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La prière au Parlement canadien

The practice of opening daily sittings of legislative assemblies in Canada with prayer has deep historical roots, originating in Westminster parliamentary traditions. It is believed that the practice was first adopted by the British Parliament in 1558, during the reign of Elizabeth I, and prayer has been a part of daily proceedings in the Canadian Parliament since 1877. The practice was codified into the Standings Orders in 1927.

At the federal level, both the House of Commons and the Senate begin daily sittings with the speaker reading a standard ‘non-denominational’ prayer, with the custom being that it is delivered in a blend of English and French. A moment of silence follows the prayer, after which time the galleries are opened, the first item of business is called, and television coverage begins. The exclusion of the public and lack of recording mirrors the British practice, which is intended to reflect the ‘private nature’ of prayer.

There is considerable variation in practices across provincial and territorial legislatures, with differences reflecting historical and cultural contexts. In the Yukon, the Speaker reads one of four standard prayers. In the Northwest Territories the Speaker may deliver a prayer, or ask a member to deliver one of their own devising, which has occasionally included a ‘drum prayer.’ In Nunavut, a member is asked to deliver a prayer of their own devising. In British Columbia (BC), sittings open with a member delivering a ‘prayer or reflection’ of their own devising. In Alberta, the Speaker reads a prayer of their own devising. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Speaker reads a standard ‘non-denominational’ prayer, and in Manitoba, this is followed by an ‘Indigenous Land Acknowledgement.’ In Ontario, the Speaker reads the Lord’s Prayer, followed by the reading of a prayer from a rotating schedule “reflecting Indigenous, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i and Sikh faiths.”

In Quebec, sitting of the National Assembly begins with a quiet ‘moment of reflection’ – the practice of opening sittings with prayer was abolished in 1976. In Prince Edward Island, a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) reads separately a Christian prayer for the King, the Legislature, and the Lord’s Prayer. A similar practice is followed in New Brunswick, but prayers are offered in French, English, or a blend of the two. In Nova Scotia, the daily sessions begin with a ‘Moment of Reflection.’ Sessions of the legislature of Newfoundland and Labrador have never opened with prayer.

While the prayers included in legislatures that have standard prayers tend to be overtly Christian, studies have examined the religiosity and content of prayers when MLAs are given the opportunity to craft their own prayers. In 2019, the BC Humanist Association, a secular advocacy organization, published a study of prayers delivered in the BC Legislature between 2003 and 2019 (873 prayers). They found that 71.2% were of prayers were religious, and where the religion could be identified, 93.1% were identified as Christian. In a subsequent study, following updates to procedures relating to prayers in the BC Legislature (described above), 70.4% of prayers and reflections delivered between 2003 and 2020 (974 prayers) were religious, and where the religion could be identified, 94.1% were identified as Christian. This study found that the procedural changes did reduce the amount of religious content in prayers and reflections, but argued that these changes do not address the issue that opening meetings with prayer is an exclusionary practice.

Controversies surrounding legislative prayers in Canada are not recent phenomena. Instances of opposition date back to the 1960s, when Ontario MPP Elmer Sopha raised objections to the practice, and again in 2008, when Premier Dalton McGuinty abolished the practice, with the subsequent ‘controversy’ resulting in the current practices in that legislature. Objections to the practice have also been raised by MLAs in various provinces, including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and by civil society organizations in Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. Objections tend to frame Canada as a diverse and secular nation, and they highlight the importance of ensuring that legislatures are welcoming to all regardless of belief, or lack thereof, and that including prayer in legislatures excludes and discriminates.

References and additional readings here.

D 9 janvier 2024    ATeale Phelps Bondaroff

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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