The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression. Every individual is equal under the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The law imposes “reasonable limits” on the exercise of these religious rights only where such restrictions can be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The law permits individuals to sue the government for violations of religious freedom. Federal and provincial human rights laws prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. Civil remedies include compensation and/or changes to the policy or practice responsible for the discrimination.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but the government grants tax-exempt status to religious groups that register as nonprofit organizations with the Charities Directorate of the tax authority, the Canada Revenue Agency. Nonprofit status provides federal and provincial sales tax reductions, rebates, and exemptions. To gain and retain tax-exempt status, a group must be nonpolitical and undergo periodic audits. Charitable status also grants clergy various federal benefits, including a housing deduction under the tax code and expedited processing through the immigration system. Clergy includes persons whose communities have licensed, ordained, or otherwise formally recognized them for their religious leadership and authority to perform spiritual duties and services within their religious organization. Individual citizens who donate to tax-exempt religious groups receive a federal tax receipt entitling them to federal income tax deductions.
The criminal code prohibits the practice of polygamy, which is an indictable offense subject to imprisonment of up to five years.
Government policy and practices with respect to education, including religious schools, fall under the purview of the provincial, rather than federal, governments. Six of the 10 provinces provide full or partial funding to some religious schools.
Catholic schools in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan retain the constitutionally protected provincial funding they had when those provinces joined the federation. Federal statutory protection for Catholic and Protestant publicly funded minority education exists in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut, which do not have provincial status. Constitutional or federal statutory protection for public funding of religious education does not extend to schools of other religious groups. The law permits parents to homeschool their children and to enroll them in private schools for religious reasons.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June the British Columbia (BC) Court of Appeal upheld a lower court decision affirming the province’s authority to appoint a special prosecutor to issue polygamy charges against two Mormons in Bountiful, BC. The original charges of polygamy were at first dropped for fear they violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. In 2011 the BC Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion that the harm polygamy represented outweighed the right to religious freedom. The province brought charges against the individuals in August 2014 and alleged one of the accused had 24 wives, several of whom were under the age of 18 at the time of marriage.
The Quebec Assembly continued to debate a bill, tabled in June 2015, which would ban women from wearing religious attire that covered their faces during public ceremonies. At a press conference in October, provincial Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee of the Quebec Liberal Party stated that banning the burqa was necessary for the sake of identification, communication, and security at public services, including naturalization ceremonies.
In October the Quebec Superior Court ruled a provincial judge erred in refusing to hear the case of a Muslim woman in February 2015 who refused to remove her hijab. The court offered “regrets” to the woman, but found no breach of her right to freedom of religion and declined to issue a declaratory judgment affirming the right to wear religious attire in Quebec courtrooms. The Superior Court agreed with a separate finding by the provincial judicial council in September that judges have the authority to interpret the law on appropriate dress within their courtrooms on a case-by-case basis.
Montreal’s Outremont borough passed a bylaw in May banning the opening of new places of worship on two streets in its busiest commercial zone. The bylaw applied to all faith groups. In November, residents of the borough voted in favor of maintaining the ban, which representatives of the Hasidic Jewish community said targeted their community and worsened “already tense relations between elected officials and Hasidic Jews.” Approximately one quarter of Outremont borough residences belong to members of the Hasidic Jewish community.
In November, a BC woman filed a legal challenge against the local school district, stating her child was forced to participate in an aboriginal religious ceremony without her consent and against the wishes of the child. She sought a court order from the Supreme Court to prevent the school district from hosting any expressions of religion, including indigenous ceremonies. The school district, in court documents, denied it violated any rights and said its actions had not favored one belief over another.
In November a Hamilton, Ontario court rejected a parent’s complaint that the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, the provincial elementary teachers’ union, and the Ontario government infringed on his right to religious freedom when they failed to inform him of the content of the mandatory provincial sexual education curriculum in public schools. The parent stated he lacked the necessary information to determine whether the content conflicted with his Christian views. The school board stated the curriculum promoted tolerance, including tolerance of the LGBTI community, and the father’s request was impossible to fulfill as it did not apply to a specific class but to the curriculum as a whole. The judge said the school board was not obligated to inform the parent of topics he might find objectionable, as inclusion and equality come before “individual religious accommodations in public education.”
