Citizenship and Religion explored in Canada

May 24, 2017
Representatives of the Baha’i community Gerald Filson (second from left) and Geoffrey Cameron (right) stand with steering committee members at the “Our Whole Society: Religion and Citizenship at Canada’s 150th,” including Elizabeth May (second from right), leader of the Green Party.

OTTAWA, Canada — As the people of Canada prepare to celebrate 150 years since the confederation of their country, there has been a wide-ranging national conversation about the past, present, and future of relations between its diverse citizens. One aspect of this discussion has been the changing role of religion and spirituality in society in the context of increasing religious and ethnic diversity and a resurgence of Indigenous culture and ways of life.

Over the last several years, the Baha'i community has spearheaded an initiative to bring together leading thinkers from all sectors of society to explore the place of religion in public life. A question before Canada's Baha'i Office of Public Affairs has been how to create a space for meaningful exploration, where a variety of insights can shed light on a topic and collective understanding can advance.

A series of conferences held since 2013 in Montreal, Vancouver, and this year in Ottawa have aimed to foster such an environment and have invited prominent voices in Canada's public discourse to examine religion's role in society.

In his opening remarks to this year’s conference in Ottawa from 8–9 May 2017, Geoffrey Cameron, representative of the Baha’i Community of Canada and chair of the program committee, said “This is a special conference that exists as a kind of ongoing conversation. It draws from Canada’s national interfaith networks, but it is not an interfaith conference in a conventional sense.”

He continued: "What we want to do is help to frame an ongoing public conversation about the role of religion in Canadian society."

Yasmin Ratansi (left), the first female Muslim Member of Parliament, sits with MPs John McKay (middle) and Garnett Genuis (right) at the conference in Ottawa on the role of religion in Canadian society. Slideshow
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Yasmin Ratansi (left), the first female Muslim Member of Parliament, sits with MPs John McKay (middle) and Garnett Genuis (right) at the conference in Ottawa on the role of religion in Canadian society.

"One of the questions that for us has been at the heart of this conversation is how the growing diversity of our population can be a resource for acting together," noted Gerald Filson, Director of Public Affairs for the Baha'i Community of Canada and former Chair of the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, which sponsored the event.

"As Canada has become more religiously diverse, there has been an expectation that the public sphere should be secular, that overtly religious perspectives should not have a place in public discourse. While the intention of that kind of secularism has historically been to ensure greater equality between religious groups in public life, many have expressed concern that it also constrains people from participating fully in the life of society," said Mr. Cameron.

Professor John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law, observed in his keynote address to the conference, "There is a danger of replacing one kind of (religious) exclusivity with another kind of secular exclusivity, which can trap us in a singular narrative and banish valuable vocabularies of compassion."

"Ideas must be placed in comparison and contrast to others. When I recognize my own views are partial I am open to expand my understanding," he continued. "As each wave of peoples joins our society, their stories need to be added to our stock of stories."

Andrew Bennett, former Ambassador for Religious Freedom, added that so long as diverse religious and ethical views are advanced peacefully and in respect of human dignity, they have a place in our pluralistic society.

A key theme at the conference was about the role of spiritual concepts and language in the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and the implications of that process for the role of spirituality in public life. "Reconciliation is a spiritual conversation about our shared humanity and the kind of society we want to create for tomorrow," said Karen Joseph, CEO of the civil society group Reconciliation Canada. "Reconciliation is a way of life. It is a spiritual covenant."

A major contribution made by philosopher and writer John Ralston Saul in his keynote address was that the approach to integrating religious diversity in Canada does not have to be defined by the perspectives on secularism that emerged in the context of 18th century France. "We have the opportunity to have a whole new conversation," he said. "We have to ask where we are, why do we belong here, and what are our obligations to each other."

"We can't move forward while talking within a tradition of thought that is designed to eliminate difference. I believe that a gathering around spirituality is a gathering that recognizes complexity," Mr. Saul continued.

The conference concluded with a panel discussion on Parliament Hill, bringing together Members of Parliament from three political parties, including Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party, and Yasmin Ratansi, Canada's first female Muslim MP.

"Our aim with the conference was to show that it is possible to enrich our national public discourse by including a variety of religious and secular voices in conversation with each other," reflected Mr. Cameron. "Now we have to extend this discourse into other spaces, bringing the same commitment to mutual understanding and cooperation."

The series of "Our Whole Society" conferences have engaged about 500 participants, and are sponsored by the members of the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, including the Baha'i Community of Canada, in partnership with the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, Faith in Canada 150, and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.