Sunday, March 19, 2017

Canada at 150 and the Value of Religion

“When you start exploring the history of Canada, you come face-to-face with faith all the time.”

Last December, when Heritage Minister Melanie Joly announced a year of celebrations to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, she said that it would be a year to mark this country’s heritage, cultural diversity, citizenship, social contract, respect for pluralism, official languages and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

All good things, to be sure. But there was no mention of the substantial contribution organized religion has made to the history and creation of Canada.

The folks at Cardus, a Christian think tank based in Ontario, think that is a serious oversight. But rather than spend time and energy trying to convince the government to include people of faith in the celebration, they decided to do it themselves.

Faith in Canada 150 is the result. Through events, research, conferences, the sharing of stories and other activities, the organization is inviting people of faith in Canada to celebrate the role religion has played in Canadian history, and in life today.

“When you start exploring the history of Canada, you come face-to-face with faith all the time,” says Cardus President and CEO Michael Van Pelt.

“Hospitals, universities, charities and other services—so much of this country is built on the religious traditions of Canadians.”

Van Pelt says he was “disappointed” that the government failed to include religion in its official anniversary celebrations, but he doesn’t think it was intentional.

It’s more a matter of “forgetfulness” or “amnesia,” he says of how policy makers and others overlook the contribution of faith to Canada, combined with the “powerful secularization” occurring in the country today.

But even a cursory look at Canadian history, he says, shows that “the undercurrents of religion or stronger than many people think.”

Cardus elaborates on this theme on its Faith in Canada 150 website.

“For more than 450 years, faith has shaped the human landscape of Canada,” it says. “It has shaped how we live our lives, how we see our neighbours, how we fulfill our social responsibilities, how we imagine our life together.”

“This is the story that Faith in Canada 150 will tell,” it goes on to say. “It will nurture a public conversation that will remind us what our country is and why we live the way
we do. It will allow us to say, ‘Here is Canada. Here is why faith matters.’”

I think Cardus is on to something, and not just from a historical perspective. Canada is a thoroughly secular country, but religion still plays a vital role in many important ways.

One way is economically—maybe not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the ways religion impacts society, but perhaps an important way to catch the attention of political leaders.

In the U.S., a recent study by Georgetown University found that religion in that country is worth $1.2 trillion a year—more than the combined revenues of the top 10 technology companies in that country,  including Apple, Amazon and Google.

Researchers arrived at that figure by calculating the value of things such as religiously-owned or supported healthcare facilities, schools, daycares, charities, and media, along with businesses with faith backgrounds such as kosher and halal food markets, and direct spending by religious organizations and congregations.

At a more local level, a 2010 study of 12 congregations in Philadelphia came up with a figure of $62 million in annual economic value, based on direct spending, educational programs, community development, social capital and community care.

In 2015-16, Cardus sought to replicate that study in Canada, researching the economic value of ten congregations in Toronto. It came up with a figure of $45 million in local economic impact.

And then there’s the important role people of faith play in supporting charities. According to Statistics Canada, people who are more religiously active donate more often and to more charities, make larger gifts, and volunteer more time than those who aren’t as involved religiously.

Of course, money isn’t the only way to measure the impact of religion in society. But these days, with so much emphasis on the economy, it might one way to clearly demonstrate the importance of faith in Canada—right now, and into the future.

Maybe though Faith in Canada 150, that story—and many others—can be told.

From the March 18, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

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