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Lisa Richmond: The decline of religion has socio-economic implications for all Canadians

Commentary

The little Anglican church in my neighbourhood is sponsoring a Ukrainian family to settle in Canada. Under the Government of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, the congregation has committed to covering all of the family’s expenses, and providing social and emotional support, for the first 12 months of their new life in Canada.

Refugee sponsorship is just one of myriad ways that faith congregations—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and others—contribute to Canadian society. (For a fascinating history of religious Canadians’ involvement in refugee resettlement, see Geoffrey Cameron’s Send Them Here: Religion, Politics, and Refugee Resettlement in North America, recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press).Send Them Here: Religion, Politics, and Refugee Resettlement in North America https://www.mqup.ca/send-them-here-products-9780228005513.php Researchers have long studied the social, psychological, and civic benefits that accrue from religious belief and religiously motivated behaviour. But, how much does the existence and activity of religious congregations contribute annually to the Canadian economy? The Halo Project at Cardus is an effort to answer that question in dollars-and-cents terms.

Our latest research suggests that the activity of Canada’s more than 20,000 religious congregations produces $18.2 billion worth of benefits for society. We use a method first developed by researchers at the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, which we adjusted for the Canadian context. A congregation’s economic impact can be assessed on the basis of 41 variables, in the following categories:

  • Open space, used for recreation or providing environmental benefit
  • Direct spending on salaries, operations, and facilities
  • Education through an on-site school or child care, among other programs
  • The “magnet effect” of attracting attendees to bar/bat mitzvahs, funerals, concerts, weddings and the like, who then spend their dollars at hotels, restaurants, and other businesses
  • Activities that benefit individual people, such as counselling, refugee resettlement, and other forms of assistance 
  • Community development, including housing initiatives and job-training programs
  • Social capital and care, such as food banks and AA meeting space

The details of our methodology can be found in our 2016 report, which was a pilot study of ten Toronto-area congregations.Valuing Toronto’s Faith Congregations https://www.cardus.ca/research/communities/reports/valuing-torontos-faith-congregations/ Since then, researcher Mike Wood Daly has applied the methodology to 76 congregations across Canada and to 100 congregations in not-yet-published research.Dollars and $ense: Uncovering the Socio-Economic Benefit of Religious Congregations in Canada https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0008429820921498

The latest work suggests that direct spending accounts for 26 percent of a congregation’s total Halo impact, on average. This finding has enabled us to create a Halo Calculator powered by congregational-spending data that we obtained from the T3010 Registered Charity Information Return that congregations file with the Canada Revenue Agency. Users of the calculator can enter the name of a congregation, or a city or other geographic area, and receive its corresponding Halo estimate.

There are some important limitations of our methodology. First, some of the variables require self-reporting by the congregation that we are not able to independently verify. Second, our research does not seek to account for negative economic impact that congregations may generate. To take one important example, some people have been abused in congregational settings. Costs relating to their recovery or to the prosecution of the offender are not included in Halo studies. And finally, I want to emphasize that the calculator provides only an estimated Halo value for congregations that have not been directly studied. To obtain the actual Halo impact, a congregation would need to apply its own data to each of the 41 variables.

Yet the Halo Project provides a valuable lens through which to view the contribution of faith communities to our shared life. In my city of Hamilton, ON, for example, the calculator reveals that there are 236 congregations producing an estimated $347 million in economic activity. If Hamilton is similar to other places where Halo studies have been conducted, almost nine of 10 people benefiting from these congregations’ programs and services are not members of those congregations.The Economic Halo Effect of Historic Sacred Places https://sacredplaces.org/uploads/files/16879092466251061-economic-halo-effect-of-historic-sacred-places.pdf

Some faith groups in Canada have an outsized Halo impact. Jewish congregations account for just one percent of the congregations in the data set yet produce three percent of the total Halo impact. Mennonite Christians have three percent of the congregations but command four percent of the impact. Congregations in BC, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario have a disproportionately higher Halo impact than do those in other provinces.

Congregations across Canada are at work each day contributing to a stronger and more resilient social fabric, and the impact of religiously motivated activity is enormous. The Halo Project is focused on congregations only, but other religiously motivated non-profits are active as well. Cardus has profiled the work of some of these: Ve’ahavta provides food and services to the very poor. The Service d’accompagnement spirituel pour les personnes malades ou âgées à domicile (SASMAD) is helping to make the lives of the sick and elderly a bit less lonely. Ismaili CIVIC mobilizes volunteers to contribute to all sorts of worthy causes.

Of course, non-religious Canadians and groups are also active in giving and volunteering. But the fact is that religious Canadians contribute disproportionately more, to both religious and non-religious causes. Forty-five percent of the country’s total giving comes from the 14 percent of Canadians who attend religious services on a weekly basis, as do 29 percent of total volunteer hours. Returning to the example of refugee resettlement, my quick scan of the names of the 130 sponsorship agreement holders suggests that 94 of them are religious organizations.

