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Opinion

Don't Underestimate Religion's Role This Election

Fast changing faith has forged a whole new campaign playing field in Canada.

By Will McMartin 13 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Will McMartin, a long-time political consultant and commentator who has been affiliated with the Social Credit and B.C. Conservative parties, is a contributing editor at the Pacific Political Report.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

Consider two separate events that took place recently on the same day in Ottawa and Toronto.

In one, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted an Iftar reception on June 22 at 24 Sussex Drive for about 40 of the country's leading Muslim representatives.

Iftar is an evening meal during Ramadan to mark the end of fasting. (Muslims do not eat between dawn and dusk during month-long Ramadan.)

U.S. President Barack Obama has held an Iftar at the White House annually since his election in 2008, but the recent dinner at the home of the Canadian prime minister was our country's first.

In the other event, held that same evening at Toronto's Royal York hotel, Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, attended a dinner to honour Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario.

The evening was hosted by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and Trudeau made a point to be accompanied by Irwin Cotler, the long-time (since 1999) Liberal MP for Mount Royal, in Montreal, the same riding held (from 1965 to 1984) by Trudeau's father, Pierre, when he was prime minister.

Cotler also happens to be Jewish. So, too, is Mark Adler, the first-term Conservative MP for York Centre, who somehow found time to attend the dinner, which, again, was to acknowledge the accomplishments of a provincial Liberal politician.

Macdonald's challenge

Religion has long played an important role in Canadian politics.

A little more than 148 years ago, Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, struggled to put together his first cabinet in time for July 1, 1867, the country's inaugural Dominion Day.

He had to choose from men residing in the country's then-four provinces, as well as maintain an acceptable balance between French and English representatives, plus adherents of the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths.

Macdonald, a Tory, also had to consider that Confederation was made possible by agreement between Conservatives and Liberals, so his cabinet had to accommodate both factions.

His starting point was that the cabinet would have 12 members, with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia getting two seats apiece, and Quebec and Ontario having four.

Macdonald gratefully received a modicum of help when Georges-Étienne Cartier, a leading Quebec Catholic and Macdonald's political partner in Confederation, allowed that populous Ontario should get one extra cabinet seat for a total of five if it went to the prime minister, who hailed from Kingston.

Cartier's quid pro quo, however, was that three of the four cabinet slots reserved for Quebec must be given to French-speaking Catholics.

That left Macdonald with just one Quebec cabinet seat to fill. It certainly would go to an English-speaking representative, but one from the province's sizeable Protestant community, or its influential Irish Catholic population? Loath to raise the ire of either group, Macdonald was flummoxed.

A solution arrived when Nova Scotia's Charles Tupper, a Conservative and Protestant (and future prime minister), volunteered to step aside from cabinet so that an Irish-Catholic Tory, Edward Kenny, could take his place.

Then Thomas D'Arcy McGee, an Irish Catholic residing in Montreal, also made a gracious exit (only to be assassinated the following year in Ottawa), which allowed Macdonald to appoint Alexander Tilloch Galt, an English-speaking Quebec Protestant, to the last vacancy.

Macdonald finally had achieved in the new country's first cabinet a balance that satisfied political, regional and religious interests. Whew.

An early political scientist's question

The point is that religion always has played a role in Canadian politics, even as we were coming together in Confederation.

What would remain unknown for many decades, however, was whether religion had a significant or measurable impact in general elections. Did a voter's religious affiliation or identity affect the way they cast their ballot? Did it affect the way politicians wooed them?

A first step to finding that answer was to identify the bases of support for political parties.

Yet the development of national parties did not occur for at least 30 years after Confederation, according to Escott Reid, one of Canada's earliest political scientists.

The problem lay with politicians Reid described as "ministerialists," those "candidates in general elections who refused to commit themselves to a party until it was clear which party was going to form the government; they would then, if elected, join that party."

It was not until 1878, Reid wrote, that the Conservatives and Liberals became well established in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, and even later elsewhere in the country -- 1882 or 1887 in Manitoba, and 1891 or 1896 in British Columbia.

(Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces in 1905; Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. Prince Edward Island had entered in 1873.)

Once the two major political parties became firmly established, then studies could determine the bases -- religious and otherwise -- for their electoral support.

Initial hints of division

One of Reid's most in-depth analyses, that of the 1930 tilt when R.B. Bennett's Conservatives defeated the incumbent Liberal government led by prime minister Mackenzie King, was, in his words, "not only the first but perhaps for many years the only detailed study of voting in a Canadian general election."

That landmark examination concluded that the Liberals, despite losing the election and government, nonetheless had captured "three times as many French-speaking constituencies as [did] the Conservatives, [who won] over twice as many English-speaking constituencies as the Liberals."

It wasn't a far leap to conclude that since most Quebecers were Catholics -- 2.5 million out of a provincial population of 2.9 million in the 1931 census -- so, too, were many or most Liberal supporters.

Conversely, in Ontario -- which in 1930 returned three-times as many Tories as Grits -- nearly two-thirds of the residents belonged to one of the three (the United Church, Anglican and Presbyterian) major Protestant denominations.

Reid was cautious in making that assumption, however, noting that such "generalizations constituted a gross over-simplification of the real divisions between the two parties."

