November 15, 2023
British Columbia municipalities' compliance with the 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) increased between the 2018 and 2022 inaugural meetings, in part due to our (the BC Humanist Association) advocacy. That ruling determined that including prayer in municipal councils was unconstitutional and a violation of the state’s duty of religious neutrality. Despite this, at least 26 BC municipalities included prayer in their 2018 inaugural council meetings. After we published these findings in 2020, we lobbied municipal staff, generated publicity, and encouraged grassroots advocacy. As a result, only seven BC municipalities included prayers in their 2022 inaugural meetings. We can take credit for some of these changes based on our correspondence with municipalities and freedom of information requests. Additionally, the number of inaugural meetings that included Indigenous content, such as a greeting from an elder, traditional welcome, or territorial acknowledgement, doubled from 38.8% (50 of 129) of meetings in 2018 to 71.6% (106 of 148) in 2022. Secularists must continue their efforts to ensure every municipal council is inclusive and welcoming of their entire community.
Municipalities with prayers in 2022 inaugural meetings
Of the 161 municipalities in British Columbia, seven included a religious prayer. Clearwater included an 'invocation' on its agenda, but we could not confirm that practice from the recording. We were unable to find information for 13 municipalities.
|Municipality||Affiliation of Prayer||Religion||Gender|
|Belcarra||Inlet United Church||Christian||F|
|Colwood||Royal Bay Secondary School Choir||Christian||N/A|
|Delta||South Delta Baptist Church||Christian||M|
|Parksville||Parksville Fellowship Baptist Church||Christian||M|
|Tumbler Ridge||Chetwynd Christian Ministries||Christian||M|
|Vancouver||Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver||Christian||M|
|Canadian Memorial United Church||Christian||F|
|Khalsa Diwan Society||Sikh||M|
|BC Muslim Association||Muslim||M|
|West Kelowna||Fire Chaplain||Christian||M|
The power of secular advocacy
Following the publication of The Duty of Neutrality Beyond Saguenay in 2020, we lobbied the 23 municipalities we identified as having prayers in their 2018 inaugural meetings to end the practice. Only one of those communities, Parksville, continued to have prayers in 2022. We also identified three additional communities that had prayers in 2018 that we'd previously missed (Belcarra, Delta and West Kelowna) who continued the practice in 2022.
From direct correspondence and freedom of information requests, we show that many of these communities directly responded to our advocacy. Conversely, we did not communicate with those municipalities that didn't have prayers in 2018. Three (Colwood, Tumbler Ridge and Vancouver) restarted the practice in 2022, underlining the importance of continued secular advocacy.
The Saguenay Project
This is the fourth in a series of reports from the BC Humanist Association that explore compliance with the Saguenay decision. In compiling these reports, we encourage municipalities to make their council meetings more accessible and welcoming to people of all beliefs and none. Each report follows a similar model and methodology but explores issues specific to the practice relating to ongoing municipal prayer in those jurisdictions.
The first report found that 23 municipalities in British Columbia opened their 2018 inaugural meetings with prayers. The second report found that six municipalities in Manitoba included prayers in their 2018 inaugural meetings. We also noted 4 municipalities in Manitoba that included prayer in their regular council meetings. The third report found that 156 of 328 municipalities reviewed in Ontario included prayers in their 2018 inaugural meetings, and nine of 360 included prayers in their regular meetings.
While our study in municipalities across Canada is ongoing, several emerging trends can be identified: (1) The number of municipalities including prayer in their meetings (regular or inaugural) has declined since Saguenay. Some municipalities responded to the ruling by changing their practices: sometimes abolishing the practice altogether, other times altering or adjusting their procedures. (2) Despite this reduction, prayer continues to be included in some municipal council meetings, particularly inaugural meetings, across the country. (3) These prayers are disproportionately delivered by Christian men.
Our project seeks to highlight violations of the Saguenay ruling with the goal of increasing compliance with the ruling, thereby strengthening the separation of religion and government in Canada and ensuring that all are welcome in municipal council chambers across the country.