Religion in Canada

From Academic Kids

Canada has a wide mix of religions, but it has no official religion, and support for religious pluralism is an important part of Canada's political culture. However, most people report they are Christians, and this is reflected in several aspects of life there.


Religious mix

Census results

According to the Canada 2001 Census [1] (, 72% of the Canadian population list Catholic or Protestant as their religion. By far the largest denomination is Catholicism. Those who listed no religion account for 16% of total respondents. In British Columbia, however, 35% of respondents reported no religion - more than any single denomination and more than all Protestants combined.[2] (

Top Religious Denominations in Canada
2001 1991 % change
(in numbers)
Number %Number %
Christian 72 80
- Roman Catholic12,793,125 43.212,203,625 45.2 +4.8
- Total Protestant 8,654,845 29.2 9,427,675 34.9 -8.2
- United Church of Canada2,839,125 9.63,093,12011.5 -8.2
- Anglican Church of Canada 2,035,495 6.92,188,110 8.1 -7.0
- Christian, not included elsewhere¹ 780,450 2.6353,040 1.3 +121.1
- Baptist 729,475 2.5663,3602.5 +10.0
- Lutheran 606,590 2.0636,2052.4 -4.7
- Protestant, not included elsewhere² 549,205 1.9
- Presbyterian 409,830 1.4636,2952.4 -35.6
- Christian Orthodox479,620 1.6 387,395 1.4 +23.8
No religion 4,796,325 16.23,333,245 12.3 +43.9
- Muslim 579,640 2.0253,265 0.9+128.9
- Jewish329,995 1.1 318,185 1.2+3.7
- Buddhist300,345 1.0 163,415 0.6 +83.8
- Hindu297,200 1.0 157,015 0.6 +89.3
- Sikh278,415 0.9 147,440 0.5 +88.8
¹ Includes persons who report “Christian”, and those who report “Apostolic”, “Born-again Christian” and “Evangelical”.
² Includes persons who report only “Protestant”.
* For comparability purposes, 1991 data are presented according to 2001 boundaries.

Non-Christian religions in Canada

Non-Christian religions in Canada are more concentrated in metropolitan cites such as Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa. A possible exception is Judaism, which has long been a notable minority even in smaller centres. Much of the increase in non-Christian religions is attributed to changing immigration trends in the last fifty years. Increased immigration from Asia, the Middle East and Africa has created ever-growing Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu communities.

Christianity in Canada

The majority of Canadian Christians only attend church rarely, if at all. Many who describe themselves as Christian are agnostic In general, Canadian Christians are far less fervent that those in the United States but are still more overtly religious than those of Europe. Large regional differences exist, however, as well as a very notable urban-rural divide, especially outside of Quebec. The numbers have been disputed in terms of the percentage of the population who attend church regularly, with estimates running as low as 20% and as high as 35%.

As well as the large churches, Canada also has many smaller Christian groups from Eastern Orthodoxy to Mormonism. The concentration of these smaller groups often varies greatly across the country. The Maritimes have large numbers of Lutherans who were deliberately imported by the British. Southwest Ontario saw large numbers of German migrants, including many Mennonites and Hutterites. The large Ukrainian population of Manitoba and Saskatchewan has produced many followers of the Uniate or Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. Alberta has seen considerable immigration from the American plains creating a large Mormon minority in that province.

Government and religion

Canada today has no official church, and the government is officially committed to religious pluralism. In some fields Christian influence remains.

Christmas and Easter are nationwide holidays, and while Jews, Muslims, and other groups are allowed to take their holy days off work they do not share the same official recognition. The French version of "O Canada", the official national anthem, contains an overtly Christian reference to "carrying the cross". In some parts of the country Sunday shopping is still banned, but this is steadily becoming less common. There was an ongoing battle in the late 20th century to have religious garb accepted throughout Canadian society, mostly focused on Sikh turbans. Eventually the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Legion, and other groups accepted members wearing turbans.

Canada is a Commonwealth realm in which the head of state is shared with 15 other countries, including the United Kingdom. The succession laws forbid Roman Catholics and their spouses from occupying the throne, and the reigning monarch is also ex officio Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Within Canada, the Queen's title include the phrases "By the Grace of God" and "Defender of the Faith."

While Canada has only a few marginal relics of its commitment to Christianity, it more overtly recognizes the existence of a god. Both the preamble to the Canadian constitution, though not the body text itself, and the anthem in both languages refer to an unspecified god.


Before the arrival of Europeans, the First Nations followed a wide array of mostly animistic religions. See also Native American mythology. The first Europeans to settle in great numbers in Canada were French Catholics, including a large number of Jesuits dedicated to converting the natives; an effort that had only limited success.

The first large Protestant communities were formed in the Maritimes after they were conquered by the British. Unable to convince enough British immigrants to go to the region, the government decided to import continental Protestants from Germany and Switzerland to populate the region and counter balance the Catholic Acadians. This group was known as the Foreign Protestants. This effort proved successful and today the South Shore region of Nova Scotia is still largely Lutheran.

