Wednesday, April 20, 2011

For Canada's Sake

Miedema, Gary R. For Canada’s Sake: Public Religion, Centennial Celebrations, and the Remaking of Canada in the 1960s. Montreal; Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

During the 1960s and 1970s Canada's population was changing. Since the end of the Second World War an increasing number of Canadians of non-English and non-French backgrounds had immigrated to Canada. In addition, with the beginning of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, the policies of which began to be implemented in 1960, nationalist fuelled demands for greater French-Canadian/Quebec representation in both the federal government and Canadian society at large was emphasizing the inappropriate character of  Canada's traditional national imagery. Those who are not culturally or ethnically connected to Canada’s British past not only felt alienated from their own country, as had many non-British Canadians before them, but as an extension of the environment of protest of the 1960s, those non-British elements of the Canadian population felt increasingly free to and justified in voicing their displeasure at how their country represented them and itself to Canadians and the rest of the world. No longer willing to disengage from or appropriate alien British institutions and symbols, the attitude of Canada's increasingly pluralistic population was creating a crisis for Canada’s traditional institutions, especially federal government institutions.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the federal government attempted to reconnect with Canadians who felt that it did not legitimately represent their interests, values, or culture. In order to try and reintegrate French-Canadians into Canadian public life, the Pearson Government formed the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963. In  1965 the colonial red Ensign was replaced by a new Canadian flag that was devoid of particular cultural references. In 1969 the French language is made, not simply an official language of the federal government, but an official language of Canada. Possibly most significant, however, was the in 1971 rejection by the federal government of the notion that any culture or cultures was/were any more Canadian than another. All of these policies were designed to allow the greatest number of Canadians to identify with the federal government and to believe that Ottawa acted in the best interests of all Canadians and not just particular ethnic, cultural, linguistic groups. Although all of these changes to how the country represented itself had both supporters and detractors, the Liberal governments of the day which instituted these changes argued that they were necessary in order to maintain the unity of the country. While non-British and non-French minority groups viewed the findings of the Royal commission on bilingualism biculturalism to be alienating, and while some Canadians of British ancestry wanted to maintain symbolic connections to Great Britain, the Pearson and then Trudeau governments recognized that not introducing new, more inclusive ways of representing the country, threatened the country’s very future.

With both changes being implemented concerning the identity of the Canadian state, and some are revolutionary changes being implemented in a Quebec, where the Quiet Revolution saw the end to many of the traditional roles played by the Catholic Church beyond offering religious rites and guidance, the Canadian and Quebec states became noticeably secular.  Catholicism no longer played a significant role in Quebec nationalism, replaced by language and a broadly defined culture and ethnicity.  Canada, which had maintained an overtly Christian, if not Protestant, orientation, supported by links to the British monarchy and the position of the sovereign as head of the Church of England, now divested itself of all religious affiliation except in the most inclusive  terms. As Gary Miedema argues in his 2005 book For Canada's Sake, the secularization of Canadian society in the 1960s, while designed to respond to the needs and demands of an increasingly diverse Canadian population, also forced Canada's mainline Christian churches (Anglican, United, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic) to engage with that pluralism and find new ways of engaging with Canadians and maintain their relevance to large sections of the population. Recognizing Canada's centennial celebrations as having been both a testing ground and display of new elements of Canada and Quebec's national identity, Miedema's book examines how Canada's major churches publicly displayed and celebrated religion during that year and how they used their involvement in centennial celebrations to shape a new position for themselves in a post-Christian Canada.

Miedema argues that, although Ottawa and Quebec were attempting to secularize government so as to be more inclusive, both recognized that Canada was in practice still understood by many Canadians to be a Christian nation. The governments' understood that the churches could still influence public opinion, and thus, those churches were actively encouraged to participate in Canada's centennial festivities and be involved in the necessary secularization of the state. This participation in the changes which were occurring within Canada could be seen in the various religious pavilions found at Expo 67, in the national prayer services on Dominion Day in 1967, and the Canadian Interfaith Conference, an association initiated by the Canadian government which brought together most Canadian organized religions to plan common religious events for the centennial year. Recognizing their declining attendance rates, their dwindling financial resources, their decreasing influence over government policy (such as immigration policy, which was changed in 1967 to be less culturally discriminatory), the churches embraced participation in Canada's centennial celebrations so as to be seen as legitimate and valuable participants in discussions over Canada's national identity, and to attempt to convince skeptical Canadians that Christianity was not irrelevant to either their lives or the nation.

