Religion in Quebec: The bigger picture

Religion in Quebec: The bigger picture


A cross-dressing sailor deported because of her hidden religion. Bans on Protestant and Jewish immigration. A mandatory anti-pope oath for public officials. A restaurant owner’s liquor licence revoked over his Jehovah’s Witness activism.

Quebec was born as a Catholic colony and the vast majority of its population still identifies with the religion, but other faiths have long been part of the province’s fabric.

Now, in what may be a North American first, Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government has introduced Bill 21, which would ban some government employees from wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab, Jewish kippah and Sikh turban.

As the debate rages over that proposed law, the Montreal Gazette is publishing a timeline that looks at the history of religion and religious controversies in Quebec, and how the perception of religions have changed over time.

The chronology is in two parts.

Today’s first instalment focuses on the period from before the French colonization of Quebec to the beginning of the 21st century.

The second part, to be published Monday, examines more recent history, starting in 2006, when “reasonable accommodations” suddenly became an issue in the news media, sparking a debate that continues 13 years later.

Samuel de Champlain’s drawing of the fort he erected in Quebec City in 1608.


Pre-European period

“Each Amerindian tribe had its creation story, much as Christians, Jews, or Hindus have theirs,” historian Robert Choquette writes in his book, Canada’s Religions. “A myth of origins that was common among Amerindians was one that told of a primordial perfect world that had preceded our present world into which the advent of good and evil was ascribed to a pair of creator twins.” Religions “were integral to Amerindian society and culture because Amerindian people were immersed in a world that was spiritual through and through. Their origins were spiritual, their history unfolded under the tutelage and guidance of the spirits, their behaviour was regulated by them, and their destiny likewise.”


Colonization begins with the arrival of French explorer Jacques Cartier. One of his first acts is the erection of a 30-foot-high wooden Christian cross in Gaspé Bay, sparking outrage from his host, Iroquoian leader Donnacona. Europeans coming to Canada were bent on “imposing their cultural values, religious values included,” Choquette wrote. That agenda clashed with Indigenous Peoples, for whom “religious values, being fundamental to one’s cultural heritage, were … to be shared.”


French explorer Samuel de Champlain establishes a fort at present-day Quebec City. Part of France’s goal is to convert Indigenous Peoples to Christianity. Champlain was Catholic but researchers have uncovered evidence that he was born of a Protestant family.


The charter granted to the Company of New France stipulates that only French Catholics will be allowed to settle in Canada. That rule stays in place until New France falls to the British almost a century and a half later, though some Jewish and Protestant settlers are thought to have skirted the rule.


Montreal is founded by devout Catholics Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance. A year later, after the colony narrowly escapes being flooded, de Maisonneuve thanks God by planting a wooden cross on Mount Royal.


Esther Brandeau, believed to be the first Jewish woman to live in New France, arrives in Quebec City on the French ship the St-Michel. In order to work, the 19-year-old adventure-seeker had disguised herself as a male Catholic cabin boy, calling herself Jacques La Farge. When authorities discover her gender, her identity is revealed and she is arrested, as non-Catholics are not welcome. Efforts to convert her to Christianity fail and she is deported back to France. King Louis XV plays a direct role in her removal. In a letter, he writes that Brandeau is “a Jewess (sent) back to France in execution of my orders.”


The Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years’ War (a global conflict that in North America pitted France against Britain), is a turning point in Canadian history. Via the treaty, France officially surrenders New France to the British. Residents of New France are allowed to maintain their Catholic faith “as far as the laws of Great Britain permit.” But in a bid to effectively bar Catholics, all members of local government must swear four oaths, including one renouncing the pope and papal authority.

The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2018.

Dave Sidaway /

Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette


Canada’s first Jewish congregation — the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal — is founded by Quebec’s first Jews, merchants who had started arriving with British troops in 1759. The first synagogue is built in 1777 near the current Montreal courthouse. In 1947, the congregation moves into its current synagogue in Côte-des-Neiges, and in 2018, it celebrates its 250th anniversary.


Worried French-speakers might support the looming American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, the British adopt the Quebec Act, which among other things officially overturns the no-Catholic edict of the Treaty of Paris.

Ezekiel Hart: the first Jew to win a seat in a Canadian legislature.



