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III. Background and context

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This section examines broader underlying trends shaping contemporary forms of discrimination because of creed. While the OHRC seeks to combat prejudice and intolerance based on creed, and related -isms and -phobias, by educating the public, not all of the issues discussed below can be dealt with under the Code. The Code only prohibits incidents of discrimination and harassment based on creed in specified “social areas.” These areas are:

  1. Contracts
  2. Employment
  3. Goods, services and facilities
  4. Housing
  5. Vocational associations and trade unions.

Intolerance vs. discrimination

Intolerance and prejudice refer to attitudes, values and beliefs. Discrimination refers to actions taken because of those attitudes, values and beliefs, as well as unfair treatment that may unintentionally result from seemingly neutral rules, norms, standards and practices that people can take legal action on under the Ontario Human Rights Code or Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Key questions

  • What are some of the significant factors and dynamics, past or present, that shape contemporary forms and experiences of discrimination based on creed in Ontario?

  • What forms of exclusion and discrimination are communities in Ontario experiencing because of creed?

  • Are there particular or prevalent ideologies, myths, and/or stereotypes underlying contemporary forms of discrimination based on creed that an OHRC policy should name and address? 

1. Current social and demographic trends

1.1 Diversity of creed beliefs and practices

Canadian census-based demographic research on religious affiliation in Ontario shows a significant growth in religious and creed diversity. Two major trends are particularly notable. First, there is significant growth among religious minority groups of all kinds outside of the Christian (Catholic and liberal Protestant) mainstream (see Appendices 1-7) for statistical trends by religious affiliation in Ontario and Canada).[15] At the same time, there is notable growth in the numbers of Ontarians reporting that they have ‘no religion’ (see Appendices 1-5, 12-15)[16] and/or for whom religion is playing a decreasing role in their lives (see Appendices 16-21). Both of these broader trends are projected to accelerate in the future,[17] due in part to immigration trends[18] and ongoing processes of secularization.

An overwhelming majority of Ontarians nevertheless remain, and are projected to remain, identified with the historically dominant Roman Catholic and Protestant (Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian, and Lutheran) churches in Ontario (see Appendix 3).[19] The face and practice of Canadian Christianity, however, is becoming increasingly more diverse, as the percentage of Christian Canadians born in non-Western countries continues to grow,[20] along with the numbers of adherents of minority Christian denominations favouring more public and collective expressions of Christianity.

Tracking religion in Ontario 1991 – 2001 - 2011

The largest population growth in Ontario between 1991 and 2001 censuses has been among Muslims (142.2% growth from 145,560 in 1991 to 352,530 in 2001), minority “Christian’” Protestant groups including people identifying as “Christians,” ”Evangelical,” ‘Born-again Christian” and “Apostolic” (121.2% growth from 136,515 in 1991 to 301,935 in 2001), Hindus (103.9% growth from 106,705 in 1991 to 217,560 in 2001), Sikhs (109.2% growth from 50,085 in 1991 to 104,785 in 2001) and Buddhists (96.4% growth from 65,325 in 1991 to 128,320 in 2001). The top five religious denominations in Ontario in 2001, in order of their numbers include: Protestant (3,935,745), Roman Catholic (3,866,350), No religion (1,809,535), Muslim (352,530), and Christian, including people identifying as minority Christian groups as listed above (301,935). National census data also reveals significant growth nationally, between 1991 and 2001, of people identifying with Aboriginal spirituality (+175%), or as “pagan” (+281%), although the actual number of adherents is not over 30,000 in these categories. [Source: Statistics Canada 2003a; see Appendices 1-11 for further profile and breakdown of Canadians by religious affiliation]

Though not entirely comparable with, or as reliable as, earlier census data, the 2011 National Household Survey shows continued significant growth, since 2001, of religious minorities, including Sikhs (72% growth from 104,785 in 2001 to 179,765 in 2011), Hindus (68% growth from 217,560 in 2001 to 366,720 in 2011), Muslims (65% growth from 352, 530 in 2001 to 581,950 in 2011), No religion (62% growth from 1,809,535 in 2001 to 2,927,790 in 2011), and Buddhists (28% growth from 128,320 to 163,750 in 2011).

