How Canada once led the way in religious freedom

Religious toleration was written into Canada’s constitution (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

In this year of looking back, many on both sides of the Atlantic might think that there is nothing of great religious significance in the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, to be marked on July 1, 2017. Perhaps its inclusion here is just special pleading by a Canadian writer?

Not so. Canada’s history is often told as the working out of French and English colonial competition in the frozen half of North America, a sort of sideshow to the main event of the American Revolution. Canada has not had the impact on world affairs of that revolution, but its own development constitutes a distinctive history of religious pluralism, toleration and liberty.

After the battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, when Britain took Quebec from France, the British Crown was faced with a problem: how to rule across the Atlantic over a vastly more numerous French population? The usual telling of the tale emphasises the difference in language and culture and law, but of monumental importance was the question of religion. Catholicism in the 1760s was illegal in Britain, and would remain so for decades more. Could the same laws be applied in Quebec, enforced by a small British colonial administration?

Early on, in the Royal Proclamation on 1763, King George III indicated that the British persecution of Catholicism would not be the policy across the seas. Codified in the Quebec Act 1774, the British Crown would respect in Quebec the language, culture, law (civil code) and religion of the French majority, including Catholic education. What was illegal under the British crown at home was permitted abroad. When these provisions were guaranteed in the British North America Act 1867 – by which the Canadian Confederation was achieved – religious toleration and pluralism were written into Canada’s constitution.

It was hardly magnanimity on the part of George III. He knew that he could not enforce Britain’s own anti-Catholic laws in Quebec without provoking rebellion. More to the immediate point, toleration for Catholics in Quebec might make them less likely to join any revolution from the south. That, in fact, was the case, as Quebec declined to fight alongside the American revolutionaries, in large part because the Americans had listed the Quebec Act as one of the “intolerable acts” of George III, on the grounds that a good Protestant king should not be tolerating popery.

The religious pluralism permitted in Quebec in the 1760s was more than what was permitted in Britain itself at the time. And even if it were a grudging concession to political reality, the precedent was established. The Crown could respect the practice of a different religion as a matter of law and practical application.

Hence the resolution of the 1759 battle for Quebec in favour of the French population being able to maintain their religion, language, education and civil law was a major step forward in the world’s development of religious freedom. No longer did the king’s religion need to determine that of his people, as had been established by the resolution of the wars of religion. It is true that the American Bill of Rights (1789) would soon enshrine religious liberty in its new constitution, but the reality was different in daily life.

Recall that Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the fierce Irish nationalist who was the most prominent English-speaking Catholic father of confederation, had first travelled to Boston, seeking to emancipate himself from living in 19th-century Montreal under the British Crown. He was shocked to find Catholics in Boston living under all sorts of official discrimination, while Catholics in Montreal had more ample civil rights as a result of the Quebec Act. He would return to Canada to advocate for a new country.

McGee, one of the great orators of the confederation period, delivered his maiden speech in the new House of Commons in Ottawa on November 14, 1867. He made then a bold, but defensible, claim: “So far as I know this is the first constitution ever given to a mixed people, in which the conscientious rights of the minority are made subject of a formal guarantee …

“A guarantee by which we have carried the principle of equal and reciprocal toleration a step farther in Canada than it has yet been carried in any other free government – American or European.”

It was an innovation in constitutional law, that the rights of religious minorities would be respected communally, not only as individuals but acting together as required by the practice of religion, from houses of worship to the corporal works of mercy, and above all, education. That principle, enshrined in the confederation acts of 1867, is worthy of celebration today, and of defending too – in Canada and abroad.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the June 23 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here