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Current Canadian ‘Culture Debates’

Current Canadian ‘Culture Debates’

Carolyn Chau


The past few months have seen several milestone events come to pass in Canadian society. These events confirm the ongoing tensions in Canada between church and state or between religious institutions and secularizing social movements. These events also suggest a delicate balance between competing notions of the common good.


In February 2015, the Supreme Court, the nation’s highest court, struck down the long-standing ban on physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.  This follows the monumental judicial decision in Quebec last summer that legalized “medical aid in dying” in the province, as well as the historic cases of Taylor and Carter, two women who suffered from degenerative diseases and sought the legal right to medical assistance to hasten death in Canada.


In March 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada judged in favour of Loyola, a Jesuit Catholic high school in Quebec that over the past few years sought freedom from teaching a province-mandated course, “Ethics and Religious Culture”, and to teach instead Catholic doctrine and ethics according to the Catholic tradition of their institution.  The principal issue for the Jesuit school was whether a Catholic institution must necessarily treat the ethical concerns and beliefs of its own tradition as but one view among many and to present that tradition with “neutrality” rather than with the persuasive force that follows the Jesuit examen.  The court upheld the right of the Catholic institution to educate its members according to its faith tradition.


Over the winter-spring of 2015, news had broken that the province of Ontario will implement a new sexual education curriculum for grade schools across the province beginning in the fall of 2015. This initiative has generated conflicting responses from parents, educators, community leaders, politicians, and others of concern, praise, uneasiness, protest, and affirmation across the province.


Turning attention to Canadians in a global context, this past month, April 2015, Jean Vanier, son of former Governor General of Canada, Georges Vanier, was honoured with the Templeton Prize, an award given to “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”  Vanier is the founder of L’Arche International, a worldwide network of communities devoted to living with, caring for, and celebrating together as equals the lives of persons with developmental disabilities.  2015 happens to close out the fiftieth anniversary year celebrations of the Vanier’s founding of L’Arche with Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, in Trosly-Breuil, France.


Each of these events indicates the ongoing tensive relationship between religious tradition and its influence in Canadian society, particularly Catholicism and public policy across the provinces of the country, from the Maritimes to British Columbia.  From issues at the end of life to religious and sexual education, it is clear that now is a time of change, a challenge for Catholicism, and an opportunity for rethinking how the Church proceeds to contribute positively to the common life of Canadians.


Something of Jean Vanier’s achievement with and for people with developmental disabilities, though not necessarily his recognition by the Templeton Foundation and receipt of the Templeton Prize, signals hope that a profound, Christ-informed affirmation of life, especially that of the most vulnerable, reveals a unique Canadian contribution to the world.  As an interesting point of comparison, the milestones related to euthanasia and freedom of religion are legal in nature, whereas the milestone of Vanier’s understanding of persons with disabilities as persons with gifts and unrecognized qualities of deep humanity is cultural in nature, a transformation of the ways that people see and encounter one another. That transformation continues the experience of the first L’Arche house now operating 147 communities in 35 countries.  Both milestones inform the societies in which Canadians and persons around the globe live. While most of the legal mandates focus on individual rights, the Loyola case and Vanier’s work consider how communities may help individuals to live well.  How faith-informed communities, from parishes to Catholic hospital boards to Catholic schools and universities to Catholic social work agencies, acknowledge and participate in these cultural debates certainly shape the path of religious faith in Canadian society today and they will surely continue to shape Canada’s future. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from these events is the virtue of commitment to remain engaged in the public debate.