Religious affiliation in Ontario in descending order by numbers and percentage (2011 National Household Survey) [21]


Population Number


1. Catholic



2. No religious affiliation



3. Other Christian



4. United Church



5. Anglican



6. Muslim



7. Hindu



8. Presbyterian



9. Christian Orthodox



10. Baptist



11. Pentecostal



12. Jewish



13. Sikh



14. Buddhist



15. Lutheran



16. Other religions



17. Traditional (Aboriginal) Spirituality



Total population in private households by religion



Note: Unlike in previous decades, when a religion question was included in the census, in 2011 it was part of a voluntary survey among 4.5 million randomly selected households. Roughly 2.65 million households participated in the survey. Statistics Canada has indicated that some groups – immigrants, ethnic minorities, non-English or non-French speakers and Aboriginal Peoples – may be underrepresented among participants in the voluntary survey. Despite these challenges, the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) represents the best data source for religious affiliation in Canada in 2011 (Pew Forum 2013).

The total number of persons identifying as Christian (including all denominations) in the 2011 NHS was 8,167,295, or 64.55% of the total population. The number of persons identifying with Protestant denominations in the 2011 NHS, if we include “other Christian”, as well as United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal and Lutheran, was 3,892,965 or 30.77%. This would make Protestants the second largest religious grouping collectively, for the first time after Catholics.

1.2 Individual belief and practice

There is a debate in the social science literature about whether and to what extent religious conviction may be declining in Ontario (the “secularization debate”). Evidence exists to support various contending positions, showing both a general decline and, in some segments of the population, resurgence of religious conviction and identification (see Appendices 13-21 for various survey findings on the extent and importance of religious belief among Canadians).[22]

Ontarians, especially the younger generation, seem to be increasingly changing the way they interpret and live their professed religious and creed beliefs. Research suggests that many people now approach their religion or creed in a highly individual way, basing their beliefs and practices more on personal interpretations and experiences than on institutional expressions or traditional requirements of the faith.[23] This personalization of belief and practice has also contributed to a growing pattern of eclecticism – famously dubbed “Sheilaism”[24] by an American sociologist. This means that people increasingly “cobble together” their beliefs and practices from increasingly diverse sources and traditions in unique ways that can change with the context.[25]

This “de-institutionalization” of belief and practice is evident in the declining numbers of religiously-identified persons who are actively practising their faith in traditional institutional ways such as by attending regular worship (see Appendix 17).[26] The growth of persons self-identifying as “spiritual but not religious,” combined with the growing trend of Ontario institutions rebranding chaplaincy programs and services as “spiritual” rather than “religious”, are also among the indicators of this larger trend.

Spirituality vs. religion

Spirituality can be defined as “the search for meaning, purpose, and connection with self, others, the universe, and ultimate reality, however one understands it. It may, or may not, be expressed through religious forms or institutions.” Religion, on the other hand, tends to be “an organized structured set of beliefs and practices shared by a community related to spirituality” (Sheridan, 2000, p. 20; emphasis added).

1.3 Policy and program trends

"The challenges Canada faces today are different from those we faced ten years ago. The most obvious change concerns the salience of religion in debates about Canadian diversity ..." (Will Kymlicka) [27]

Despite increasing demands on Ontario institutions to better understand, respond to, and navigate the province’s growing religious/creed diversity, researchers lament the general failure of Canadian public policy, programming and research to sufficiently grapple with it.[28] While a legislative framework for dealing with creed diversity in Canada is well established,[29] researchers note that the prevailing tendency in policy and programming has been to subsume and erase differences of religion and creed under ethnic, cultural and racial categories of social difference, particularly since multiculturalism was introduced as state policy over 30 years ago.[30]

As a consequence, it has primarily fallen to the courts and tribunals to set the framework for dealing with religious and creed-based diversity in Canadian society, within a zero-sum (win or lose) legal system. In this context, the current work and role of the OHRC in updating its policy on creed takes on additional importance in helping citizens and organizations to negotiate differences and conflicts relating to religion and creed in a pro-active, principled way.