A 'most decisive' factor

Yet, two decades later, another political scientist, John Meisel, reached that same conclusion after studying voters in the constituency of Kingston -- John A. Macdonald's old stomping-ground -- after the 1953 federal general election.

"While several socio-economic characteristics were found to be important," Meisel wrote in a paper entitled Religious Affiliation and Electoral Behaviour: A Case Study, "religion was the most decisive."

Indeed, Kingston's Protestants -- who enjoyed a three-to-one numerical advantage in the district over Catholics -- generally cast their ballots for the Conservative Party, while their Catholic neighbours voted overwhelmingly (83 per cent) for the Liberals.

These differences, moreover, were long-standing. When Meisel questioned respondents about their historic voting choices, he found that "On no occasion within the scope of this survey have more than 35 per cent of the members of the United Church [the dominant Protestant group in Kingston] shown a Liberal preference; nor have more than 29 per cent of the Catholics favoured the Conservatives."

The political scientist broadened the scope of his inquiry in 1957, studying results across the country when John Diefenbaker's Tories formed a minority government after upsetting the incumbent Grit administration led by Louis St. Laurent.

According to Meisel's analysis, 49 per cent of Catholics had cast a ballot in favour of the Liberals, compared to a mere 24 per cent for the Progressive Conservatives.

He further discovered that 74 of the 105 victorious Liberal candidates were Catholics, compared to just 20 of 112 winning Progressive Conservatives.

Eleven years later, in 1968, when the Liberals re-gained a majority government under Pierre Trudeau, Meisel reported that the Catholic vote had overwhelmingly -- 69 per cent -- gone to the Grits, compared to only 44 per cent of Protestant ballots.

Led by Robert Stanfield, the Progressive Conservatives garnered a mere 17 per cent of votes cast by Catholics, less than half the level of support -- 39 per cent -- the party received from Protestant voters.

A much, and fast, changed country

For much of the 20th century, Canada's two major religious groups -- in 1968, Catholics and Protestants together represented 95 per cent of the country's population -- had distinct political preferences.

A lot has changed in the early part of the 21st century.

For one, Canada's two historic political parties no longer dominate elections as once they did. In the 2011 federal tilt, for example, the Conservatives and Liberals combined for just 58.3 per cent of all valid votes.

The New Democratic Party -- which first contested a federal election in 1935 as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation before a name change in 1961 -- took 30.6 per cent of the vote to become the country's Official Opposition.

The remaining 11 or so per cent of the vote went to relatively new entities including the Bloc Québécois (whose first election appearance was in 1993) and the Greens (1984), who respectively took 6.1 per cent and 3.9 per cent of the nationwide vote.

For another, the country's population has tripled since the end of the Second World War, from under 12.2 million in 1946 to an estimated 35.7 million in the second-quarter of 2015. Along the way it also has become considerably more diverse.

Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey reveals that Canada's once-dominant Christian religions -- Catholicism and Protestantism -- are increasingly rivalled by other faiths.

To be sure, Christianity -- which has over 22 million adherents -- remains the country's dominant religion, and Catholics (12.8 million) represent about one-third of all Canadians.

Plus, the traditional Protestant denominations continue to be sizeable -- the United Church has two million followers, while the Anglicans number about 1.6 million.

Yet, new religions -- relatively new in size to Canada, that is -- continue to grow ever larger. In 2011, Canadian Muslims numbered more than one million, and the country is home to about a half-million of both Hindus and Sikhs.

Buddhists (367,000) and Jews (330,000) also have grown in number, as have those who practice aboriginal spirituality (65,000).

Then again, approximately one-quarter of all Canadians -- 7.9 million -- profess to have no religious affiliation, so the number and proportion of non-church goers also is on the rise.

Still important, but decisive?

Religion today may or may not be as vital to Canadian politics and elections as once it was, but it remains an important consideration nonetheless.

Consider a massive -- more than 36,000 voters -- exit poll conducted in the 2011 federal general election by Ipsos Global Public Affairs.

The survey found that 57 per cent of Protestants and 53 per cent of Jews cast their ballots for Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Those numbers are well above the Tories' popular vote of 39.6 per cent. (And the 2011 election apparently marked the first time in Canadian history that a majority of the Jewish vote went to the Tories -- a result attributed by some observers to the Harper government's Middle East and pro-Israel policies.)

A stunning 57 per cent of respondents who said they attended church at least once each week also voted for the Conservatives, as did 55 per cent of those who acknowledged that religion was important to how they cast their ballots.

The NDP, then led by Jack Layton, scored a historic breakthrough in Quebec in 2011, taking 59 of that province's 75 seats with 42.9 per cent of the vote.

As might be expected, the New Democrats did well with Catholic voters across the country, winning 39 per cent compared to the Tories' 30 per cent and an abysmally-low total for the Liberals of only 16 per cent.

Michael Ignatieff's Grits -- who tumbled to an historic nadir of just 18.9 per cent of valid votes nationally -- nonetheless garnered support from 52 per cent of Muslim voters, and 36 per cent of Hindus.

Religion almost certainly will be an important factor for a sizeable number of Canadians as they ponder how to vote in the looming federal general election. Whether it will be decisive in determining the outcome remains to be seen.

Still, as was evidenced on June 22, Canada's political leaders will be taking no chances, meeting with and speaking to religious groups as often as they can in hopes of capturing votes.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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