Ezekiel Hart, a businessman, is elected in a byelection in Trois-Rivières, becoming the first Jew to win a seat in a Canadian legislature. But he is blocked from serving in the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada because other members object to the fact that he swore the oath on the Old Testament and did so with his head covered. The assembly votes to bar Hart.


Hart is elected again and this time swears on the New Testament with his head uncovered. Again, he is not allowed to sit, with opponents suggesting that a Jew who swore on the New Testament “which could not bind him … did thereby profane” the Christian religion. The majority in the assembly support a resolution that anyone “professing the Jewish religion … cannot sit nor vote in this House.” The British government concurs, telling the governor of Lower Canada that “a real Jew could not sit in the Assembly as he could not take an oath on the Gospels.”


Thanks to a petition led by Ezekiel Hart’s son, Samuel Bécancour Hart, the Legislative Assembly officially recognizes the Jewish community, giving Jews full political rights, including the right to hold public office. With this recognition, Canada becomes the first colony in the British Empire to emancipate Jews. After opposing Ezekiel Hart’s efforts to hold office years earlier, the influential nationalist politician Louis-Joseph Papineau backs the move to give full political rights to Jews, declaring that “the same freedom … which I claim for myself, my countrymen … I allow those whose belief is different.” A census shows that 107 Jews live in Lower Canada, most of them in Montreal.


Census figures indicate there are about 500 Jewish Quebecers.


Liberal Premier Félix-Gabriel Marchand introduces a bill to create a provincial ministry to oversee education, which at the time is under the control of the Catholic Church. Quebec bishops vehemently oppose the plan, going so far as to suggest the Vatican is also against it. The bill passes in the Legislative Assembly but is defeated by the Legislative Council, the Conservative-dominated, unelected upper house. It will be almost 70 more years before the province will get an Education Department.


About 10 Muslims are thought to live in Quebec.


A prayer is introduced in the Legislative Assembly by a Liberal member who suggests legislators should “ask heaven’s blessing on our deliberations.” Legislators say the chosen prayer is religiously neutral and will be acceptable to people of all faiths and nationalities.


After a wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, Quebec’s Jewish population reaches 60,000, representing 2.1 per cent of the province’s population. That’s up from 7,000 just three decades earlier, when Jews made up less than one per cent of the population.

Members of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Jewish General Hospital celebrate the organization’s launch in 1936, two years after the hospital was founded.

Montreal Gazette files/JGH


Interns at Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal go on strike, demanding the hospital rescind the appointment of a “Hebrew,” Dr. Samuel Rabinovitch, a Jewish Université de Montréal student, as chief intern. They say Catholic patients would find it “repugnant” to be treated by a Jew. The interns are joined by interns at four other Montreal hospitals. Though the hospital stands by Rabinovitch, he quits. In a resignation letter published in the Montreal Gazette, he says he feels “deeply grieved that the French interns have taken up a racial question in a hospital institution where the care of the sick should be their first and only consideration.” The interns sign a public apology to the hospital for insubordination and are allowed to return to work. The four-day strike comes to be known as the “days of shame.” Four months later, the Jewish General Hospital opens in Montreal, accepting patients and staff from all faiths.

Fascist leader Adrien Arcand.


1934. The Parti National Social Chrétien du Canada is founded by Quebec fascist Adrien Arcand, a disciple of Adolf Hitler known as the Canadian führer. A virulent anti-Semite, he refers to Jews as “scum” who are a “great danger” to Canadian society; he suggests “the Jewish question must be the basis of any genuine fascism, any serious movement of national regeneration.” Party membership is thought to have peaked at about 1,500. Arcand, an anglophile federalist, goes on to become the leader of Canadian fascists. He is interred for five years during the Second World War. Post-war, he runs twice for federal office, coming second both times.


To foster its alliance with the Catholic Church, the new government of Premier Maurice Duplessis decides to affix a crucifix to the wall above the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly. In 1982, it is replaced by a new crucifix. Duplessis’s 18-year reign — marked by corruption and human-rights violations — becomes known as the “Grande Noirceur” (the great darkness).


