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Peter Stockland: Emerging light burns for religious freedom

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  • June 27, 2019

There can be no denying Canadians are heading into summer 2019 after one of the darkest years for religious freedom in the country’s history. 

Yet in the gloom is small emergent light that — call me a crazy optimist — I believe is cause for genuine slow and lasting hope. Paradoxically, one of that hope-giving light’s primary sources is in Montreal, which is necessarily most affected by the unfathomable shadow of Quebec’s Bill 21. 

The just-passed legislation banning wearing of religious clothing or symbols in certain public sector workplaces has been justifiably condemned as an unconscionable affront to individual liberty, including freedom of faith. Unfortunately, Bill 21 has also been decried as a uniquely Quebec phenomenon. It isn’t. On the contrary, it’s much of a muchness with the anti-public faith animus that oscillates from sea to sea.

The Quebec legislation was rushed into law almost to the day in June 2018 when the Supreme Court of Canada struck the crushing blow of the Trinity Western decision. Two dissenting justices compared the ruling to the darkest days of the Duplessis era’s religious intolerance. 

The majority of justices acknowledged the judgment violated guarantees of religious freedom. But, they insisted, such freedom had to be sacrificed for some notion of public interest that overrode the rights of the B.C. evangelical university’s freedom to operate according to biblical beliefs.

All Quebec did differently was dispense with the bothersome expense of a Charter legal challenge to Bill 21 by embedding the constitutional override clause directly in the legislation itself. It declared the state can — indeed must — put its thumb on the scales to tip them for aggressive secularism and against religious freedom.

But against it is a first-steps initiative by the English Speaking Catholic Council in Montreal that could create a well-lit path forward for all Canadians of religious faith. In mid-June, ESCC executive director Anna Farrow released an extensive e-survey of anglophone parishes in Montreal. An original intention was to map the seismic shift in parish demography: 70 per cent of parishioners surveyed were born outside of Canada. Farrow saw a brighter potential use beyond counting new noses. 

If those in the pews are of different origins from a generation ago, perhaps their needs from the Church are different, too. They would be the needs of new communities looking inward for resources they could not easily locate anywhere else. 

The e-survey bore that out. About two-thirds of respondents said they looked to the Church primarily for friendship and community. They looked to their church community for such necessities as housing and employment referrals, child care or help furnishing new apartments. Critically, looking to each other came from trust inherent to friendship formed in shared religious faith.

“It’s a very particular sense of community: it’s people looking after each other and (deepening) bonds of fellowship that are there because of our faith,” Farrow says.

So, if friendship and community is the prime reason for newcomers looking to the Church, might that also be the case with long-established Catholics? And if that particular sense of community were fostered within parishes doesn’t that open a potential new relationship between Church and society, and particularly with the aggressively secular state?

The state, too, has needs. It must deliver a vast range of social services. So why not make faith communities both a focus and a means for that delivery, while strengthening themselves and re-connecting to society?

“It’s not saying ‘well, how can we make parishes more like the government?’ It’s not saying ‘how can we make the government more like the parish?’ It’s saying ‘OK, what are the particular gifts and skills in this faith community and how can we use them to help people in need in the parish in a way that helps them outside the parish, too,’ ” Farrows says. 

It’s early days. There are lots of next steps. But, in the ancient wisdom, better to light a candle….

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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