Canada’s four models of religion-state relations: Dr. James C. Wallace

Misunderstood and Mischaracterized:

Canada’s four models of religion-state relations

Dr. James C. (Jim) Wallace
May 26, 2014


On the drive north from Seattle to Vancouver on Highway 5, travelers encounter at the border crossing an imposing, beautiful monument – The Peace Arch. It was dedicated in 1921 to commemorate the end of the War of 1812.

Two inscriptions are engraved at the top of the gleaming white stone arch – first, “Children of a common mother” and second, “Brethren dwelling together in unity.”

All of us who have siblings understand that children of the same parents can be very different. And yes, many times siblings struggle to get along.

Yet even as children are different, parents can also be poles apart.

I have two parents – one by birth and one by adoption. For you see, I was born in the United States, but lived and worked much of my life in Canada. I was adopted as a Canadian when I proudly stood in front of a judge in Calgary and swore my allegiance to the Queen and to Canada.

My two parents – the U.S. and Canada – are singular and special. I love them both. They each have strengths and weaknesses. And, over time, I have come to deeply value each one of their virtues and their quirks.

This difference is no more obvious than when it comes to the subject of religion and politics – two often conflicting disciplines that have been my life’s work.

Four Religion State Models

America was established with the idea of separation of church and state clearly entrenched in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This metaphor and model has become the dominant popular image of religion-state relations, particularly in Western societies.

However, in Canada there is no one model of religion and state. There are in reality four models – two historic and two emergent. Although plainly evident and operative in Canadian society, few Canadians – beyond perhaps some cloistered academics – would be able to explain these religio-political constructs.

The four religion-state models of Canada are:

1. The official state church,
2. Laïcité,
3. Separation of church and state, and
4. Total secularity.

I will briefly explain each one of these ideas and then draw some conclusions about how they impact Canadian society today.

Official State Church

The first religion-state model is the historical model of official state religion or the official state church.

State religion dates back to ancient times when kings and rulers were often considered to be gods or, at the very least, high priests overseeing the religious rituals of the state. State religion has evolved over time with some states broadly sanctioning particular religions while others go so far as to have an official state church.

When the French and British came to explore and colonize the New World, they came with strong state church traditions. Indeed, Jacques Cartier claimed the Gaspé for the King of France in 1534 by planting a thirty-foot wooden cross crowned with the king’s coat of arms. Not long after, priests and missionaries followed to claim the new territory for their God and their country, and to convert the indigenous peoples to their brand of European Christianity. Thus, for over two hundred years, Upper Canada was dominated by the religion, laws and culture of the Church of England even as Lower Canada was likewise controlled by the Roman Catholic Church.

State religion was so dominant in early Canadian life that the Treaty of Paris, which solidified British control over Canada, granted to “Roman Catholic subjects” the freedom to practice their religion “as far as the laws of Great Britain permit,” which of course meant under the control of the Church of England. Subsequently, in the Quebec Act of 1774, the Roman Catholic Church was broadly granted quasi-state governmental powers in Quebec, but again “subject to the King’s Supremacy.”

For hundreds of years, our country was divided along state church lines with religion often acting as a proxy for other issues that have divided us – language, law, school systems, and culture. Even during the North-West Rebellion led by Louis Riel, the two dominant religious communities split over what to do with the Métis leader and how to resolve the long-simmering complaints of indigenous peoples.

In the early 1900s, a new type of state church emerged – the United Church of Canada. Born out of the modernist-fundament controversies, the United Church embodied prevailing Canadian values like peace, cooperation, tolerance, and unity. Although not officially a state church like the early Anglican or Catholic churches, the United Church was truly national in scope, influence, and favor with elites and common people alike. For much of the twentieth century, the United Church was Canada’s de facto state church as it actively engaged in influencing political, social, economic, and foreign policy issues.

For many religious Canadians, there still remains a deep, subconscious allegiance to the idea of an official church, be it national or regional – whether it is Catholics in Quebec, Anglicans in Ontario, Baptists in the Maritimes, Mennonites on the Prairies, or the United Church in BC.

These affinities shape not only religious ideals and practices, but also social and political convictions which ultimately influence votes.


The second historic religion-state model is that of laïcité or the French model of secularism.

Laïcité is a much debated concept that emerged in France in the 18th and 19th centuries as the state struggled to free itself from the overriding influence of the Catholic Church on French society. The essence of the struggle was not the prohibition of religion, but rather the restriction and control of religion, as well as the differentiation between public and private social space.

In 1905, French law officially declared that the Republic was laïque – secular – as it sought to end the regime of recognized religions. Churches were demoted to the private sphere from their privileged status as state institutions; their special subsidies were removed; and the equality of all religions was guaranteed. Further, the 1905 law prevented public servants from “signifying their own religion.”

