The “establishment” principle was developed out of the concern of modern liberal democracies to avoid the imposition of religion by the state (or crown). The practice of state- or crown-established churches had long roots in Europe which extended to both Canadian colonies until the mid-19th century (Choquette, 2004), and in some American colonies until American independence (Noll, 2002). The underlying rationale for the principle was that religion was believed to be outside the authority of government, and therefore, government must not take actions that have the effect of making any particular religion more or less likely to flourish or advance (Esbeck, 2004). Thus, the first question is the extent to which government actions have the effect of furthering or impeding the development or maintenance of particular religious groups compared to others. A more specific way of asking this question is to consider whether a particular religious group, in response to a given government action (i.e., legislation or funding) would have followed the same path of development without such government action. If the answer is no, then the government action is presumed to be in violation of this principle because it had the effect of “establishing” a particular religion.
Canada does not have a constitutional restriction separating church and state. While there have been, and continue to be, instances in which government has explicitly supported religious activities, the current practice is to regard religion as essentially a private affair over which government should have limited authority or influence (Greene, 1999). The issue of public funding for religious activities is most pronounced in education. The BNA Act of 1867 gave a constitutional guarantee that religious minorities of that day would be eligible for complete public funding as an alternative to the provincially established public school for the religious majority. This constitutional guarantee was included as part of a complex deal to which both the French majority in Lower Canada – today the province of Quebec – and the English majority in Upper Canada – now Ontario – could agree. In Lower Canada, the Roman Catholic Church was the religious majority, and the public schools were, therefore, Catholic. In Ontario, Protestants were in the majority, and public schools were Protestant. The constitutional compromise ensured that Protestants in Quebec and Catholics in Ontario would be guaranteed public funding for their alternative school system (Morton, 1982; Sweet, 1997). Over time, in English Canada, the established denominational majority schools became non-denominational, and the Catholic schools became known as the “separate schools.”
On the question of the establishment of religion, it seems clear that governmental treatment of schools helped to advance the two most prominent religious groups in Canada at the time of confederation. Despite this establishment precedent, however, subsequent policy regarding schools has been mixed. Several provinces, including B.C. and Alberta, provide some form of financial support for religiously based schools other than Roman Catholic. Until proposals for change in spring of 2001, Canada’s largest province, Ontario, has consistently refused to grant funding to private schools, partly on the grounds that it would undermine support for public schools, and that such funding would lean too far in government support for religion (Phillips, Raham, & Wagner 2004).
The history of establishing faith-based social welfare organizations in Canada is much less clear. Until recently (Cnaan, 2002; Maurutto, 2003), very little explicit attention has been given to the issue of religious organizations providing social services and to what role they should play in providing public social services. Maurutto’s (2003) historical study of Catholic charities in Toronto demonstrates that provincial and municipal governments have provided substantial funding for Catholic organizations to provide a variety of social and human services well into the 20th century. Christie and Gauvreau (1996) also document an extensive public role for Protestant social welfare initiatives through the 1940s. On this basis, it appears that the practice has been to give preference to – and thus to establish – the dominant Catholic and Protestant groups over other religious groups. Much more evidence is needed, however, before such a claim can be substantiated. Some have also argued that the Canadian approach to neutrality towards religious groups has resulted in the “establishment” of secularism and has thus limited and constrained the development of particular religious groups, particularly ones that differ from the dominant religions (Beyer, 2003; Chaplin, 2000).