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Our Impressions of Canada often Miss the Mark

Canada's public life as reflected through its commonly held beliefs is, like that of most countries, rife with misconceptions.

For instance, people frequently think that Alberta, the province that privatized liquor stores, is rife with private health clinics. Not so. Ontario is the province with the private hospitals - the Shouldice Hospital in Thornhill being the best known - while B.C. and Quebec are the provinces with the most active private clinics. Alberta actually has the nation's most restrictive legislation when it comes to private health facilities.

Another view widely held is that religious adherence is in morbid decline. Canada, for many practical historical reasons going back to franco-catholicism and anglo-protestantism, certainly has a strong tradition of separating politics from religion. But that doesn't mean faith here has been abandoned.

The facts, again, tell a different story. According to research outlined in Dr. Reginald Bibby's book The Boomer Factor, 29% of Canadians have full memberships in a religious group.

It might not be what it was but that's more than sports groups (22%), hobby groups (16%) and service clubs (12%). It's also much more - four times - than political groups which have only 7% of the population engaged as members.

Of the 10 membership group categories listed in the research, religion is number one.

But religions, unlike sports stadia, recreation centres, libraries and arts centres, have never depended or asked for public money to build their structures and their profile tends to slip beneath most public life radar.

They may be the largest institution in which people have memberships but they also - for many good reasons no doubt including their status as poor sources of tax revenue - remain the most independent.

Some might argue that this has disconnected the role of faith in Canadian life and, for instance, the civic planning in our increasingly dominant cities.

There is no question that faith groups continue to build significant structures, but the major faith buildings continue sprouting up deep in the suburbs. Calgary's recently completed and massive Ahmadiyya's Baitun Nur mosque, the largest in the country, is an eloquent structure but is placed far from what we know as an 'urban core' area.

Metaphorically and practically, we have placed institutions that are actually at the core of people's lives on the physical fringes of society.

This is the practical outcome of subscription to the notion that religious interest in Canada is dead or dying.

No one has compiled more comprehensive data in this field than the University of Lethbridge's Bibby.

His Project Canada research over 30 years clearly shows a decline in regular church attendance compared with 1975.

But it also shows that decline levelled out in about 1990, dipped at the 2000 mark and since then has grown back to levels roughly equivalent to and in some instances better than the norm in 1985-1990.

The facts are that religions constitute the largest single common activity shared by Canadians and their interest in this area is the same today as it was a generation ago.

If Quebec, where the decline in religious attendance has continued unabated, is taken out of the picture, the numbers speak even more in favour of faith as a major and growing part of Canadian's lives.

(It should be added, however, that most Quebeckers continue to identify as Catholic and Statistics Canada's religiosity index, which measure private religious practice and not just church attendance, indicates little overall difference between Quebeckers and Ontarians. This and other data leads to speculation that the issues in Quebec have more to do with the institution of the church than with God).

As Bibby concludes: "Contrary to ideas propagated by many Boomer academics and journalists in particular, the inclination of Canadians to reach beyond themselves continues to extend to the gods . . . . The extent of participation in organized religion has been grossly underestimated and patterns of involvement badly misunderstood."

The point here is not to promote the imposition of faith.

It is, however, to raise the notion that we may have forgotten, or risk overlooking, the need to include institutions of the soul in our civic visions.

Given their contribution as incubators of preferred social values - a topic for future commentary - leaving them out would be a terrible mistake.