For over one hundred years, the meaning and application of laïcité has been debated in France. In 2004, the Stasi Commission recommended that the principle of laïcité be extended to ban “the wearing in public schools, colleges or secondary schools of signs or garments that display religious affiliation.” This became popularly known as the French headscarf law.

In Canada, the ideals of laïcité gained prominence in Quebec in the 1960s as the Quiet Revolution sought to free the province from the stifling alliance between the government and the Catholic Church. The principles of laïcité began to be taught in schools, incorporated into government policy, and debated in public life.

Laïcité in Quebec has evolved over time to be more open and less restrictive than its French antecedent. However, the debate still rages over the shape and scope of secularism in Quebec.

Consider, for example, the contrast between the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Report on Reasonable Accommodation and the 2013 introduction of the Quebec Charter of Values. The meaning of laïcité in Quebec and, by extension, Canadian society is far from settled.

Separation of Church and State

The third model of religion-state relations in Canada is the emergent American model of separation of church and state.

It is based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Contrary to popular opinion, the words separation of church and state do not appear anywhere in any of the American founding documents.

Rather, the concept was introduced by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. A century and a half later, in 1947, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black quoted Jefferson in his majority opinion for Everson v. Board of Education declaring that “the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.'” By including this concept in a Supreme Court majority opinion, separation of church and state was thus granted the force of American law.

Separation of church and state is a popular metaphor for religion-state relations that has been widely adopted in many Western liberal democracies, including Canada.

Moreover, in Canada, the pervasiveness and influence of American culture and media has resulted in this metaphor being embraced by many Canadians as their preferred expression of religion-state relations.

Many Canadians erroneously believe that separation of church and state is guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution. When, in fact, Canada constitutionally accommodates religion in ways that would never be accepted in the United States.

Total Secularity

The forth model of religion-state relations in Canada is the increasingly emergent model of total secularity.

Many Canadians hold no religious beliefs. And of them, an increasing number prefer that the state should be totally secular and devoid of any religious accommodation.

According to the 1991 Canadian National Census, 12% of Canadians claimed “no religion” as their religious identity. Twenty years later in 2011, that designation had doubled to 24% or one-quarter of Canadians claiming “no religion.”

This rise of the “nones” – that is the n-o-n-e-s, not the n-u-n-s – is being studied and debated by leading academics and demographers in Canada and the United States, for this phenomenon is seen in both countries, but more so in Canada. There appears to be a correlation between increasing secularity and expanding urbanization, as well as generational differences.

According to University of Lethbridge sociologist of religion Dr. Reginald Bibby, the preference for “no religion” does not indicate the decline and disappearance of religion, but rather the polarization of religion. For at the same time some religious identities are declining in Canada, others are significantly increasing, primarily as a result of immigration from the Global South and the influx of new religious expressions.

It is ironic that at the same time some are calling for no religious accommodation by the Canadian and provincial governments – total secularity – others are calling for more religious accommodation.


In conclusion, when I look at the relationship between religion and state in Canada, I see four competing models not one dominate design:

1. The official state church,
2. Laïcité,
3. Separation of church and state, and
4. Total secularity.

This complexity is the by-product of Canadian history, Canadian demography, Canadian culture, and yes, Canadian political accommodations. But the most significant reason that Canada’s religion-state model is ambiguous is that not enough time has passed for the Constitution to be interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada.

For ultimately, religion-state relations and models of religious accommodation in Western liberal democracies are determined not by Constitutional fiat, but rather by judicial interpretation.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789. But it was not until 1947 – 158 years later – that the model of separation of church and state began to fully take shape through the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. Indeed, the majority of U.S. Supreme Court cases regarding religion in American life have arisen from the 1940s to the present.

In Canada, we have only had 32 years for the Supreme Court to rule on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, thereby, to create the superstructure for religion in Canada. With each Supreme Court case, with each opinion interpreting the meaning of freedom of religion in Canada, the relationship between religion and state becomes more settled and secure.

Perhaps in the coming years a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada on religionstate relations will create that singular metaphor, that all-encompassing archetype that embodies the fullness of Canadian values in the same way that Justice Hugo Black did for the United States back in 1947.

Perhaps the resolution of the Quebec constitutional question will bring renewed clarity about who we are as two peoples in relationship to religion.

Perhaps Canada will proudly maintain its multiplicity of religion-state models even as we pride ourselves in our multicultural mosaic.

Perhaps . . . who knows?

Whatever the result, Canada will be different from the United States.

Canada will continue to be a world role model for religious freedom.

And Canada will be a refuge for people of many faiths and people of no faith for generations to come.