This pattern remained the same after the British conquest of all of New France in 1759. While originally plans to try to convert the Catholic majority were in place, these were abandoned in the face of the American Revolution. The Quebec Act of 1774 acknowledged the rights of the Catholic Church throughout Lower Canada in order to keep the French-Canadians loyal to Britain.

The American Revolution brought about a large influx of Protestants to Canada. United Empire Loyalists, fleeing the rebellious United States, moved in large numbers to Upper Canada and the Maritimes. They comprised a mix of Christian groups with a large number of Anglicans, but also many Presbyterians and Methodists.

In the early nineteenth century in the Maritimes and Upper Canada, the Anglican Church held the same official position it did in Great Britain. This caused tension within English Canada, as much of the populace was not Anglican. Increasing immigration from Scotland created a very large Presbyterian community and they and other groups demanded equal rights. This was an important cause of the 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada. With the arrival of responsible government, the Anglican monopoly was ended.

In Lower Canada, the Catholic Church was officially pre-eminent and had a central role in the colony's culture and politics. Unlike English Canada, French-Canadian nationalism became very closely associated with Catholicism. During this period, the Catholic Church in the region became one of the most reactionary in the world. Known as Ultramontane Catholicism, the church adopted positions condemning all manifestations of liberalism, to the extent that even the very conservative popes of the period had to chide it for extremism.

In politics, those aligned with the Catholic clergy in Quebec were known as les bleus (the blues). They formed a curious alliance with the staunchly monarchist and pro-British Anglicans of English Canada (often members of the Orange Order) to form the basis of the Canadian Conservative Party. The Reform Party, which later became the Liberal Party, was largely composed of the anti-clerical French-Canadians, known as les rouges (the reds) and the non-Anglican Protestant groups. In those times, right before elections, parish priests would give sermons to their flock where they said things like Le ciel est bleu et l'enfer est rouge. This translates as "Heaven/the sky is blue and hell is red".

By the late nineteenth century, Protestant pluralism had taken hold in English Canada. While much of the elite were still Anglican, other groups had become very prominent as well. Toronto had become home to the world's single largest Methodist community and it became known as the "Methodist Rome". The schools and universities created at this time reflected this pluralism with major centres of learning being established for each faith. One, King's College, later the University of Toronto, was set up a non-denominational school.

The late nineteenth century also saw the beginning of a large shift in Canadian immigration patterns. Large numbers of Irish and Southern European immigrants were creating new Catholic communities in English Canada. The population of the west brought significant Eastern Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe and Mormon and Pentecostal immigrants from the United States.

Domination of Canadian society by Protestant and Catholic elements continued until well into the 20th century, however. Up until the 1960s, most parts of Canada still had extensive Lord's Day laws that limited what one could do on a Sunday. The English-Canadian elite were still dominated by Protestants, and Jews and Catholics were often excluded. A slow process of liberalization began after the Second World War in English-Canada. Overtly Christian laws were expunged, including those against homosexuality. Policies favouring Christian immigration were also abolished.

The most overwhelming change occurred in Quebec. In 1950, the province was one of the most dedicatedly Catholic areas in the world. Church attendance rates were extremely high, books banned by the Papal Index were difficult to find, and the school system was largely controlled by the church. In the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, this was spectacularly transformed. While the majority of Québécois are still professed Catholics, rates of church attendance are today extremely low (and still declining), in fact, they are the lowest of any region in North America today. Common law relationships, abortion, and support for same-sex marriage are all far more common in Quebec than in the rest of Canada and than in almost any other area of the world. The sectarian influence of the Orange Order continued, especially in Toronto, but has largely diminished since the 1960's.

English Canada had seen a similar transition, although less extreme. The United Church of Canada, the country's largest Protestant denomination, is one of the most liberal major Protestant churches in the world. It is committed to gay rights including marriage and ordination, and to the ordination of women. The head of the church even once commented that the resurrection of Jesus might not be a scientific fact. However, that trend appears to have subsided, as the United Church has seen its membership decline substantially since the 1990s, and other mainline churches have seen similar declines, while overall church attendance has increased in the 2000s.

In addition, a strong current of evangelical Protestantism exists outside of Quebec. The largest groups are found in Western Canada, particularly in Alberta, southern Manitoba and the southern interior and Fraser Valley region of British Columbia. There is also a large evangelical population in rural parts of southern and eastern Ontario outside the Greater Toronto Area and a few rural sections of the Maritimes. In these areas, the culture is much more conservative, somewhat more in line with that of the rural United States, and same-sex marriage, abortion, common-law relationships are much less popular. This movement has grown considerably in the past few years (primarily in those areas listed above) due to strong influences on public policy and stark divides, not unlike those in the United States, although the overall proportion of evangelicals in Canada remains considerably lower. There are very few evangelicals in Quebec.

See also


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