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Confederation to Second World War

After 1840, the British North American colonies were granted more and more independent political structures, leading eventually in 1867 to the Confederation of most of them, and the beginning of modern-day Canada as we know it today. The British North America (BNA) Act, which created what was then later called the Dominion of Canada contained a significant clause regarding religion: article 93 guaranteed that publicly funded, already legislatively established religious minority schools (namely either Protestant or Roman Catholic) in any of the provinces had, in effect, a constitutional guarantee to such public support. The effect of this article is that in certain of these provinces, notable the largest one, Ontario, even today, the state supports a separate Roman Catholic school system beside the national one, but such public support is denied to any other set of what today are called ’faith-based’ schools.

The latter part of the 19th century also witnessed, first, the progress union of the diverse Presbyterian (1875) and Methodist (1884) churches so that each had, for the most part (the small historical black churches, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, were excluded), only one national denominational organization. Second, however, the era witnessed the consistent growth of these dominant churches such that, by the time of the 1891 census, over 90% of the entire Canadian population professed to belong to one of them: they were Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Roman Catholic; with all other denominations, churches, and religious identities constituting the remaining 10%.

The post-Confederation period was also highly consequential for the Indigenous peoples of Canada. In 1876, the new Dominion passed the Indian Act which, among other provisions, prohibited most Aboriginal religious practices such as Sun Dance, Potlatch, or Sweat Lodge; provided for the expansion of Indian Residential Schools, whose aim was to Christianize and ’civilize’ Aboriginal children. The aim was to eliminate Indigenous cultures, if not Indigenous people. The school system, in particular, was greatly elaborated thereafter; and these schools were largely run by churches, especially Roman Catholic, Anglican, and (later) the United Churches.
As in other parts of the Western world, the late nineteenth century saw the birth of a number of new Christian developments, in particular, the rise of the Holiness movement in the form of such bodies as the Nazarenes and the Salvation Army; and then around 1906 and even a bit before, the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement in Canada. The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, still the largest Pentecostal body in the country, was formed in 1918. In many cases, and for many decades, the mainline churches, both Protestant and Catholic, looked askance at these movements; and this negative attitude very much included the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who in the 1930s and 1940s, struggled greatly for toleration, especially in Quebec; in the process, they were coincidentally instrumental in seeing the Supreme Court of Canada develop its powers as the highest judicial body in the country.

Such religious conflict or tension was not unique to the situation with Christian sectarians. Throughout the post-Confederation period, Canada was very much divided along Protestant/Catholic lines, a division that, in spite of the many English-speaking Catholics throughout the country, was more or less considered by the majority as coterminous with the English/French divide. The tension manifested itself in a number of ways, not the least of which was, on the occasion of the 1885 Northwest rebellion by French-speaking Métis against the expansionary politics of Canada into what had until 1871 been under the formal jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company (somewhat parallel to the role of the East India Company in South Asia), and the subsequent execution of their leader, Louis Riel; also, when in 1917 the Ontario government adopted Regulation 17, which sought to abolish French language schools, but was just as much an anti-Catholic policy.

Among the dominant Protestant mainline, the most significant development of the earlier 20th century was the 1925 founding of United Church of Canada, which gathers almost all Methodists, Congregationalists, and the larger part of Presbyterians to constitute what remains today the single largest Protestant denomination in Canada, and a church that has throughout its history thought of itself as the most national church.

The late 19th and pre-World War I 20th century was, in percentage terms, the period of the most significant immigration to Canada in its history. From 1891 to 1911, the population increased from 4.8 to 7.2 million, a jump of 50% in two decades. The increased population from abroad brought yet more unprecedented religious and cultural diversity to the country. Significant, if small numbers, of non-Christian people from Asia and especially Jews and Eastern Christians from east and southeast Europe joined the ever-growing number of mainline Christians in their increasing internal variety. This diversity in the immigration was, however, not without controversy, and a dominant vision that saw the country as exclusively white and Christian (not to say British) resulted in the progressive restriction of the ’non-white’ immigration after 1885, a process that formally culminated in the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, commonly known as the Exclusion Act, which effectively barred entry to anyone from Asia, not to mention any non-whites from other parts of the world, including the United States. Significantly, Jews were not included in this negative impulse in any consistent way, and thus Jewish migration was significant in this period, and consisted largely of Eastern European Ashkenazim.

D 20 June 2017    APeter Beyer

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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