One might be tempted to view Canadian society as a once Christian culture that has ceased to be one. Certainly it’s true that the original Europeans who came to Aboriginal Canada -first as visitors, then as neighbours, and then as conquerors through war, trade, and outright theft- were predominantly British and French Protestants and Catholics. As Canada formed as a country immigration was mostly from Western Europe and Scandinavia. Despite the use of cheap imported Asian labour in British Columbia, Canada’s infamously racist immigration policies generally excluded or limited non-Europeans (and Jews).
As a result of the origins of Canada and its immigration policies, most immigrants came from countries where Christianity was overwhelmingly the major religious influence, though by the 19th century Europe and Canada had already shifted significantly towards secularism. This was the case until after WW2, when immigration policies began to shift, though they were not thoroughly overhauled until the first Trudeau government attempted to purge Canadian immigration policies of racism in the 1970s.
Since the 1970s Canada has become much more multi-cultural and secular. Laws which were influenced by Christianity (mostly in its 19th century Anglican and Reformed versions)- like Sunday restrictions on business, the recital of the Lord’s Prayer in schools, restrictive abortion laws, and laws criminalizing homosexuality, have been taken off the books. Other religions- Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others- have taken a much more public role in Canadian cultural life and have successfully fought for equal religious rights.
Considering all of this, are we not seeing a decline in Christian influence in Canadian society? I would concede that in some ways this is true. Certainly Church attendance and the profession of Christian belief have steadily fallen in polls of Canadians, and the government no longer legislates certain Christian religious values (like the opposition to euthanasia and abortion) or certain Christian religious practices (like the Sabbath or reciting the Lords Prayer). Yet from another perspective, the reality is more complicated.
Looking Again At Where We Came From
From the very beginning, I would argue, Canadian culture was not a Christian ethical paradise but was in fact a war between Christian and non-Christian principles. To take one glaring and grievous example, look at the relations between the early settlers and Indigenous peoples.
On the positive side, Europeans certainly had things to teach and share with Indigenous peoples, something often forgotten when one is mourning the destructive behaviours that came to dominate European relations with Canada’s First Nations. More specifically for our purposes, Europeans had the Gospel to share. There are examples, particularly in the early stages of contact or in the efforts of truly saintly missionaries, of the gospel being effectively shared with First Nations peoples, and of great Indigenous Christians like Kateri Tekakwitha.
That said, the negative behaviour of European colonialists towards Indigenous peoples, so egregious that it can only be called a kind of anti-missionary activity contrary to the great commission and the sharing of the gospel, can hardly be ignored. These behaviours included denigrating Indigenous culture in ignorant ways; forcing them to entirely give up their own folkways, the good along with the bad; stealing their land through violence or trickery; exploiting them for mercenary or political purposes; relocating them to unfertile backwaters; murdering, assaulting or raping them; and finally the well known horrors of the Residential school system, many of which were shamefully run by the Anglican or Catholic Church.
In light of these historical facts the majority of European Christian behaviour towards First Nations peoples can hardly be called Christian at all.
There were, of course, exceptions. Some Christians stood up for the rights of First Nations peoples, publicized their plight, and tried to share the true gospel with them not only in word but in deed. In this first example, then, we see that the early Canadian colonialists can hardly be said to have been embodying Christian ethics in their treatment of the Indigenous peoples. More accurately the majority of their behaviour was non-Christian, with a small minority acting in a truly Christian manner.
World War 1
World War 1 was a war without purpose aiming to settle relatively petty disputes between the great European powers, at the cost of millions of lives. The aftermath in Europe was cynicism, despair, and the humiliation of Germany which laid the seeds for the madness of WW2. Yet all of the countries fighting each other claimed to be Christian. This was no less true of Canada.
Canada sent over a million troops to fight in WW1 and lost sixty-one thousand soldiers, with one hundred and seventy-two thousand wounded and uncountable numbers scarred psychically. When one considers Jesus’ strong condemnation of violence, and the great retiscence to go to war expressed by official Catholic teaching and great Protestant theologians like John Calvin, not to mention the historic peace Churches like the Quakers and Anabaptists and their strong pointing to Jesus’ nonviolent teachings, how can the behaviour of Canada’s wartime leaders be considered Christian? Sending young Christian boys to kill other Christian boys in Europe over the Kingdoms of this world? Hardly.
Here as well we see that their were in fact Canadian Christians who opposed the war effort, including of course the Mennonites, Quakers, Doukhabors and Hutterites, and also renegade preachers like the Methodist JS Woodworth, but these were a small minority.
Canada’s record in the Holocaust is mixed. On the one hand, if ever a war was righteous, the war to stop the Nazis was surely that. On the other hand, even while Canada joined the Allies to defeat Germany, the Canadian government refused to give any but very small numbers of Jews refuge in Canada, thus aiding and abetting the torture and death of millions in Europe who could have been saved. To betray God’s chosen people, Jesus’ flesh and blood, the “elder brother” of the Christian Church in such a way is a stain upon the history of “Christian” Canada which cannot in any way be justified. Again there is a also a counter story of small numbers of Canadian Christians working to bring in Jews and aid their survival and protection in Europe, but the Canadian majority utterly failed to uphold Christian principles.
Considering what we have reviewed above, how can a simplistic narrative of Canada’s past “Christianity” be embraced? It seems a more accurate narrative would either pit Christian virtues against sin fighting it out in Canadian culture at large, or more starkly paint a picture of true Christians fighting against those only Christian in name. Which is correct is for God to judge.
Coming to the present day, we must concede, as I wrote above that Canadians attend Church less, that less Canadians claim to be Christians, and that the government no longer legislates Christian religious practices and some Christian values (e.g. opposition to abortion).
On the other hand, one could argue that the numbers of faithful Christians attempting to embody Christian virtues in Canadian society may not have changed much. What may have changed is the numbers claiming to be Christian for reasons other than a true obedient faith, i.e. nominal Christians. Also, while the government has stopped legislating certain Christian values like opposition to abortion, one could argue that the government has in fact made strides in legislating other Christian values of great importance- values like human rights, the reduction of violence, the protection of children, and the distribution of food, medicine, and resources to all. Many Canadians cherish these values while being unaware of their roots in the Christian tradition. On the whole things may not have changed that much- in the past Canadian culture was shaped by a minority of Christians trying to inject Gospel values into the culture and spread true Christianity, while a majority too often supported non-Christian values. In the present that is still the case. Christendom is in fact not a thing of the past- it has never existed, and is still an aspiration.