[15] A 2013 study of religious demographic trends in Canada by the Pew Forum found that Ontario has experienced the most significant increase in affiliation with minority religions among provinces in Canada (see Appendix 7). The share of Ontario residents who identify with faiths other than Protestantism or Catholicism has risen from about 5% in 1981 to 15% in 2011 (Pew Forum 2013).

[16] People identifying with no religion in Ontario in the 2001 census – 1,809,535 (or 16% of all Ontarians) – accounted for the third largest census denominational grouping after Protestant and Roman Catholic.
By 2011, according to the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), close to a quarter of Ontario residents (23%) were religiously unaffiliated, as compared to 5% in the 1971 census. 

[17] See Appendix 8 for projected percentage change in religious affiliation in Canada from 2001 – 2017. According to the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), the number of Canadians who belong to non-Christian religions – including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity – has already reached 11% in 2011, up from 4% in 1981 (Pew Forum 2013). Of note, much of this diversity is projected to be concentrated in Ontario’s largest cities.

[18] See Appendices 9, 10, and 11 for historical data on immigration trends by religious affiliation.

[19] The 2011 National Household Survey shows a small decline in the percentage of Ontario residents reporting to be Roman Catholic (31.4% in 2011 as compared to 34% in 2001, and 35% in 1991) and that a longer-term downward trend continues in the numbers of Ontarians who report to be Protestant (30.8% in 2011 as compared to 35% in 2001 and 43% in 1991), particularly among mainline Protestant denominations (Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian, Lutheran) (Statistics Canada, 2003a). Catholics overtook Protestants as the largest denominational grouping in Ontario for the first time in the 2011 NHS.

[20] The percentage of Christian Canadians born in non-Western countries continues to grow. As Beyer, 2008, p. 23 observes:

Thus, the 2001 census revealed that people who simply identified themselves as Christian or who said they belonged to small Protestant groups, mostly without a previous history in Canada, had grown much more rapidly over the decade (~30%, from about 1 to 1.3 million) than the Roman Catholics, the mainline Protestants (who declined by 10%), the established conservative Protestant denominations, or even the Eastern Christians. Those among these "other Christians" who were born in non-Western countries increased by over 100%, commensurate with the growth in non-Christian religions over the same period. Analogously, although Roman Catholics increased by only 4%, their absolute numbers increased by around 600,000; and people born in non-Western countries accounted for over one-third of this growth. Therefore, as global Christianity is demographically becoming more and more a religion of the "south" [citing Jenkins, 2007], so can we expect that Canadian Christianity will continue transforming in a corresponding fashion.

[21] Source: Statistics Canada. 2013. Ontario (Code 35) (table). National Household Survey (NHS) Profile. 2011 National Household Survey. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-004-XWE. Ottawa. Released June 26, 2013. (accessed July 19, 2013).

[22] See Beyer (2006), “Religious Vitality in Canada: The Complementarity of Religious Market and Secularization Perspectives”.

[23] Roger O’Toole, 2006, p. 20 observes: “Canadians now choose to define the nature and content of their religiosity by drawing from that ‘reservoir of rites, practices and beliefs’ with which they are most familiar ‘without responding to any institutional prerequisites, or their consequences’. In these circumstances, their religion has generally acquired the fragmentary, syncretic, consumerist character associated with the term bricolage” (citing Yoye & Dobbelaere, 1993, p. 95-96). Based on their own empirical research, Peter Beyer (2008) and Paul Bramadat (2007) also observe how “[o]n the whole, youth of virtually all religious traditions are less loyal to these traditions and especially to the institutional expressions of these traditions (churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, etc.) than their age cohorts have probably been for many centuries if not millennia” (Bramadat, 2007, p. 120).

