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An overview of the Church in Canada


By Lisa Zengarini

The story of Catholicism in Canada goes back to the very first European settlers in North America.

On July 7, 1534, a French priest who accompanied the explorer Jacques Cartier celebrated the first Mass on the shores of the Gaspé peninsula, in what was then New France (Nouvelle France). French colonization began with the founding of the city of Québec in 1608 and of Ville Marie, now Montréal, in 1642.

The evangelization process

In this period, several religious congregations in France sent men and women to the colonized territories, who carried out  an intense missionary work among the local Indigenous peoples, including the Hurons and the Algonquians in the West, the Sioux in the East , and the Inuit in  the North. A major role was played by the Jesuit missionaries who focused on the evangelization of the Huron peoples. Their missions thrived in the 17th century.

This missionary work was fruitful, as testified by St.  Kateri Tekakwitha, also known as Lily of the Mohawks (1656-1680), the first indigenous saint of North America and Patroness of First Nation Peoples, who was canonized by Benedict XVI on 21 October 2012, and then proclaimed Patroness of ecology alongside  St. Francis of Assisi.

The  acquisition of Canada by the British during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) marked  a delicate phase for the Catholic Church in New France. However, despite the heavy restrictions imposed on Catholics in the Anglican Kingdom, the Catholic Church was able to further grow in the Canadian territories thanks to the Treaty of Paris (1763).

In 1841 the Act of Union (passed by the British Parliament in 1840) gave full legal recognition to the Church in Canada allowing it to expand even in the English speaking territories. Its dynamism is testified by the proliferation of several religious orders in Canada during the 19th century.

The Eastern Rite Churches have also played a major role in the development of the Catholic Church, especially in the western part of the country, which has seen a great influx of immigrants  from Eastern Europe, in particular from Ukraine.

Today the Ukrainian Church is the largest Eastern Church in the North American nation. Other Eastern Rite communities include Slovak, Armenian, Greek-Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara Catholics.

Three papal visits

On 9-20 September 1984 St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit Canada. This intense Apostolic Journey which saw him travel from the east to the west, and meet indigenous communitue on several occasions,  was followed by two subsequent visits: on 19-20 September 1987, when he stopped at Port Simpson, British Columbia, on his way back from his Apostolic Journey in the United States to meet the Indigenous peoples of Canada,  and on 23-28 July 2002, on the occasion of the World Youth Day of Toronto

A multireligious and multiethnic society

The Catholic Church is presently the largest religious denomination in the country, with Catholics accounting for some 44% of the population. They are followed by Protestants of various denominations (who account for almost one third), belonging predominantly the United Church (Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians), and also including Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists and Pentecostals. Orthodox Christians number less than 2%.

There are also various religious minorities, including Muslims, Jews, Sikh, Buddhists, and Hindus. In 2011, some 7% of Canada’s population reported affiliation with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions. A growing number of Canadians declare no religious affiliation.

The challenge of secularization

Canadian society is therefore multireligious, as well as multiethnic and multicultural. This has inevitably had an influence on the local Catholic Church and its relations with other religious communities and with Canadian society at large which, over the past decades, has undergone a deep process of secularization involving the English speaking provinces, but also the craddle of Catholicism in the country: Québec.

Indeed, since the Sixties, the French speaking province has seen more and more people walking away from the Church, which has lost the cultural and moral leadership role it had historically played in Quebecois society.  An indicator of this is the evolution of the local school system, which has taken on an increasingly secular character, and controversial policies which are in open contrast with the Catholic teachings.

Today, Canada is amongst the most  “advanced”  Western countries experiencing radical changes in social norms and values which have reflected in new legal frameworks on controversial issues, such as medically assisted procreation, the status of the family and marriage, euthanasia and assisted suicide.  In the face of these challenges, the Church has insistently voiced its concerns, upholding the protection of life from conception to natural death, and the protection of the family founded on a union of a man and a woman, and opposing same-sex marriages (which has been legal in Canada since  2005), surrogate motherhood (only allowed on a free basis) and the promotion of so-called gender ideology in schools.

