The Changing Face of Religion in Canada

Since the 1960s, when Canada changed its Immigration Laws and officially adopted a policy of multiculturalism, the visible minority population in the country has experienced extremely rapid growth. Visible minorities in Canada doubled in numbers between 1986 and 1996 and now constitute almost a third of the population in Toronto and Vancouver ("A Graphic Overview of Diversity in Canada", Department of Canadian Heritage, August 2000). The change from a homogenous culture to one of cultural diversity has been both sudden and dramatic. A child growing up in the early 1960s in Toronto and Vancouver went to schools where almost everyone was white, spoke English at home and professed to being Christian or Jewish. A child growing up in those cities today goes to schools where often white children are in the minority, the children may speak more than thirty languages at home and they profess to several religions other than Christianity or Judaism. In Quebec, for example, according to Census Canada, Christians are most numerous but in second place are Muslims outnumbering even Jews (Statistics Canada 2003).

Goals of The Montreal Religious Sites Project

Canadian cities have become multicultural so suddenly that the public has not had a chance to develop a good understanding of the culture and religions of their new ethnic neighbours. The Montreal Religious Sites Project (MRSP) intends to contribute to the public understanding of the new multicultural society in which we now live by documenting the religious sites of the ethnic and religious minorities in the city of Montreal. These include Hindu Temples; Islamic mosques and centres; Buddhist temples and meditation centres; Sikh gurdwaras; Asian Christian churches; non-Western new religious movements. MRSP will show that the uniform Judeo-Christian surface that existed a short generation ago in Montreal is quickly being fragmented by a colourful mosaic representing all the world's religions.

At one time, the sites of ethnic and religious minorities were considered either conservative islands which attempted to preserve ethnic culture or progressive ports which prepared immigrants to assimilate into Canadian culture. This dichotomy assumed that recently arrived immigrants were all making their way from an ethnic identity to a Canadian identity. In fact, the minority religious sites function in a much more complex way, primarily because their members often maintain several identities at once—as members of an ethnic minority, as member of the Canadian majority, as devotee of a (sometimes global) religious community.

And not least, MRSP will show that just as the world's religions adapt themselves to their new Canadian environment, Canadian society in turn is influenced by the world's religions. For example, of the more than 40 Buddhist temples and meditation centres in Montreal, more than half have been established by native-born Canadians.

The Project

The Montreal Religious Sites Project intends to contribute to the emerging field of study of religious pluralism in Canada through documentation and analysis of religious sites in the city of Montreal. The Project will begin by developing and maintaining a databank of the sites of the newly arrived religions in Montreal; this basic information includes location, membership, ethnicity, religious sect, etc.-all data which does not now exist. In addition, through long term ethnographic field research, the Project intends to publish a series of studies asking broader questions. What constitutes Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, etc. in Canada and how is that religion being reshaped in the Canadian context? It will investigate how members of each religious site answer the question, "Who am I?" and determine how the religion helps foster or hinder the development of a Canadian identity. Where appropriate, it will ask to what extent native-born Canadians are influenced by, or are turning to, newly arrived religions as their professed religion. One of the most important features of the emergence of many new religious communities is that they are being established as part of dynamic transnational communities. Understanding the interplay between the "global" and "local", between "ethnic" and "Canadian" then becomes central to any understanding of contemporary religious pluralism.

In an effort to balance our research interests with our responsibilities to the development of future scholars in this field of study and the religious communities themselves, we have identified three main objectives for the Project: research, education and outreach.

    Under research, we seek to: (i) document the new growing religious diversity now transforming Canada's religious landscape; (ii) analyze the processes of religious self-affirmation, identity formation, and re-definition of tradition as the newly transplanted religious communities adapt to the multicultural, multi-lingual, religiously pluralist Canadian environment.

    As for education, in addition to its research objectives, the Project has been designed to maximize the opportunity for students to engage in research and in administration of the Project.

    Under outreach, the Project will encourage local religious communities to document their own histories and add their voice to the public square.

The Montreal Religious Sites Project envisages that its research scope will broaden to encompass the study of religious sites all across Canada. Without data on the new religious and ethnic communities, without an analysis of the processes of local religious change in Canada, without some understanding of how local change is related to global trends, no accurate social policy is possible. To that end, in this first stage, it seeks to produce a template on religious pluralism that will be an academically grounded foundation for future research, a constantly updated resource for social policy initiatives, a vehicle for involving students into research and an accessible resource for religious communities themselves.

This project is being conducted by the Asian Religion and Ethics Research Unit at McGill University