Piecing together the Canadian Church

Americans walking the streets of a Canadian city can easily feel at home.

Assuming the American isn’t in Quebec City or Montreal, the language will sound familiar, American movies play at the multiplex, and American franchises occupy the shopping malls and commercial streets. (The Toronto Blue Jays were ready to make a credible run at the World Series this year, but now they’re just another American League also-ran.)

Little differences will show up here and there: red mailboxes, bilingual labels on products, speed limits posted in kilometers per hour and multicolored money. An observant American, over time, would notice other differences — a Westminster parliamentary democracy that operated without benefit of a written Constitution before 1984, and direct government funding to religious hospitals, schools and social services.

Real differences, though, often are overlooked because we don’t know our history. Or maybe Canadians and Americans have swallowed whole versions of history that are deliberately blind to religion.

Most Americans have grown up believing in the secular, Jeffersonian origins of their country. This telling of U.S. history justifies extreme separation of church and state in the most religious country in the West.

On the other hand, Canadians accept a version of their history written almost exclusively in economic terms. The country’s origins in the fur trade and the Grand Banks fishery off the coast of Newfoundland — evolving through the Canadian National Railway — sent manufactured goods from east to west in exchange for wheat and natural resources moving west to east.

But Americans and Canadians will never understand themselves or each other without removing the blind spots from the rearview mirror. A second look shows us the role religion played in our countries.

First Nations

First, let’s bypass that Grade 6 notion that America starts with a Revolution in 1776, or that Canada was created by the British Parliament in 1867. Certainly an America existed before Paul Revere woke up the minutemen for the battle of Lexington. And there were centuries of nation building before Sir John A. Macdonald persuaded Queen Victoria to grant Canadians a sort of limited home rule in 1867.

For 10,000 years before anyone conceived of countries in North America, people resided on the continent. They spoke hundreds of languages and raised their children in rich cultures. All that was crushed, then banished from memory by Europe’s colonial ambitions.

Except that those people are still there. They were not only the “first nations” of North America but are today the First Nations of Canada. The Canadian Constitution recognizes Native Canadians as one of its three founding peoples, along with the English and French.

With the beatification of St. Kateri Tekakwitha last year, Catholics on both sides of the border are becoming increasingly aware that their heritage includes the complex and sometimes painful history of an encounter between Europe and an array of First Peoples.

Conquerors vs. martyrs

By looking at religion, we discover how the fundamental differences between Americans and Canadians are built into our cultural DNA. British colonial ambitions that gave birth to the United States began with the Reformation. French and Spanish colonies in Canada and Mexico were the jewels of the Counter-Reformation.

Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and declared America a new “City upon a Hill.” Jesuits led the way into the heart of New France dreaming of a new, Christian kingdom of Wendat Native people centered at Sainte Marie, on the shore of Lake Huron.

“Here we have nothing that incites toward good. We are among peoples who are astonished when you speak to them of God,” St. Jean de Brebeuf wrote to his Jesuit brothers in France in 1635. And he was writing to entice young Jesuits to join him.

Where the British Protestants came to conquer, subdue and build, French Catholics came seeking martyrdom.

It would be wrong to imagine that somehow Gen. James Wolfe’s victory over the French forces of General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham in 1775 immediately changed the character of Canada. From that point forward the British and their Protestant crown ruled, but most of the country was still just as French and Catholic as Cardinal Richelieu had intended when he backed Samuel de Champlain’s colonial project in the 1620s.

The Quebec Act of 1774 recognized that the British could not remake Canada in its own, Protestant image. In Quebec, which was then the majority of Canada, the Napoleonic code, French language and French institutions would prevail. Canada became the one place in the British Empire where it was legal to be Catholic.

Separate reality

In the United States, Catholics became fearsome bogeymen after the American Revolution. The American version of such Enlightenment ideals as the rights of man were proposed as the opposite of Catholic fear of democracy and papal defense of the rights of kings. By the mid-19th century the Know-Nothings made fear of Catholics a driving force in U.S. politics.

Stir into that mix millennial dreams of the end of the world. American Protestantism hosted waves of Great Awakenings beginning in the 1720s. In the 19th century, the second Great Awakening threw the country into a kind of fever.

American Catholicism grew up in the shadow of this passionate, politicized, pugnacious Protestantism. Catholic immigrants felt doubly excluded by American nativism and American Protestantism.

While American Catholics were trying to get into the mainstream, Canada’s French and Métis Catholics were trying to carve out a separate reality. Canadian Catholics demanded their own schools, built their own hospitals and kept their heads down.

When the Second World War was over, both Canada and the United States entered new chapters in their histories. America had a new relationship with the rest of the world. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was the virtual emperor of Japan and the Marshall Plan was setting the stage for an anti-communist European Union.

Canada was part of America’s big Western alliance. Canadian soldiers fought in Korea. But what mattered in Canadian Catholicism was not so much communism as immigration. Waves of European immigration transformed the Canadian Church.

Shift in influence

Because most of the immigrants sought their fortune in the English-speaking cities of Toronto, Windsor, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, the new Catholic immigrants also changed the once Quebec-dominated Catholic Church in Canada.

Victoria Canada
A Canadian flag flies at sunset in Victoria, British Columbia. Courtesy of Michael Swan

By the 1960s, the Church in English Canada had a voice. Men such as Archbishop Philip Pocock of Toronto; Bishop John Sherlock of London, Ontario; Bishop Alexander Carter of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; his brother, Archbishop Gerald Emmett Carter of Toronto; and Cardinal George Flahiff of Winnipeg came back from the Second Vatican Council determined to remake not just the Church but society.

Meanwhile, in Quebec the Church lost its grip on a people no longer satisfied with keeping their heads down and relying on priests to protect them from the Anglo-Protestant threat. Church attendance in Quebec fell to European levels beginning in the 1970s.

Quebec’s bishops convened the Dumont Commission, which spoke of the Church’s role in proposing and not imposing a vision of society. But it was too late. The young, the couples, the families were already out the door. Today few Quebeckers are wed in a church, nor do they return to baptize their few children.

In English Canada, church attendance generally resembles attendance in the United States. Higher rates of participation exist among conservative evangelicals and Pentecostals; attendance plummets among liberal, mainline Protestants; and Catholic attendance is buoyed by waves of immigration.

Canadians often have held high the notion that their country is a mosaic rather than a melting pot similar to that found to its south. Secular in the best sense of the word, the mosaic is the common ground on which every collective of citizens may meet and persuade fellow citizens. Canadians came for martyrdom and became witnesses. 

Michael Swan is associate editor of the Catholic Register. He writes from Toronto.