Commitment for peace,  human rights and Creation

But the Church in Canada has also been actively engaged, alongside other Christian Churches and religious communitie,  on other important issues including:  world peace, disarmament, sustainable development, human rights, and social justice.  

This commitment has been carried out through the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, the Standing Committee for Development and Peace and Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace(CCODP) , founded in 1967 with the dual objective of offering aid for the development of the Global South, to refugees, and victims of wars and natural disasters. The Canadian Church is also an active advocate of the rights of Indigenous peoples, immigrants, refugees, and persecuted Christians across the world, and of the protection of enviroment

On several occasions the Canadian bishops have drawn attention to the negative impact of indiscriminate mining on the environment and on the livelihoods of millions of people, especially in the Global South, where Canadian mining companies also operate. In 2013 the Justice and Peace Commission published a small compendium of eight  central themes in recent Church teaching,  including the relationship between "human ecology" and environmental ecology, which are highlighted by Pope Francis in his 2015 Encyclical Letter “Laudato si’” on the care for our common home.

Pastoral concern for Indigenous peoples

In this context the Canadian Church has also focused its pastoral attention on the Indigenous peoples in Canada who are still paying the consequences of European colonization to this day. These include three groups: First Nations, Inuit and Métis (descendants of mixed marriages between French and Scottish fur traders and Aboriginal women who formed a distinct culture, collective consciousness and nationhood in the Northwest of Canada).

Although during the evangelization of Canada several missionaries and bishops were committed in defending the rights of the Indigenous peoples, unfortunately, part of the Church contributed to the suffering inflicted on them by European settlers.

The Canadian bishops have recognized the responsibilities and shortcomings of the Church and have signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) adopted in 2007. The Church has also been actively supporting the recognition of the rights of the Indigenous peoples in Canada (including rights to their ancestral lands and access to the country's natural resources) through an intense work of advocacy, education and awareness campaigns. Moreover,  it has been working with the Assembly of the First Nations (ANP) to improve the living conditions of Indigenous communities who still experience the highest levels of poverty in Canada.

The residential school system

One of the darkest pages of the history of the Canadian Church is the residential school system, a scheme funded by the Canadian government and run by Church institutions  for the forcible integration of indigenous youth into Euro-Canadian culture by separating them from their families and placing them in boarding schools. The schools disrupted lives and communities and many children suffered neglect and abuse causing long-term problems among Indigenous communities. Overall, between the 19th and 20th century, some 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children were forced to attend these schools.

Since the last school closed iin 1997, former students have demanded recognition and compensation, resulting in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) signed in 2007, and a formal public apology by the then Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.

A seven-year enquiry by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), concluded in 2015 that over 3,000 children died while attending these schools, due to neglect, disease and abuse..

The discovery of dozens of unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia, in late May 2021, drew public attention to this tragedy and, in September  the Canadian Bishops issued a formal statement of apology pledging 30 million  Canadian dollars support to the healing and reconciliation process. They have also commited to collaborate with the leaders of the First Nations, Inuit amd Métis, to ascertain the truth and in healing schemes.

The Canadian Bishops have been joined by Pope Francis who, on June 6, addressed a message  expressing closeness to the victims and 28 March-1April 2021 met with delegations from Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, hearing their stories about life in the residential school system 

Pope to make penitential pilgrimage to Canada for healing and reconciliation

Meeting with all three Indigenous delegations on April 1, he asked forgiveness for the “deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church”, emphasizing that what he had heard had made him feel both indignation and shame. “Without real indignation without historical memory and without a commitment to learning from past mistakes, problems remain unresolved and keep coming back”, he said.  The Pope reiterated “his sorrow and solidarity for the harm they have suffered” during the Angelus. on Sunday, 17 July 2022, 

Dialogue with other Churches and religious denominations

On many of these issues, the Catholic Church in Canada works in close collaboration with the other Christian communities, through the Canadian Council of Churches of which it became a permanent member in 1997. It also entertains  good relationships with other religious denominations present in Canada, based on mutual respect and the values of coexistence and solidarity.

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