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Church-State Relations in Canada and JIE GUI ('connecting of rails')

Remarks by the Hon. David Kilgour

MP (Edmonton Southeast) & Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific)

at a Roundtable for Members of a Delegation on Religious Affairs

from the People’s Republic of China

Ottawa, Canada , 17 February 2003

Your Excellency, Director General, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a privilege to have been asked to host this roundtable. I hope that from our time together and your remaining days in this country you will not only better understand the dynamics of church-state relations, but have a good sense of just how important our faith communities and freedom of religion is to the long term social  well-being of Canadians generally.  It goes without saying that Canadians can learn much about the 5000-year-old civilization that is China; perhaps this is an area where our experiences might be of interest to modern China.

Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms in our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but, perhaps more importantly, our courts are mandated to ensure that this principle is not violated. In more practical terms, however, some would say that it is equally important that no municipal government across Canada levies any taxes on property used as places of worship.  There is also the legislated rule that anyone donating to a registered faith organization can obtain an income tax deduction.1*  Another which might interest you is that it is now established by our courts that parents cannot rely on their religious convictions to deny children necessary medical treatment.

Jie Gui

We might all keep in mind today the concept of "Jie Gui"or the "connecting of rails." As China's markets, regions and peoples open up to the world following your accession to the WTO, you will face new pressures. This reality, taken in the context of "Jie Gui", will have a less destabilizing effect if China can connect well to the methods and cultures of other friendly countries, including Canada. Our nation has something important to share with respect to positive relations between faith communities and governments.

Senator Lois Wilson's Council of Churches delegation concluded after its visit to China in 1999 that "there has been considerable progress in China towards protecting the rights of religious believers and religious freedom since the cultural revolution." Nien Cheng's book about that period, Life and Death in Shanghai, had a powerful effect on many readers, so I was surprised to find recently when entering the term "persecution of Christians in China" on my Google search engine that fully 46,300 entries appeared. Some of the items I read were deeply dismaying. For "persecution of Muslims in China", there were 19,500 entries; for Buddhists, 7400; for Falun Gong, about which there seems to be a media story almost weekly in our media, 54,700. Canadians have great difficulty in comprehending the desire of any government to suppress legitimate religious or quasi-spiritual activities.

The Canadian experience has been that religious believers, celebrating and living their faiths, make -- with some well-publicized exceptions-- enormous contributions to societal well-being. Some of the reasons are well-documented. For example, research indicates that Canadians who attend weekly religious services report having happier, less stressful lives than others. Frequent service attenders report less depression, shorter stays in hospitals, and less abuse of alcohol. Regular attendees are more likely to volunteer time and to establish charities. Among the 70,000 registered charities across Canada today, more than 40%, or 32,000, are faith-based. Regular goers to religious services account for about half of all hours volunteered across the country. Those who regularly attend faith services provide 42% of the donations received by direct giving to non-religious charities. In short, women and men who maintain a spiritual sense of themselves contribute positively to their communities across Canada and probably everywhere else, including China.

A friend who spent his youth in Hong Kong before coming to Canada reminded me recently that many immigrants to Canada from China become active members of religious organizations here soon after they arrive. Churches continue to flourish in Hong Kong, he noted, adding that during the 1930s and 1940s all 13 universities then functioning on the mainland had been founded by missionaries. Bishop Zen, Hong Kong’s current Catholic Bishop, has many admirers across Canada. Faith communities in Hong Kong continue to provide a range of needed educational, health and social welfare services.  Human dignity is a key to religious activism in Hong Kong and everywhere else. 

Church-State Relations

Canada and our national, provincial and municipal governments are founded to a considerable degree upon liberty of religious belief. In practice, the freedom to act upon one's beliefs cannot be absolute; it is subject even in open societies to such limitations as are necessary to protect the rights of others. As someone put it, "Your freedom to swing a baseball bat stops at the point where it reaches my nose".  Our legislators and courts have attempted to strike a reasonable balance, particularly in an increasingly diverse religious country, where  we've welcomed newcomers of all faiths (or none).  I might add that in one recent census, only 15% of Canadians indicated no religious affiliation, which presumably means that the rest of us do see ourselves as part of one or more of our faith families.

What many observers miss is the enormous contribution that religious communities have made to the nature and shape of Canada today. Long before Confederation in 1867, faith bodies assumed key roles in establishing educational, health, and other agencies of public service. The generally positive working relationship between church and state has created much of our institutional and social infrastructure and no doubt helped us become the number one country on the United Nations Human Development Index six years in row until recently. Three components of the UN survey, health, education and welfare, are all fields in which religious Canadians have been active for more than a century. 

Consider only a few of the contributions that some representative faith communities made and are making within Canada and abroad.

Roman Catholics

Catholics have cared for many of our citizens, educated our children, and improved the lives of many Canadians for centuries. Today, the denomination represents almost half of our population. The largest gathering of Canadians in our entire history— 800,000-1.2 million, depending on the estimate took place in Toronto last summer when Pope John-Paul celebrated the final mass at World Youth Day. 

Catholics continue to influence primary, secondary and post-secondary education in major ways. There are currently 19 Catholic universities and colleges across Canada. Many of our public universities, moreover, were founded as Catholic institutions, including St. Francis Xavier and St. Mary's, both in Nova Scotia, and Laval University and many others in the province of Quebec. Catholics are active in policy and curriculum development on school boards across Canada. In some provinces, including my own province of Alberta, large Catholic school systems operate alongside public ones.

