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Ray Pennings: Holy Week matters for non-religious people too

Commentary

It’s Holy Week. For centuries, Christians have recalled the historical events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth with special services, liturgies, and various other rituals. In most Western countries, the day is a statutory holiday. Contemporary Canada confines religion, to the extent it exists, to the private and personal, minimizing any public consequences of religion. 

However, seeing the big picture about religious faith in Canada can take away some of the “strangeness” of religion and is a necessary part of understanding our neighbours better. This is needed to navigate the deep disagreements that mark our polarized times.  

More “sacred stuff” still happens than most realize, as this week’s Angus Reid Institute survey in partnership with Cardus reminds us. Six in 10 Canadians believe in life after death—a figure that has held steady at least since the 1960s. And, speaking of Easter, 36 percent of Canadians agree that “the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event that actually occurred in the first century,” while previous surveys have confirmed that 61 percent of Canadians still agree that “God or a higher being exists.” 

True, Canadians’ group religious participation is trending downward. But that doesn’t stop one in five Canadians from praying daily. In fact, only 32 percent say they “never pray.” Logically, God must be real enough to around 70 percent of us that we at least try to talk to him. Religious activities, including prayer, can seem weird and quaint if we define reality only by our five senses. Yet most of us don’t really limit ourselves that way. It’s pretty clear there are religious muscles in most of our bodies, even if we’re somewhat inconsistent in exercising them and not that comfortable talking about them.

For Christians, (which is the religion box two out of three Canadians tick in the census,) Good Friday is the day marking the first-century crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. It would seem strange to label this “good” except that Christians believe Jesus was no ordinary man but in fact God himself taking on human nature. The ultimate evidence of this God-man is that although Jesus was crucified and buried on that Friday roughly 2,000 years ago, the following Sunday morning the tomb in which he was buried was found empty and his disciples saw him alive. Christianity holds that Jesus’ resurrection made eternal life with God possible for humanity.

For many, such religious expressions feel like out-of-place theological chatter. Relatively few can explain the core faith understandings of their neighbours, Christian or otherwise. Sadly, religion has been reduced to an identity or cultural background that we often see negatively. Some of that is surely a factor in the frequent vandalism and destruction of Canadian mosques, synagogues, and churches. Even so, the House of Commons could not bring itself to condemn arson attacks at more than 80 Christian churches in the last year. Meanwhile, there are 5 percent of Canadians who identify as Muslim, 2.3 percent Hindu, and 2.1 percent Sikh, and 1.4 percent Jewish who report similar experiences. All faiths are seeing increased hostility. Part of that hostility comes from not taking the time to gain even an elementary understanding of what our neighbours believe.  

A man holds a cross during a Way of the Cross procession in Montreal, Friday, March 30, 2018. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

Yet religious belief has personal implications. If the majority who believe in an afterlife are correct (and I count myself among them), the consequences are significant. But it also has public consequences. Religion provides us with a framework and categories for dealing with the realities of good and evil, justice and virtue, forgiveness and trust. Ultimately, the core religious questions help us answer what it means to be human. Our answers to this question matter for how we live and die as individuals as well as how we live together in society.  

The legacy of religious holidays and the opportunity it provides for an increased religious literacy is part of the process by which we can obtain a shared public vocabulary of some important things. You don’t have to be among those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ to try to understand why it is that some do, what the “good” in “Good Friday” actually represents, and how concepts like justice, grace, and forgiveness gain meaning from Easter.  

These may be increasingly secular and polarized times, but that doesn’t eliminate the need to deal with foundational questions and concepts as we live alongside each other. Insofar as these days help us maintain a literacy and shared vocabulary about ultimate questions, they have value well beyond a paid day off.

Paul Kershaw: Ontario’s budget further burdens younger Ontarians

Commentary

All the bragging about gas tax relief in Ontario’s 2024 budget should make us laugh if it weren’t so sad. By the government’s own numbers,p. 71 that tax cut saves about $10 per month for the typical household. 

