Map showing Nova Scotia. The first Maritime Province (which included New Brunswick and PEI)
By Michael Wagner
What does it mean to say that a particular country is a “Christian country”? There may be different legitimate answers to that question, but one very reasonable answer would be a country where a Christian church is established by law. If a Christian church is given special rights by law, to the exclusion of all other religions, there can be no dispute that such a community is Christian in some sense. The political establishment of a church makes the country “officially” Christian at least.
Three of Canada’s earliest provinces had established Christian churches. Robert Choquette, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, writes about this in his book Canada’s Religions: An Historical Introduction(University of Ottawa Press, 2004).
Nova Scotia’s first legislative assembly was formed in 1758. At that time, Nova Scotia included the territories of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Choquette writes, “During its first session in 1758, that legislature declared the Church of England to be the state religion of the colony, but that ‘free liberty of conscience’ would be the rule for Protestant dissenters, a promise that was reiterated the following year by Governor Lawrence. The same legislation of 1758 made perpetual imprisonment the penalty for Catholic priests found exercising their ministry in Nova Scotia” (p. 163).
PEI became a separate jurisdiction in 1769. As Choquette notes, “After becoming a distinct province in 1769, the legislative assembly of Prince Edward Island restricted the rights of Catholics much as Nova Scotia had done, and also made the Church of England into its state religion (1802)” (p. 163).
New Brunswick became its own jurisdiction in 1784. According to M.H. Ogilvie, a Professor of Law at Carleton University, two years later the New Brunswick legislature passed a law making the Church of England the established church of that colony.
Ogilvie wrote an article for the Spring 1990 issue of the Osgoode Hall Law Journal called “What is a Church by Law Established?” After noting the details of church establishment in the three original Maritime Provinces, Ogilvie makes the following surprising comment: “Indeed, it may well still be the case that the Church of England is today the established church in New Brunswick – and in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island – by virtue of legislation which has never been repealed. There are no later statutes disestablishing the Church of England in these provinces” (p. 183).
However, provisions directed against Roman Catholics were repealed by law in the early nineteenth century. Choquette notes, “Official religious discrimination in Atlantic Canada only ended upon the adoption of Catholic emancipation legislation by the Parliament of Great Britain in 1829. The colonies were then told to harmonize their own laws with the new imperial legislation” (pp. 163-164).
Having officially established churches is not something that most Christians would support today. However, the presence of established churches in particular jurisdictions surely provides justification for considering those jurisdictions to be Christian in some important sense. Three of Canada’s earliest provinces had formally established churches, and this provides grounds for considering Canada to have been originally founded as a Christian country.