As Miedema explains, the churches attempted to both be seen as relevant to Canadians and legitimate participants in the development of a new Canada through both cooperating and trying to find new common means of engaging modern Canadians. While the Anglican and United Churches were openly discussing union, and the post-Second Vatican Council Catholic Church was willing to work with other denominations, the country's major churches began working to find an ecumenical common ground. Their common targets were modern Canadians who were skeptical of authority, individualistic, and, as the churches believed, increasingly interested in material rather than spiritual matters. Recognizing such increasingly secular Canadians as being free-thinkers, the churches attempted to interest Canadians in Christian topics in a manner which fit the new, humanist-orientation of Canadian society and government. However, as Miedema explains, such attempts to be inclusive and avoid an authoritarian stance usually resulted in watered-down Christian events which attracted few new converts and caused the state, which supported such efforts, to be seen as less religiously inclusive and pluralistic in outlook than government officials often claimed.

The first example of church participation in Canada's centennial celebrations which Miedema explores is the Canadian Interfaith Conference. This arms-length state institution, while designed to coordinate and integrate various faith-based activities during 1967, was not as inclusive or equally representative as the government had initially hoped. In addition to failing to secure the participation of Quebec's Roman Catholic Church, the mainline Christian churches were able to hold more negotiating power in the conference than other religious groups. Designed to act as a coordinating body for the participation of organized religions in Centennial celebrations, and as a resource centre on particular and ecumenical   religious matters for Centennial participants, the Conference of thirty-three different religious organizations had a distinctly Christian bias. One example was the ecumenical National Prayer Service which, while striving to be inclusive, appeared to many to simply be inclusively non-doctrinally Christian in orientation and content. Another was the Conference's Centennial Anthology of Prayer which consisted of "neutral" biblical passages that emphasized particular themes which were shared by all of Canada's religions, but which were expressed in obviously Christian language.

The Canadian Corporation for the World Expo, the government institution which organized and managed Expo 67, encouraged Canada's Christian churches and other organized religions to participate in the fair, engage in an interfaith dialogue, and demonstrate how they were participating in a new, pluralistic, and inclusive Canada. However, following the lead of the Canadian pavilion, the Canadian Christian pavilion failed to discuss existing cultural and ethnic tensions in Canada, but instead focused upon the broader and less divisive theme of the human condition and the role religion could play in bettering people's lives. Furthermore, while initially envisioned as a single multi-faith pavilion, Canada's mainline churches refused to collaborate with other religions in presenting a single pavilion of Canada's religions. Furthermore, with the assistance of the Canadian Corporation for the World Expo, the mainline churches were also able to exclude Canadian evangelical churches. Ironically, the mainline churches argued that such evangelical "sects" contravened the inclusive character of the pavilion and the fair since they emphasized conversion and argued that the Bible must be taken literally. 

With the multifaith pavilion renamed "The Christian Pavilion" but ironically offering a message of religious inclusion, other religious groups were left to either set up their own pavilions or exclude themselves from the fair. Canada's Jewish community set up one Pavilion to Canadian Judaism, while a number of Montreal businessmen established a third evangelical Christian pavilion called "Sermons for Science", which attempted to combine Christian faith and science, emphasizing the complexities of science and nature and how that complexity should lead one to commit to the Creator. However, apart from expressions of faith in particular national pavilions, other religions were largely excluded from the fair.

One of the main results of Miedema's study is that, while Canada's mainline churches embraced the country's centennial celebrations as an opportunity to demonstrate how they were relevant to the lives of modern Canadians in an egalitarian and diverse country, their efforts likely did little to convince anyone beyond their congregations of their real relevance to modern Canadian society. Arguing that they shared the same values of respect for difference and equality as the modern secular state, and that none of them were actually representatives of the one true faith, each of the mainline churches effectively argued away their unique and special relevance to Canadians, as well as any arguments as to why they should continue to be central players in helping guide and inform the policies Canadian society.

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