Duplessis introduces laws that restrict or ban the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, some of whom are involved in a public campaign denouncing the Catholic Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses distributing religious pamphlets are arrested and convicted of seditious libel and breaking city bylaws. In 1946, Duplessis orders the provincial liquor board to revoke the liquor permit for the Quaff Café on Crescent St. The reason: the owner, Frank Roncarelli, a Jehovah’s Witness, had provided bail for hundreds arrested for handing out pamphlets and preaching without a licence. Roncarelli files a lawsuit. In 1959, the Supreme Court of Canada orders Duplessis to pay $46,000 in damages to Roncarelli.


The Montreal Buddhist Church is founded by a dozen Japanese Canadians recently arrived in Montreal. They had been among Japanese Canadians from British Columbia who were interned during the Second World War. By 1981, the Buddhist community in Quebec has grown to 12,000 and includes those of other Asian origins, including Tibetans, Cambodians and especially Vietnamese.


Under Duplessis, Quebec adopts the province’s current flag, with white bars depicting the Christian cross and four fleurs-de-lis, which for Catholics represents the Christian trinity. It is a variation of the flag the Catholic Church had been pushing for. Church leaders had been wary of the revolutionary implications of two other flags popular in the province: the green, white and red banner of the nationalist Patriotes; and the tricolore of France, which had turned its back on the Catholic Church with a law separating church and state in 1905.


McGill University eliminates an informal quota system that for decades limited the number of Jewish students at the school. In addition to the quota, Jewish high school students needed higher marks than non-Jews to be considered for admission. The system disappeared when the Quebec government made an open admissions policy a condition of government grants to the university.


As part of the Quiet Revolution modernizing Quebec, the province creates its first Education Department, wresting control of the system from the Catholic Church. Quebecers are turning their back on the Duplessis era and turning away from Catholicism.


Quebec passes a law granting Montreal’s Islamic Centre of Quebec the right to register births and marriages, as churches and synagogues can. The law notes that “in the area of Montreal alone there are more than 2,000 believers in the religion of Islam, and many more are expected during the World Exhibition in the year 1967.”

Worshippers at the Islamic Centre of Quebec in St-Laurent, the province’s first mosque.

Dario Ayala /

The Gazette


The Islamic Centre of Quebec opens the province’s first mosque in a former army barracks in St-Laurent, now a borough of Montreal. The building is later replaced with a new one. Today, the mosque continues to welcome worshippers.


Liberal Victor Goldbloom becomes the first Jewish member of a Quebec cabinet, initially as a minister of state and then holding the municipal affairs and environment portfolios.


For the first time, most immigrants to Canada are non-Europeans, leading to the arrival of more people from religious minorities. The shift is due to changes in the immigration system and the removal of restrictions based on race and origin. The previous system had favoured European immigrants. Under the new system, prospective immigrants are assessed based on several factors, including education, occupational skills, age and proficiency in English and French.


Montreal’s Hindu community, made up of about 200 or 300 families, opens its first temple, the Hindu Mission of Canada. By 1981, the population grows to 6,700.


The National Assembly replaces its prayer with a moment of reflection. The crucifix remains.


Numbering only about 50 in the early 1960s, the Sikh population has grown to 1,785 people. By 1997, the community will establish four temples in the Montreal area.

Pope John Paul II celebrates mass at Jarry Park in 1984.

Richard Arless Jr. /



Pope John Paul II visits Quebec. An estimated 350,000 people celebrate mass with him at Jarry Park, the largest religious gathering in Canadian history.


Land is purchased in Laval to create Quebec’s first Muslim cemetery.


The Duplessis Orphans’ Committee is formed to seek compensation for abuse suffered by thousands of Quebec orphans and illegitimate children locked up in asylums run by Catholic religious orders. The physical, sexual and mental abuse took place between the 1930s and the early 1960s, a period marked by the reign of Duplessis. In addition to damages, victims want criminal charges laid against more than 300 people. Efforts to launch a class action suit are thwarted, and after a two-year investigation, Quebec announces it will not lay any charges. In 1999, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte sparks outrage when he says there is no need for the church to apologize. ”The orphanages were not places where we beat people and abused them. I’m sorry, but I never heard anyone talk of that.” In 2006, the provincial government does apologize, providing $26 million in compensation.