There are real affordability problems in Ontario, including the budget’s forecast that average home prices will rise again. With property values increasing, there’s little hope that rents will drop. So $10 per month in gas tax relief is just a noisy distraction.  

The real fiscal signal in the 2024 budget is that the Ford government has a serious revenue problem, despite investing little to reduce unaffordability pressures. Provincial plans to restore a balanced budget by means of spending restraint and revenue from future economic growth are on shaky ground. Younger voters inherit more debt, but little help with major costs of living like postsecondary and housing. Here’s why that is a bad generational deal.

Ontario tabled a $9.8 billion deficit this year when just a year ago it forecasted a $0.2 billion surplus. This $10 billion slide into deficit occurred despite budget 2024 committing little in new spending. The most noteworthy spending increase is interest payments on provincial debt—up $1.1 billion compared to 2023. 

Interest payments grew twice as much as increased spending on medical care, and about twice the increase for kindergarten-to-grade-12 education. They grew three times more than spending on $10/day child care—with new child care money coming primarily from Ottawa—and four times faster than operating spending for housing. Interest payments rose significantly despite a $400 million cut to postsecondary spending. When controlling for the number of younger residents, Ontario now spends about half of what B.C. and Alberta invest in postsecondary.

Given how little new money budget 2024 invests, there is minimal hope that spending restraint alone is a viable pathway to restore balanced budgets. Nor should we be optimistic that future economic growth can deliver the necessary revenue.

Ontario enjoyed a 4.1 percent increase in GDP in 2023, higher than the 2.8 percent it predicted a year ago. Despite this robust growth, the province’s deficit ballooned compared to last year’s expectations. Since budget 2024 downgrades growth projections for the next three years, there are serious questions about revenue resiliency if Ontario plans to rely primarily on GDP increases to generate the funds needed to pay for existing provincial services.

As the path to balanced budgets looks uncertain, and the government seems unwilling to talk about new revenue from taxes, younger Canadians are picking up the tab for unpaid bills.  

When this year’s $9.8 billion deficit is spread across all Ontarians under age 45 (because younger residents disproportionately bear the burden of paying for deficits), each incurs an added bill of over $1,000. By contrast, the 2024 budget adds less than $200 in new money for medical care, education, and social services for each person under 45. That’s not a good tradeoff.

Young people take on more public debt even as the province forecasts that housing affordability will worsen. Budget 2024 predicts that average home prices will rise by seven percent over the next three years,p. 6 adding another $60,000 to the $872,000 average Ontario home value in 2023. 

To restore affordability for all, we need home prices to stall so there is even half a chance for earnings to catch up and for pressures on rents to subside. Sadly, budget 2024 predicts the opposite—that home prices will rise by twice the rate of inflation as of 2026.

A person walks past multiple for-sale and sold real estate signs in Mississauga, Ont., on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

One reason for this is that Ontario is failing to deliver a strong housing plan. A comparison with B.C. is helpful.  

Both provinces will spend $2 billion this year in operating funds to reduce housing unaffordability. But B.C.’s investment will be spread across a population just one-third the size of Ontario’s.

Both provinces have similar schemes to discourage foreign buyers. But B.C. is ahead of Ontario on taxing empty homes, discouraging speculation, taxing home flipping, and regulating short-term rentals.

B.C. is also pressuring municipalities to adapt zoning to increase density, making fourplexes permissible when previously just duplexes and single-detached homes were allowed. Premier Ford resists this idea, putting him among the “housing gatekeepers” against which his federal counterpart, Mr. Poilievre, rails.

The bottom line is that Ontario’s 2024 budget piles more debt on younger residents, invests less in postsecondary than other provinces, rides federal coattails to improve child care, concedes it can’t contain home prices—and does all this while celebrating the decision to subsidize people burning fossil fuels as climate change rages on.

That’s a weak legacy to leave for younger residents and future generations.