What is the relationship of Canadians to God, religion, and religious practices? It’s hard to say! Indeed, as we mentioned earlier on the topic of religion in Canada, statistics vary from one province to another, and even from one region to another.
In this article, we will highlight some of the characteristics of each of the provinces where the Jesuits are present, as indicated in the sources available on this subject. The data generally refers to religion in a broad sense, but it is important to keep in mind the composition of the Catholic population in each province, in 2019, as shown in the table below.
The polls on which this article is based come from various sources and dates: take the results with a grain of salt. Moreover, these numbers do not capture people’s nuanced lived experience. The varied results do show, however, that religion, God, and spirituality are still part of the landscape across the entire country, even if there is a growing trend toward disengagement from the Catholic Church.
It is important to note that the majority of people in all provinces continue to believe in God or a higher power, with whom many are connected through prayer.
Why are these numbers interesting? As Professor Michael W. Higgins points out in a forthcoming interview: “Jesuits do not have a narrow understanding of their ministry. They know that the context in which they operate is always changing: they are extremely flexible.” On the one hand, then, these statistics show that the religious reality is changing in all provinces and that the Society of Jesus must adapt to it. On the other hand, as Fr. Gordon Rixon, SJ, points out in another interview, people who are “spiritual but not religious” are likely to have a negative view of religion—as can be seen in the statistics—but risk having a spirituality that is superficial. Thus, the process of discernment proposed in the Spiritual Exercises can be particularly relevant.
“We feel the urgent need to overcome both secularism and nostalgia for cultural expressions of the past. Together with the Church, we want to accept our secularized society as a sign of the times, which gives us the opportunity to renew the ecclesial presence within human history.” – Arturo Sosa, SJ – Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus, 2019–2029
British Columbia had the highest percentage of people with no religious affiliation (44% in 2011) as well as the lowest percentage of people attending religious services (17% in 2012). A 2019 survey indicated that respondents did not value prayer or turning to a religious figure for counsel.
Also in 2019, however, 61% of the province’s residents believed or tended to believe that God exists.
In 2017, the most observant believers were found mostly in the Prairies. In fact, 32% of people in Saskatchewan considered themselves to be religiously committed, compared to 29% in Alberta and 28% in Manitoba. In 2019, more than 26% of believers in the Prairies were Catholic. More generally, between 63% and 76% of Prairie residents believed in the existence of God or a higher power.
But in 2011, there was nevertheless a trend in the center of the country toward religious disaffiliation.
In Canada’s most populous province, in 2019, 28% of the population considered themselves to be practicing or occasionally practicing Catholics. Ontario statistics (in 2017) show that 70% of people believe in God and 28% pray at least a little. The province is similar to the Atlantic and Prairie regions in terms of participation in religious services (31%).
The Atlantic Provinces
The Atlantic provinces had the highest proportion of Christians in 2019 (70%), but only 16% considered themselves to be practicing or occasionally practicing Catholics. Although 75% of residents believed in God and there was relatively little religious disaffiliation (16% in 2011), there is a strong downward trend in participation in religious services.
God and Religion in La Belle Province
Quebec’s particular situation (Catholic majority, Quiet Revolution, debate on secularism, etc.) seems to generate more data, which is why the section on this province is slightly longer. According to CROP surveys from 2016 and 2017, for example, the majority of Quebecers still believed in God. However, this percentage has decreased over the years across the country.
The importance of religious beliefs, as well as the manner of belief, varies greatly.
Thus, in 2016, only 14% of Quebec believers believed in God in accordance with the teachings of the Church: the majority believe “in their own way,” indicating a disengagement from the institution.
There has been a marked change in just two decades.
A Catholic Quebec?
Let’s take a closer look at the Catholic church. At first glance, this church seems to be doing well. In 2001, according to Statistics Canada, 83% of the province’s residents identified themselves as Catholic. Ten years later, that number had dropped to 74.7%, and in 2019 it was 55% (64% if you count cultural Catholics).
And as Professor Jean-Philippe Warren points out, “Quebec is both the most religiously homogeneous province and the most detached from its religious culture.” In fact, he points out, “today, barely 5% of them [Quebecers] say they practice regularly, whereas the proportion was close to 100% in 1960!”
Thus, among Quebecers who considered themselves Catholic in 2014, only 32% said it was because they had faith. According to Radio-Canada, the majority (59%) said they were Catholic because they had been baptized.
Jesus: a role model in Quebec
Good news for the Society of Jesus: another CROP survey in 2010 showed that Jesus was still a significant figure for Quebecers, especially older ones, even among agnostics.
Seventy-six percent of respondents said that they were familiar or somewhat familiar with Jesus, 52% are interested in learning more about Jesus, over 29% called him a positive role model. And Jesus continued to inspire 54% of Quebecers.
Why? His message of love and kindness was the most important reason (35%).
Thus, although the majority of Quebecers still consider themselves Catholic, it is undeniable that this trend has been waning for several years and that only a minority of Quebec Catholics practice their religion regularly. However, it seems that regardless of religion, the majority of people in the province have a connection to spirituality or to a power greater than themselves, and many are receptive to Jesus’s message of love. Relations magazine goes into more detail on spirituality and religion in the province in its most recent issue.
Looking at these statistics, it is undeniable that the numbers are down in several areas of interest to Catholicism (belief in God, religious practices, etc.) in all provinces, albeit to varying degrees.
These are only numbers and data, however. We need to go beyond them, to people and to groups, to get closer to religious practice in the country. Indeed, “religion plays a different role for different ethnic, linguistic, and cultural communities,” explains Fr. Gordon Rixon in the next article in this series.
Finally, as sociologist Reginald Bibby (a specialist in the evolution of religious trends in Canada) points out in the conclusion of his book Resilient Gods: religion is not going to disappear (and the Catholic religion will remain firmly anchored in the Canadian religious landscape), but there is a risk of greater polarization between those who believe and those who do not.