As the percentage of Canadians who participate in religiously motivated activity declines, these contributions will decline also. The socio-economic effect will be felt by us all. Will other civil-society institutions, or the various levels of government, be able to increase their contributions to fill the gap? The Halo Project demonstrates how enormous a challenge this will be, in dollar terms. If the trend continues, all Canadians—religious or not—will be poorer for it.

J.D.M. Stewart: The history of the future on Canada Day

Commentary

It is useful for a country to look to its past for both wisdom and inspiration. Canada, to its good fortune, has had a number of leaders who have helped to shape the country and lay down the values for which this great Dominion has become the envy of the world. 

One such person was Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Prime minister from 1896 to 1911 and the first francophone to hold the position, he left an imprint with his words. “Laurier reveled in language as an artist might revel in paint,” wrote the late journalist and historian Bruce Hutchison in 1964.  

“I am a Canadian,” Laurier declared in 1911. “Canada has been the inspiration of my life. I have had before me as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day a policy of true Canadianism, of moderation, of conciliation.”

These values outlined by Sir Wilfrid in 1911 are clearly relevant today. You don’t have to be a linguist to see the connection between “conciliation” and “reconciliation”, a theme that rightly remains at the heart of the Canadian project today. A June report from the Environics Institute titled “Confederation of Tomorrow” noted that 67 percent of Canadians feel they have a role to play in advancing reconciliation, including half who say they feel strongly about this. This is good news.Relations with Indigenous Peoples https://www.environicsinstitute.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/cot-report-5_indigenous-relations_june-13.pdf?sfvrsn=dda9b6c6_0

And while headlines were made with the report’s findings that 60 percent of Canadians were familiar with residential school history, the category most familiar with it was young people aged 18-24. Students are learning this in schools. Close followers of Canadians’ knowledge of the past might note that a number such as this 60 percent is actually quite impressive. For example, during the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017, only 49 percent of Canadians could correctly identify it as one of the country’s most significant battles of the First World War.Ipsos – Vimy Ridge https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/publication/2014-04/6466-tb2.pdf History has not been our strong suit but many toil to change this. Indigenous history is top of mind in many classrooms from coast to coast to coast. 

While reconciliation necessarily continues, Laurier also reminds us that this country is about what lies ahead, too. “We cannot unmake the history of the past,” he wisely noted in 1902. “As to the history of the future, I hope it will continue to be what it is today, that is prosperity, cordiality, good fellowship, and goodwill amongst those whose privilege it is to be inhabitants of this good land of Canada.”

Sir Wilfrid’s optimism and attention to positive elements of our nature seem discordant during a period in this country when politicians appear to seek to divide us rather than unite us. When this is our starting point, when we think only about our own experiences and see the world as black or white, when we stop listening and cease to find solutions, we have lost the plot on what it means to be Canadian. 

Yet, each year on July 1 we get the opportunity to reflect and renew our commitment to Canada. There is much that holds this country together after 155 years besides “good fellowship and goodwill” (though we could certainly use more of both, along with a strong dose of “cordiality”). 

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the “Confederation of Tomorrow” report noted the importance of a document that close to 90 percent of Canadians agree is beneficial.Results from the Confederation of Tomorrow Survey of Canadians https://www.environicsinstitute.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/cot2022-constitution_apr-13.pdf?sfvrsn=f7be6631_0)

“The overwhelming majority of people in Canada—young and old, men and women, rich and poor, Indigenous and non-Indigenous—say the Charter has been a good thing for the country,” wrote Andrew Parkin, executive director of Environics in The Globe and Mail in April.  

“This may be the only survey question that elicits the same strong, positive response from supporters of Québec solidaire and of Alberta’s United Conservative Party. If anything in this country unites us, it is support for the Charter.”Are Canadians finally at peace with their Constitution? https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-are-canadians-finally-at-peace-with-their-constitution/

We are also held together by our continuing commitment to fighting injustice abroad as the Canadian government, and perhaps more importantly, individual citizens, have rallied to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion. The grassroots benefit concerts, bake sales, and refugee support exemplify Canada at its best. 

There is no doubt that it has been a difficult year for Canada. Inflation has many families worried. More unmarked graves were found near residential schools. There were the protests in Ottawa this winter that at the very least revealed stark differences of opinion and an egregious lack of civility. But it also showed a growing chasm between the government and the governed. Not surprisingly, Monsieur Laurier had something to say about all of this in what is a fitting message for all Canadians as we celebrate the nation formed in 1867.  

“Be adamant against the haughty; be gentle and kind to the weak. Let your aim and your purpose in good report or in ill, in victory or in defeat, be so as to live, so to strive, so to serve as to do your part to raise the standard of life to higher and better spheres.”