Fatima Houda-Pepin, a Moroccan-born activist elected as a Liberal, becomes the first Muslim to win a seat in the National Assembly. Twenty years later, she will turn her back on the Liberals, saying the party is too accommodating to religious minorities.


The requirement to have separate Catholic and Protestant school board is abolished after Quebec and the federal government agree on a constitutional amendment. Boards are reborn along linguistic lines: French and English. Dozens of private schools with links to Christianity, Judaism and Islam are not affected by public school reorganization. Attendance at private confessional schools rises over the next 12 years, with ones tied to Catholicism registering the biggest growth, a 2012 government report finds. That year, Catholic private schools account for 86 per cent of all students in private denominational schools.


Quebec is linked to Islamic fundamentalism after Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian-born former Montrealer, is arrested trying to enter Washington state from British Columbia by car ferry with bomb components in tow. He becomes known as the “millennium bomber” after investigators determine he planned to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve. Ressam had been recruited by al-Qaida in Montreal and trained in Osama bin Laden-sponsored terrorism camps in Afghanistan.


Muslim and Arab community leaders in Quebec denounce the al-Qaida terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11 that kill almost 3,000 people. But after 9/11, Quebec “Muslims in general, and Muslims of Arab origin in particular, were the object of accusing glances, were singled out, and were the targets of insults and attacks because of their religion, their Arab features or how they dress,” sociologist Ali Daher writes. Worried about anti-Muslim sentiment, some Quebec Muslims limit their outdoor activities, some women stop wearing the hijab, and some men shave their beards, he writes. Muslim-owned businesses suffer, mosque attendance drops and some Muslims return to their country of origin. In the weeks after 9/11, it emerges that at least 11 one-time Montrealers were linked to al-Qaida.


Census figures on religious affiliation are released. They reveal Islam has become the No. 1 non-Christian faith in Quebec, surpassing Judaism. Muslims now represent 3 per cent of the population, up from 0.2 per cent two decades earlier. The number of Quebec Muslims has increased by 140 per cent over the past decade, to reach 108,620, compared to 89,915 Jews. (The Jewish population peaked at 120,000 In 1971.) Earlier waves of Muslims arrived in Quebec from India, Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon; now the community is growing thanks to influxes from south Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.


The Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh temple in LaSalle.

John Kenney /

Montreal Gazette

‘Other’ religions the fastest-growing in Quebec

In 19th-century Canadian censuses, if you weren’t a Christian or a Jew, you were lumped under “other.” And only an infinitesimal number of people told census takers that they had “no religious affiliation.”

Today, other religions — Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism — are the fastest-growing. And “no religion” is the second-most-common answer when Canadians are asked about their religious affiliation.

In Quebec, Christianity still dominates, accounting for 82 per cent of the population, according to the 2011 census, the most recent figures available.

And Catholicism is by far the largest denomination, with 75 per cent of Quebecers identifying with the religion.

Non-Christian religions, particularly Islam, have grown, thanks to immigration.

Muslims today account for 3 per cent of Quebec’s population, up from 0.2 per cent in 1981.

The number of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists also jumped but they each still represent less than one per cent of the province’s population.

The number of Quebecers who do not identify with any religion has ballooned since the 1970s.

In 2011, 12 per cent of the province’s population said they had no religious affiliation, a category that includes agnostics, atheists and humanists.

That’s up from just 1.3 per cent in 1971.

Statistics Canada has also reported a major drop in attendance of religious services in Quebec. In 1986, just under half (48 per cent) of Quebecers attended at least monthly. By 2011, only 17 per cent did so.



Montreal Gazette archives

• Statistics Canada

Canada’s Religions: An Historical Introduction, Robert Choquette

Quebec: A History 1867-1929, Paul-André Linteau, René Durocher, Jean-Claude Robert

Quebec Since 1930, Paul-André Linteau, Jean-Claude Robert, René Durocher, François Ricard

• The Bouchard-Taylor report

• A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada, Irving Abella

L’histoire des Juifs du Québec, Pierre Anctil

Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

Laicité et fleurdelisé, André Noël

Les musulmans au Québec, Ali Daher

Les événements du 11 septembre et les Québécois de religion islamique, Ali Daher

• The story of Indo-Pakistani Muslim Community in Montreal, Mumtazul Haque Rehman

Les sikhs du Québec, Frédéric Castel

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