Courts in Ontario, BC, and Nova Scotia heard cases during the year regarding decisions by legal societies in the provinces to deny accreditation to future graduates of Trinity Western University (TWU), a Christian university in BC. In Ontario, the law society argued TWU’s requirement that students sign a “Christian covenant” pledging to abstain from sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage discriminated against homosexuals and violated same-sex equality laws. In June the Ontario appeals court found the law society’s decision to deny accreditation to future TWU graduates was reasonable. In September TWU asked the federal Supreme Court for permission to file an appeal of the Ontario decision, citing infringement on freedom of religion. The court had not granted permission as of the end of the year, and the request remained pending. In July a Nova Scotia appeals court ruled the province’s law society exceeded its jurisdiction in denying accreditation to future TWU graduates, because TWU was located in BC and was outside the jurisdiction of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act. In November the BC Court of Appeal held that the decision of the BC provincial law society to refuse accreditation to TWU graduates was unlawful. The law society decided against further appeal. The court did not comment on the constitutional arguments related to religious freedom.
A coalition of groups representing Christian physicians in Ontario filed a request in June for judicial review of the province’s requirement that physicians who oppose assisted death on moral grounds make an “effective [active] referral” to another medical provider for patients who seek the service. Under Ontario’s regulations, physicians who fail to make such referrals could face sanctions up to and including the loss of their medical license. The request for judicial review followed enactment of a new federal law that legalized assisted death but specified doctors had the right of freedom of conscience and the right not to perform or assist in providing the procedure. Ontario was the only province to require referral to another physician rather than to a registry or other mechanism. The plaintiffs argued the referral to another practitioner, rather than to a registry, constituted facilitation and violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion.
Ontario-based physician faith groups continued a suit filed in 2015 against the province’s medical regulator. The suit challenged a provincial policy requiring doctors who decline to provide access to contraception and decline to perform abortions on religious or moral objections to refer the patient to another physician. The legal challenge remained pending at year’s end.
In September the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that courts could exercise jurisdiction in matters of religious edicts when it allowed a Calgary man’s appeal of his “shunning” by a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses to proceed in a lower provincial court. The plaintiff had won approval for judicial review of the act of “disfellowship” in the lower court on the grounds it was procedurally unfair and adversely affected his civil and property rights as a real estate agent whose clientele was largely composed of members of his former religious community. The appeals court dismissed the church’s challenge of the review, allowing the case to proceed.
A Quebec court in December cleared an individual in a slander case brought by a private Islamic school in Montreal of charges that in a blog post and radio broadcast she likened the school’s teaching to extremist instruction delivered in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The school sought damages for the costs of increased security at the school and harm to its reputation. The judge ruled the comments could be deemed hurtful, but were not erroneous or made in bad faith and the individual had a right to freedom of speech and expression.
The government closed the Office of Religious Freedom within Global Affairs Canada (GAC) in May and replaced it with an Office of Human Rights, Freedoms, and Inclusion. The new office includes religious freedom as one of three divisions, which also include human rights, indigenous affairs, and democracy. GAC’s external advisory committee on religious freedom and Canada’s chairmanship of the International Contact Group on the Freedom of Religion or Belief remained in place.
In August the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) stated female Muslim officers could wear the hijab as part of their uniform. The RCMP became the third police force to add the hijab option after Toronto and Edmonton.
The city of Montreal created a hate crimes unit in May to centralize information, facilitate analysis, and improve prevention of hate-motivated crimes, including religious hate crimes. The new unit will also provide support to victims.
The government remained a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The government supported, both domestically and abroad, Holocaust education, remembrance, and research, and recommended continued participation in the IHRA.
In his statement to recognize Holocaust Memorial Day on May 4, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated the government’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, racism, and all forms of discrimination.