[24] In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Robert Bellah et al. (1985), coined “Sheilaism” to refer to a broader late 20th century trend in American religious conviction. Sheila Larson was a nurse whose self-defined faith included included being kind and gentle with yourself, taking care of others, believing in God, but without going to church, and seeing Jesus in oneself. For more on this trend in Canada, see Bramadat (2007); Beyer (2008); Closson James (2006); and O’Toole (2006).

[25]In this respect, Reginald Bibby, 1987, p. 85 argues that "[t]he gods of old have been neither abandoned nor replaced". Rather “they have been broken into pieces and offered to religious consumers in piecemeal form". Religious scholar, Closson James, 2006, p. 130 similarly concludes that “we should expect [religion] to continue to be characterized more by an eclectic spirituality... cobbled together from various sources rather than a monolithic and unitary superordinating system of beliefs”. The growth of mixed faith marriages in Ontario is also contributing to people adhering to more than one faith tradition at the same time, sometimes depending on the context. “In 2001,” one article notes, “nearly 20 per cent of people married someone outside their faith, according to Statistics Canada, up from 15 per cent two decades ago. Of that 20 per cent, Jews and Christians were the most likely to be in inter-religious unions...More than half of inter-religious unions in Canada were between a Catholic and Protestant (Noor, 2013).

[26] Seljak et al. (2008) highlight the significant transformations that have occurred since the first Gallup Poll after World War II asked Canadians if they had been in a church or synagogue sometime during the previous seven days. A full 67% of Canadians said they had (including 83% of Catholics). By 1990, positive response to the Gallup question had fallen to 23% throughout Canada (see also Byer, 2008). More recently, a 2011 Environics Institute Focus Canada Survey found that “[a]lthough the proportion with a religious affiliation continues to drop, these Canadians are as observant as ever in terms of attending religious services. Three in ten (29%) say they attend services at least once a week (up from 25% reported in Focus Canada in 2007, and 21% in 2003), while fewer now doing so only for special services (e.g., Christmas mass, Jewish High Holidays) (28%, down 5 points from 2007). Another one in five (22%, up 1) continue to say they have a religious affiliation but never attend services, with this group most prominently represented by Quebec residents and Catholics. In contrast, weekly attendance is most widely reported by Evangelical Christians (56%) and members of non-Christian faiths (42%)” (Environics Institute, 2011, p.40; See Appendix 17 for 2011 Focus Canada Survey Findings on Frequency of Attending Religious Services Among Canadians With Religious Affiliation 2003-2011).

[27] Kymlicka, Will (2003). “Introduction” In Canadian Diversity/Diversite canadienne May. Cited in Biles and Ibrahim, 2005, p.166.

[28] One recent study of federal public servants from several departments and agencies in the National Capital Region found among other things that: most policy practitioners and public decision makers were ill equipped to deal with religious diversity and most policies and programs did not consider religious diversity, with a few exceptions (Gaye & Kunz (2009); see also Beaman (2008); Biles & Ibrahim (2005); Bramadat (2007); Seljak (2005).

[29] This legislative framework makes explicit reference to religion or creed as an important part of Canada’s celebrated diversity. It includes the (1982) Constitution Act’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the (1988) Multiculturalism Act, and provincial human rights statutes.

[30] Will Kymlicka (2008) speaks about the need to add religion into the multicultural policy mix as a ”third track” alongside ethnicity and race, noting a continuing “uncertainty about the role of religion within the multiculturalism policy, and about the sorts of religious organizations and faith-based claims that should be supported by the policy’” (cited in Kunz, 2009, p. 6). Scholars, seeing the reluctance to speak about religion as a public policy matter in Canada, describe religion as “a form of diversity that dares not speak its name” (Biles & Ibrahim, 2005).



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