted that human rights must be given an explicit, transcendent religious source."

The leadership of prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson marked, according to Egerton, a shift from Christian pluralism to religious pluralism. "The exclusive Christian language gave way to a more inclusive 'religious pluralism,' as political leaders made explicit efforts to include Canada's Jewish community in the national religious consortium." It is useful to note the language of the Canadian Bill of Rights, passed in 1960, which affirmed "that the Canadian nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions...." The Centennial celebrations and Expo 67 were both organized to reflect "the religious-positive pluralism of the Government" according to Gary Miedema in For Canada's Sake (and quoted by Egerton in his speech).

The next phase of this history evokes the most contention. Egerton calls it the phase of "secularist pluralism" and notes the defining elements shifted "from religion to language and ethnicity." The new polity was free from religious foundations. We now live in a secular age, or at least so we are told. But, as Charles Taylor has so eloquently argued in A Secular Age, we would be trying to do something no society in history has succeeded in: living out of a framework of secularism that allows for transcendence, or that "religious longing, the longing for and response to a more-thanimmanent transformation perspective [as] a strong independent source of motivation in modernity."

We're still trying to figure out exactly what this means, but in the meantime, there is a party to plan. As the projected website clock overlooking our brainstorming session reminded us, there were five years and four months before the party began. (That left me scratching my head, wondering if I had ever participated in a planning exercise quite that far in advance. But I digress.)

The option of inviting the faithful to the party with the same conditions we might impose on the "black sheep" of the family, who understand that if they show up, they should be seen but not heard, isn't an option. Neither is it adequate to invite only those willing to speak in the language of mish-mash syncretistic public-speak. Celebrating a country for which principles such as freedom of religion, conscience and speech are sacrosanct means ensuring these come into full expression in the context of our national celebrations.

This is not only a challenge for governments and the official party planners but also an opportunity for faith communities to demonstrate that at the core of their faith commitments rests an opportunity to serve both their god and neighbour; to live civilly and respectfully alongside neighbours with whom they have profound differences; and to celebrate the context that allows them to live and worship in freedom.

You'll also enjoy...

God's in His Heaven and All Right With A Joke

God's in His Heaven and All Right With A Joke

Now is the ideal time for non-religious Canadians to lighten up around discussions of faith, says Cardus Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings, citing polling data showing religious Canadians are happy to debate their beliefs in good humour.

Coming Anew to Religious Faith

Coming Anew to Religious Faith

With fresh polling data from the Cardus-Angus Reid Institute in hand, Cardus Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings tells Convivium newly arrived Canadians hold the key to renewing our public understanding of faith.

Join Convivium

Convivium means living together. Unlike many digital magazines, we haven’t put up a digital paywall. We want to keep the conversation regarding faith in our common and public life as open as possible.

Get a weekly wrap up of the latest articles delivered right to your inbox.