Seven Manitoba municipalities defy law, continue prayers at council meetings

In its latest report, the BC Humanist Association (BCHA) documents seven municipalities that have opened council meetings with prayers, seemingly in open violation of an edict from the Supreme Court of Canada. Three of those municipalities, including the City of Winnipeg, begin every council meeting with a prayer. One additional municipality, the Rural Municipality of West St Paul, discontinued its practice of daily prayers following a request by the BCHA.

In its 2015 decision in MLQ v Saguenay, the Supreme Court of Canada unequivocally determined that prayers at municipal council meetings violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Specifically, prayers said at city council breached the state's duty of religious neutrality and violated the freedom of conscience and religion of non-religious residents. The Court found that "even if [a prayer] is said to be inclusive, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers."

Members of the BCHA's research team combed through the minutes of council meetings for every municipality in Manitoba. They collected information from 101 municipalities and found four that began regular council meetings with a prayer. Six began their most recent inaugural meeting with a prayer. Inaugural meetings are the first meeting after an election, when newly elected officials are sworn in.

Manitoba municipalities with prayer at inaugural and regular council meetings.
Municipality Inaugural Regular
West St Paul*
* West St Paul discontinued prayers at regular council meetings in 2021.

The report finds that four of the seven prayers said at inaugural meetings were delivered by representatives of Christian congregations and the remaining two were delivered by council members.

"We were surprised by how many major municipalities in Manitoba have continued a practice that is clearly unconstitutional," said BCHA Executive Director Ian Bushfield. "These practices are based on a Christian supremacist worldview and are incompatible with a multicultural Canada that seeks reconciliation with Indigenous peoples."

The BCHA wrote to every municipality that was found to have included prayer in their inaugural or regular meetings, specifically asking that future meetings be held in compliance with Saguenay.

The City of Winnipeg has said they opted to maintain the practice of rotating prayers among councillors following a review. When the BCHA requested that review under freedom of information legislation, the City returned a single, completely redacted page.

"The City of Winnipeg continues to open regular council meetings with prayer, in open defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Saguenay," said BCHA Research Coordinator Teale Phelps Bondaroff. "Saguenay is very clear, that even an ‘inclusive’ prayer can nevertheless exclude people, especially non-believers."

The Rural Municipality of Rhineland replied that councillors were no longer required to provide a prayer but, similar to Winnipeg, the city rotates between councillors who delivers the prayers and "sometimes councillors read Devotions/Short Stories/Prayers or fables (Any domination or faith) as part of the opening or sometimes comment of recent events or news in our region."

The BCHA's report argues the practice of rotating who delivers the 'prayers' is not sufficient as a council "cannot choose to follow the Charter at one meeting but ignore it at the next."

The act of sharing an individual prayer on any given day is discriminatory in and of itself. Rotating through prayers does not obviate this fact.

The Rural Municipality of West St Paul agreed and replaced its invocation with "opening remarks" from the mayor in mid-February 2021.

Read the report

In Open Defiance is the second report in the BCHA's Saguenay Project. The first report, The Duty of Neutrality Beyond Saguenay, looked at prayers at municipal council meetings in British Columbia. Future reports will look at other provinces.

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