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Is Canada a Secular Nation? Part 3: Post-Charter Canada

May 17, 2006

By 1982, Pierre Elliot Trudeau had accomplished his dream as prime minister and constitutional lawyer -- the patriation of Canadaís Constitution and the creation of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For the first time in Canadian history, Canadians had defined rights and even rights by implication. Freedom from religion is not mentioned in that Charter, but, as noted earlier, the Supreme Court has commented that such freedom exists of logical necessity, since one cannot have freedom of religion if one is forced to have a religion.

More recently, the Paul Martinís Liberal government passed Bill 38 legalizing same-sex marriages. While doing this, the government asked for comments from the Supreme Court, particularly regarding whether the law could imply that any church or religious group would have to marry same-sex couples. The Supreme Court made it clear that the law could not be applied in that manner.

While Bill 38 is extremely important in guaranteeing civil marriage rights to same-sex couples, it is equally important as a law that separates the powers of church and state in Canada. Traditionally, churches have performed both the civil and religious components of marriages. Naturally, they and their followers have come to think of the two parts of the marriage ceremony as one -- a religious wedding. Bill 38 makes it clear that the civil part of a wedding is separate and distinct from the religious part. The comments by the Supreme Court further enhance this separation. In other words, Bill 38 makes it clear that the government controls secular spousal rights, while the church controls any religious component. This reason alone makes it important that the current Harper government must not be allowed to overturn this legislation.

There are other examples of limits to religious influence in Canadian government. When she was sworn in as Governor General, MichaŽlle Jean chose to use the affirmation form of the oath rather than the religious one. Some religious groups objected but were ignored. By doing so, Her Excellency may have been merely recognizing that she would be representing many faiths. Perhaps she was setting a precedent by being the first person to use it, but a secular version of the Governor Generalís oath and of most Canadian oaths existed long before she used it. There are many variations, but the standard one for most official offices in Canada is the following.

I, _________, do solemnly and sincerely promise and swear (declare) (affirm) that I will truly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me as ______________.

So help me God

The version used by Governor General Jean was more complex, but the basic principle is the same. No Bible or other holy book is needed if one "declares" or "affirms" and the phrase, "So help me God," is optional. At least in this regard, the Canadian system allows for freedom from religion for non-believers.

Still, there are some heritage symbols that annoy non-believers. One of these occurs on every coin of the realm. The earliest example I can find is the 1858 penny bearing the profile of a young Queen Victoria and the Latin inscription, "Victoria, Dei Gratia Regina." Todayís coins bear the profile of Queen Elizabeth and a shortened version of the phrase, "Elizabeth II, D. G. Regina." Either way the Latin translates into "Queen, by the grace of God." In some ways this is a minor problem. Personally, I am unable to hold onto coins long enough for them to bother me much. In addition, most Canadians have not studied Latin and have no idea what the phrase means. Many suspect, incorrectly, that the coins are made in Regina, Saskatchewan. Actually, they are made in Winnipeg.

On the other hand, the phrase is associated with a monarch who is also the Head of the Church of England. Separation of church and state is not served well by this. The smoothest solution to this is also a fairly radical one. We Canadians simply have to summon up the gall to inform Prince Charles, when he becomes Charles III, that he is always welcome in Canada, but as a foreign head of state. By that time (remembering that Queen Elizabethís mother lived until she was over one hundred) we should be able to arrange our constitutional affairs so that we have an elected Governor General as our symbolic head of state. This would sever the last formal ties with the former British Empire and move us further toward being a secular nation.

Another stone in the shoe of most Canadian freethinkers is "O Canada," our national anthem. In both its original French and the most recent English version (it is not a direct translation) several references are made to God and to religion. In French, Canada is said to "know how to carry the cross." In English, one line exhorts "God, keep our land glorious and free." Needless to say, these problems are easy to remedy, at least unofficially. A non-sexist, non-religious English version already exists. Humanists just have to begin to sing it.

Recently, some progress was made toward reducing the presence of religion in traditional places. The University of Toronto, after protests by the Toronto Secular Alliance, removed the invocation from its graduation ceremonies. While invocations still exist, in defiance of the Supreme Courtís comment that freedom of religion carries with it freedom from religion, they are slowly being abandoned and replaced by moments of silent meditation. However, the people who insist on such religious rituals are often slow to realize that they are discriminating against non-believers in a manner just as objectionable as if they were to ask a member of a visible minority to march at the back of the processional. This is a serious hurdle to separating official state ceremonies from the influences of religion.

Is Canada a secular nation? Yes and no. Yes, the government is free of direct control of religious leaders in the style of Iran or other clearly theist states, but, no, there are noticeable elements of theism in Section 93 of the Constitution act of 1867, in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our national anthem and on our coins. On a day-to-day basis, humanists are basically free from religion, simply because we donít sing our national anthem at the drop of a hat and we rarely read our coins. But, apathy such as this does not end the problem.

Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist, an agnostic member of KWCGH, and a Canadian nationalist fanatic who has written a Humanist version of O Canada in both official languages. His novel, The Bloody Boy, is available through Keltoi Publishing.

Appignani Bioethics Center