AuthorRichard Moon
ProfessionFaculty of Law, University of Windsor
Canada’s early history as colony and nation was marked by periods of
harsh religious suppression and moments of pragmatic religious tol-
erance.1 The early efforts of European colonizers, f‌irst the French and
later the British, to convert Aboriginal peoples to a version of Chris-
tianity sometimes involved the active suppression of spiritual practi-
ces. Cultural suppression became standard practice with the growth of
European settlement and the extension of political control by colonial
and Canadian authorities over lands occupied by Aboriginal peoples.
Notably, in the late 1800s, spiritual practices, such as spirit dancing
in the Prairies and the potlatch on the West Coast, were banned by
the federal government. But perhaps the most signif‌icant program of
cultural suppression was the residential school system, which involved
the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families and com-
munities and their placement in state-sanctioned residential Christian
schools, where they were prevented from speaking their language and
engaging in the practices of their culture. The residential school pro-
gram, which began in the late 1800s and continued until the middle
1 For a helpful survey of some of this history, see Janet Epp Buckingham, Fighting
Over God: A Legal and Political History of Religious Freedom in Canada (Montreal,
QC; Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).
of the 1900s, has been described by a former federal justice minister as
“the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history.”2
Yet the country’s early history was also marked by signif‌icant acts of
religious tolerance. With the conquest of Quebec by the British in the
middle of the eighteenth century, a Protestant monarch came to rule
over the colony’s French Catholic population.3 The practice, common
at the time in which the conquering power imposed its faith on its new
subjects, gave way to the practical necessities of government in coloni-
al Canada. Under the Treaty of Paris, 1763,4 which formally ended the
Seven Years’ War between Britain and France, the British government
agreed that the French Catholic inhabitants of Canada would retain the
right to practise their religion. Specif‌ically, the treaty stated that “His
Britannick Majesty, on his side, agrees to grant the liberty of the Cath-
olick religion to the inhabitants of Canada: he will, in consequence, give
the most precise and most effectual orders, that his new Roman Catholic
subjects may profess the worship of their religion according to the rites
of the Romish church, as far as the laws of Great Britain permit.”5 As MH
Ogilvie notes, this concession was not free of ambiguity since at the time
Roman Catholics in England were subject to a number of signif‌icant
criminal restrictions.6 However, the Quebec Act, 1774 of the British Par-
liament formally extended to the colony’s inhabitants the right to main-
tain the French language, the civil law system, and the Roman Catholic
faith.7 The British government’s motives were entirely pragmatic: to en-
2 Irwin Cotler, justice minister in November 2005, when the federal government
offered compensation to the victims of the residential school system, quoted in
CBC News, “School abuse victims getting $1.9B” (23 November 2005), online:
3 The earliest settlers in New France included both Roman Catholics and
Huguenots (French Protestants), although Huguenot immigration was
subsequently halted, and the Huguenot settlers already residing in the colony
came under signif‌icant restriction.
4 Treaty of Paris, 1763, France, Britain, and Spain, 10 February 1763.
5 Ibid, art IV. Acadia had been ceded to the British in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht,
Britain and France, 11 April 1713. While this treaty included language similar to
that in the Treaty of Paris, 1763, a very different strategy was employed following
the British acquisition of Acadia. To ensure political stability, the British govern-
ment in 1755 expelled a signif‌icant portion of the French-speaking population.
The expelled Acadians either returned to France or resettled in Louisiana or the
American colonies.
6 MH Ogilvie, Religious Institutions and the Law in Canada, 3d ed (Toronto: Irwin
Law, 2010) at 34.
7 The Quebec Act, 1774 (UK), 14 Geo III, c 83 [Quebec Act] provides the following:
V. And, for the more perfect Security and Ease of the Minds of the Inhabitants
of the said Province, it is hereby declared, That his Majesty’s Subjects, profess-

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