Religious plurality in Quebec is a fact
- Virginie Soffer
In a new book based on a major in-person survey, a misconception is debunked: there's actually a wide diversity of religious beliefs in what's supposed to be "secular" Quebec.
As you walk along the streets of Montreal, you'll pass churches turned into condos, spas, university buildings, libraries and more. Quebec, it might seem, is a secular society born of the Quiet Revolution in which native-born Québécois are now mostly atheists and the only people practising religion are immigrants.
Well, think again: a massive anthropological field survey on religious pluralism in Quebec, done over a 10-year period, demonstrates this is far from true. In fact, there's actually a great diversity of beliefs here.
In her research on the issue, Université de Montréal anthropology professor Deirdre Meintel supervised the work of 70 research assistants and studied over 230 religious groups in Quebec to produce and edit a new French-language book called La pluralité religieuse au Québec.
In it, she and seven other academic experts – Guillaume Boucher, Yannick Boucher, Claude Gélinas, Josiane Le Gall, Daniela Moisa, Géraldine Mossière and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme – lay out the case for re-examining religious identity and practice in this province.
Mostly a personal matter
Here, as in many places elsewhere in the developed world, people don’t generally display their religious beliefs in public. True, some women wear the Islamic headscarf, some men the Jewish kippah, still others the Sikh turban. But these are exceptions. For the most part, religion is a personal matter that is not visible to the general public.
At the street level, however, there are signs that religious groups do exist. Meintel sent research assistants in anthropology, sociology and religious sciences out to inventory these sightings, in person. Assembling a purely digital inventory would have posed problems.
“When we started our research, some religious groups still didn’t have a website or even a number in the phone book, so we had to do a visual inventory, on foot,” Meintel explained.
“We don’t claim this inventory is either extensive or objective, because it is impossible to know every religious experience accurately. But we have tried to get our army of assistants to fan out across Quebec, and develop as complete a portrait as possible.”
She cited a few anecdotes that indicate religion is largely invisible in Quebec. In one instance, a research assistant was walking near the Plamondon metro station to list religious buildings, when it suddenly started to rain heavily. She took shelter in the entrance to a building that turned out to be a pagoda; a Buddhist temple, it carried no sign identifying it as such.
Meintel came across another place of worship quite by chance. “I was supposed to go to a event being held at a mosque by the Justice and Faith Centre. When I got there, I followed a few people going inside. The people were very nice, but it turned out that’s not where my event was being held. I had mistakenly walked into another mosque, on the other side of the street, that wasn’t signposted.”
In another instance, one of her students was doing field research on an evangelical church, and when she got there was surprised to find members of her extended family were there. For fear of being judged and misunderstood, many people don’t talk about their religious practice, even in the private sphere," Mentel said.
“People are very secretive about their beliefs, because they want to avoid conflict, even within their own families. Strangely enough, our research has shown that this not only happens in the public sphere – at work, for example – but also in the private sphere.”
Some 233 groups identified
In Mentel's book, 133 religious groups in Montreal are identified along with nearly 100 others in and around Sherbrooke, Saint-Jérôme, Rawdon and the Saguenay. Each region has its own religious particularities.
For instance, with a population of only 10,400 at the time of the survey, in Rawdon no less than 58 religious groups were identified, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Evangelical Protestants, Mennonites and members of the Baha’i Faith.
That story is laid out in one chapter of the book by Daniela Moisa, an anthropologist and professor of Societies, Territories and Development at Université du Québec à Rimouski
Saint-Jérôme tells a different story. According to official data, 85 per cent of the population there is Catholic. People belonging to other religions, such as Pentecostal Christians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, are in the minority.
It's a common misconception that many immigrants bring their religion with them when they come to Quebec, and stay within it. While true some of the time, the phenomenon is quite a bit more complex than that, as other chapters in the book attest.
True, some immigrants establish churches or other places of worship here. But other immigrants of other nationalities, as well as by native-born Québécois, often join them, too. Russian immigrants, for example, founded two Orthodox parishes in Rawdon “which attracted Orthodox parishioners of various other ethnic origins: Ukrainians, Moldovans, Romanians, Greeks as well as converts born in Quebec or hailing from Belgium or France," one passage reads.
As well, “Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic churches are also features of the landscape" in another municipality, one author points out. "Ethnic diversity was already noticeable in this Catholic parish, which in the recent past included French-speaking Québécois, Acadians, Poles, Slovaks, Russians, Romanians, Hungarians, Austrians, Italians, Moldovans, Greeks, Mexicans, Swiss, Belgians, Czechs, Portuguese and Chileans. During the survey, other groups began to emerge, notably from Africa: Congolese, Cameroonians and Ivorians, some of whom were Muslim. The diversity of the population has gradually reshaped the local landscape.”
Quebec-born faithful also have a role
The new book also shows that religious diversity in Quebec is not just a function of migration flows. Native-born Quebecers, too, have found their faith here and also through travels abroad. And it shows: surprisingly, people born in Quebec are somewhat less likely than immigrants to say they have no religion at all – 12 per cent versus 15 per cent.
Ongoing debates over "accommodation" of religious practices in Quebec sometimes give the impression that religion is a divisive factor here. But Meintel said her new book shows that, on the contrary, religion in Quebec can be tool for integrating disparate groups into society.
For example, Armenian, Orthodox and other Catholic religious groups as well as interfaith collaborations have played an active role in welcoming Syrian refugees, she said.
“Most religious and spiritual groups want to help society. There are many shamanic and neo-shamanic spiritualities, for instance, that have rituals related to the healing of Mother Earth, and these concerns go beyond the group itself.
"Also, given the value of good citizenship in a pluralistic society, most of the groups we met had no conversion mentality – no desire to make all of Quebec society adopt their religion."
In the end, Meintel said, with her new book “I thought it important to emphasize the extent to which most of the religious groups we met want to promote the common good."
About this book
Edited by Deirdre Meintel, La pluralité religieuse au Québec, was published in French in December 2022 by Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal and runs 112 pages.