Catholics impacted the development of our health care systems profoundly. Many hospitals and health organizations across Canada are affiliated with the denomination. For example, the Providence Health Care organization delivers care, teaching and research at eight locations in British Columbia. Many health care centres across the rest of Canada are Catholic. St. Michael's hospital in Toronto, for instance, was founded in 1892 by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The Grey Nuns Hospital in southeast Edmonton is one of many others. Many believe that it was devout and caring sisters who laid the foundation for health care excellence in Canada and in other countries where they served.


Protestants of various denominations constitute Canada's second largest Christian grouping, accounting for approximately 36% of our population. They have also helped make modern Canada what it is today. 

Protestant denominations influenced Canada particularly deeply in the field of higher education. Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, for example, was founded by what is now the Presbyterian Church. The University of Toronto was founded by John Strachan, the first Anglican bishop of the city, who as an educator and religious leader helped shaped education practices. Egerton Ryerson , a Methodist who began preaching as a young man in the 1820's, was later appointed superintendent of education for Canada West (Ontario).His work led to its School Act (1871), which created universal education and became a model for much of English-speaking Canada. 

Protestants have been active in numerous service organizations. The Young Men's And Young Women's Christian Associations ( YMCA and YWCA), for example, began as institutions for Christians, but grew into ones open to persons of all ages and faiths. Today, many provide recreational facilities, housing for the homeless, children's summer camps, and employment programs. An estimated 1.5 million Canadians participate in and benefit from YMCA programs and services alone annually currently, with about 30,000 volunteers donating a million hours of time each year in support.

The Christian churches have not been alone in helping mould Canada’s social union. As our population becomes more heterogeneous, other faith communities have flourished, helping motivate Canadians to be better citizens generally. 


Judaism has also long been a proud contributor to the Canadian mosaic; its members have worked to educate and to help Canadians of all cultural backgrounds, and have worked to combat all kinds of racism everywhere in Canada. B’Nai Brith has been an active charity and human rights body in Canada since 1875.  The Canadian Jewish Congress based in Montreal, similarly, has long worked to help define Canada's legal and social framework to make us a more inclusive society. Examples include advocating better and more inclusive education and social policies. Mt. Sinai hospital in Toronto is one of our best-regarded health care institutions. Similarly, Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital accepts patients and employees from all religious backgrounds.


Although relatively young among Canada's faith communities, Muslims have already contributed much to nation-building as well. In my home city of Edmonton, North America's first mosque was built in December of 1938. Islam is one of our fastest growing religions, with a community that already numbers approximately 700,000 members. The community also provides aid and humanitarian support. The public services of members in this city alone include hospital visits to patients wishing visits of any or no faith and summer camps for children. Each mosque member must donate 21/2 % of their net salary to the poor and orphans.


Sikhs have contributed much to the development of Canadian society. Now almost 400,000 in numbers, there are more than 100 Gurdwaras across Canada. Many thousands of volunteers work in food banks, organise blood drives, and contribute to the well-being of local communities. To honour Sikh contributions, our government last year released a postage stamp honouring the community.

Good Citizenship

Most regrettably, I can’t mention all religions, not the least of which include Canada’s substantial Hindu and Buddhist communities.  Nevertheless, hopefully this brief survey illustrates how, in a largely unregulated environment, it's been our experience over the decades that religious communities contribute much to the well-being of Canadians generally. The key point is that allowing for the freedom of religious beliefs and actively encouraging communities of people to free their souls and express their beliefs together encourages them to be good and caring citizens. 

Our open political system also enables Canadians to influence public policy formation.  Members of various faith communities are often invited to testify in front of parliamentary committees.  Examples are evident in the formation of foreign, refugee, health, social and immigration policy, to name only a few.  In all cases, their political views, necessarily nurtured by their respective faiths, have a direct impact on how we, as legislators, pass Canada’s laws.   In our experience, allowing for the open and free expression of one’s religious beliefs has allowed Canadians of different religious backgrounds, who often have very different opinions, to find common ground.

This approach in my mind will be of great importance everywhere in the new century. Whether some like it or not, the power of religious faiths to move people in many parts of the world is increasing rapidly.  Indeed, it is the God-is-dead advocates who seem to be on life support in many lands. Few, if any, political philosophies today have the same appeal for large numbers of men and women. As a result, we will need to explore common paths of understanding between faiths in an open and honest manner. 

One author, Philip Jenkins, recently made a number of interesting points about this world-wide phenomenon from a Christian perspective. By 2050, he estimates that about a third of the world's population will be Christian, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with about three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide. For China, he thinks the best estimate is about 60 million Christians by 2050 compared to perhaps 50 million today.


In closing, I salute the stated goals of your delegation. You have a good opportunity to learn much about Canadians from this visit, including the strong faith practices of many Canadians of origin in China. One Chinese Baptist church in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, evidently has a membership of 14,000 adults and an annual budget of $2.5 million. 

China is already one of the most influential countries in the world, economically and politically. In dealing with the pressures that this brings, "Jie Gui" can be of enormous help and importance to China. Canada is here as a partner and a friend. 

Thank you.


1*. My own congregation in West Ottawa illustrates this point and the transparency of our religious communities.  The tax deduction encourages our 175 members to donate about $142,000 yearly to our local church, which sends $20,500 to our national church, which receives about $9 million yearly from all its local churches.  That total is spent in areas which include inner city, First Nations and refugee ministries; 43 overseas personnel in 20 countries and international partnerships on aid with churches around the world.  Thousands of other local churches, synagogues, mosques, Gurdwaras, pagodas, and temples across Canada no doubt do likewise with their own national bodies.

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