I enjoyed being in Vancouver the first week of the Olympics. The city has never looked so good—brand new buildings and new infrastructure. Of course, it helped that the world was on our doorstep and Canada was winning a few gold medals. We discovered our inner patriotism!
During the Olympics, I started thinking about our next great national event, just seven years from now: Canada’s 150th anniversary. Just after I returned to Ottawa from Vancouver, I attended what was billed as the first conference looking forward to 2017, held at the National Arts Centre by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. The conference attendees were mostly public administrators from the federal and provincial governments, but there were a few business, NGO, and academic representatives. I saw no indication that religious organizations were invited or represented. This seemed like a serious omission to me, and it was really the reason I decided to attend.
Looking ahead to the national celebration of Canada at 150, Christians and churches can prepare their engagements by learning a bit about our last national anniversary: Expo 67 in Montreal.
Look around your community and you are likely to find a centennial project—in Ottawa, there were many. That flaming fountain in front of the Parliament buildings, often mis-called the “eternal flame,” is actually the Centennial Flame. The National Arts Centre itself was a centennial project. I had not noticed before the conference that the floor and ceiling have a triangle motif to mirror the triangles of the 1967 logo.
Communities, neighbourhoods, and individuals were encouraged to participate in a variety of ways. My parents spent the summer of 1967 building a centennial rose garden in our back yard. We lived on very rocky soil so this involved a lot of back-breaking labour with a pick axe and bringing in yards of top soil before planting the roses.
In 1967, religion was not quite as privatized as it is today. Gary Miedema, author of For Canada’s Sake (McGill-Queens University Press, 2005), documents that July 1, 1967 started with a sunrise Christian service on Parliament Hill attended by the Queen. (Could we try that again in 2017?)
Churches and Christians have a strong interest in community development. Cardus, for example, has had a significant focus on religion, communities, and urban development. Churches can and should be at the forefront of building strong communities. Look at what Youth for Christ is doing as they build a $12 million youth facility in downtown Winnipeg.
So if 2017 unfolds as did 1967, churches should prepare now to be involved with local discussions about improving community infrastructure. The first thing we ought to be doing is sitting at the table, discussing everything from celebrating to building to beautifying. Weren’t Adam and Eve placed in a garden that was “beautiful to the eye”?
Now is the time for a word of caution. As churches engage with their communities in this way, they must always keep in mind the boundaries of the appropriate separation of church and state. We must neither be co-opted as uncritical supporters of the state, nor must we accept exclusion from the public square.
And this leads to the second way that churches and Christians can engage with Canada at 150: this is the time to tell our stories. Prime Minister Trudeau made a speech declaring that “the golden thread of faith is woven throughout the history of Canada from its earliest beginnings up to the present time.” This is a golden opportunity to tell some of those stories. Many Christians love to point out the Scripture passages over the arches on the Peace Tower at Centre Block from Psalm 72 and Proverbs 29:18. But who put them there? We know Nellie McClung as one of the Famous Five who brought the Persons Case to the House of Lords to allow women to sit as Senators. But how many know that one of her motivations was to push Prohibition because as a Christian she was appalled to see the devastation alcoholism brought to families?
Christians founded charities, hospitals, and universities. They were the Fathers of Confederation with a vision of Canada from sea to sea. They impacted communities, cities, provinces, and the nation. They made Canada a better place. Though Canadians pride themselves on being humble, 2017 will be a time for story-telling. And we can take the opportunity to tell our stories.
A third way that Christians can engage with the sesquicentennial is to use it as a time to take stock. Anniversaries are always about celebrating the past and looking forward to the future. So, where has the Church been and where is it going now? Over the past few years, we have witnessed the demise of mainline churches and the rise of the new emergent church. What was once the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, wielding significant political power—the United Church of Canada—has been on a steady decline. Even their recent controversial advertising campaign has not filled any pews. But young people are finding their own way with their own churches that have a heavy focus on social justice. Isn’t that what the United Church stood for? What is happening, and why? The 150-year mark seems as good a time as any to look at these issues.
I noted with interest that the recent Liberal Thinkfest was titled “Canada at 150.” And at the conference, the CBC pledged to hold community consultations across Canada. This is just the beginning, and no doubt this will snowball over the next few months and years. Now is definitely the time to start thinking about whether and how to engage.
Can or should the Church take these suggestions and engage in these ways? Of course they should. We can and should always reach out to our communities. We can and should always be telling our stories. We can and should evaluate where we are at and what we should be doing next.
But 2017 will be a strategic opportunity to engage in new ways. When I was at the conference, people asked me why churches would have any interest in this. I replied that churches always have an interest in the communities around them. This seemed to surprise people.
We have work to do to show our communities that we do care. We are not just clubs for our members, or even service clubs to benefit the community; we are communities of God’s love.