EDMONTON, AB – As Pope Francis pays a historic visit to Canada, he is encountering a country that is less Catholic, more secular and more religiously diverse than the last time it hosted a pontiff two decades ago.
And the city where he landed on Sunday — Edmonton — reflects that diversity more than outsiders might expect from a provincial capital in Canada’s prairie heartland.
Edmonton and its province of Alberta do have a large, long-settled population of Christians of European descent.
But Alberta also has had a religiously and ethnically diverse population from its early 20th century founding as a province, when small groups of Sikh immigrants arrived and Lebanese Muslims launched Al-Rashid Mosque, believed to be the nation’s oldest. Its original red-brick structure now stands in a city park featuring historical exhibits.
“We always think of Ontario when we think of diversity,” said Noor Al-Henedy, public relations director for the the mosque. “Nobody ever thinks (Alberta is) such a diverse land with so many ethnic groups, so many religious groups that have lived here for a long time. “
The Edmonton metropolitan area’s population of 1.1 million was about 59% Christian, including 26% Catholic, as of 2011, according to the most recent Canadian census figures for religious demographics.
About 10% belonged to other religious groups, such as Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Buddhist. Their presence is reflected in multiple mosques, gurdwaras and temples in the region.
An additional 31% claimed no religion.
Those figures are echoed nationwide. In Canada overall, the 2011 census found 67% Christians, including 39% Catholics, with 9% belonging to other religions and 24% having none.
That’s fewer Christians overall and fewer Catholics than tallied in the 2001 census, a year before the last papal visit to Canada by St. John Paul II. In that decade, other religious and secular populations grew.
A 2018 Pew Research Center report indicates those trends have continued in recent years, as they have to a less rapid extent in the United States.
The Rev. John Dowds, chaplain for the city of Edmonton, has seen these changes in the “increase in the number of folk from other traditions who really need to find a specific place at a specific time of day to offer prayer.”
Dowds, a Presbyterian minister, worked to create “sacred spaces” in city workplaces for people of any faith to pray or meditate.
The very existence of his position — the only city chaplaincy that he’s aware of in Canada, an expansion of his role as fire department chaplain — testifies to Edmonton's awareness of its diverse faith communities. He and others on the city’s wellness team counsel people of all faiths or none.
That counseling can have a spiritual component, “but we don’t narrow that spiritual part down to anything specific,” Dowds said. “It can be as broad as having a conversation about ‘Who am I and … what makes me tick and where I want to go with my life?’”
The Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action has provided training and cooperation among multiple religious and secular groups.
The center and the city host a rotating display of information on different religions — for July, it’s Zoroastrianism — in the skylit atrium of City Hall.
Dowds acknowledged there are challenges, including cases of antisemitism and Islamophobia. “I think we counter that," he said, by "assertively addressing and then inviting opportunities for dialogue.”
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi added that, in a city with a substantial Indigenous population, some residents may not have a “deep understanding of the struggle Indigenous communities are facing,” given the history of colonialization and culturally repressive residential schools. That is being addressed “through education, interfaith dialogue, intercultural dialogue,” he said.
Those issues are central to Francis' visit to Alberta, where on Monday he made a formal apology for decades of abuse of Indigenous children at church-run residential schools they were forced to attend.
Sohi, who immigrated here from India four decades ago, is the first person of Sikh background and first person of color to be elected mayor. While he experienced prejudice early on, “this is also a community that lifted me up, that provided resources” to help him succeed, and he now wants to help create similar opportunities for newer arrivals.
In a sign of cross-religious cooperation, volunteers to help with the papal visit have come from the local Muslim community, the Salvation Army and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
More than 200 members of the latter have signed up for such tasks as coordinating park-and-ride lots.
“The faith groups look out for each other,” said John Craig, a church elder who oversees a region that includes Alberta.
The church has taken similar steps, he said, such as offering one of its buildings as a rest station along a Sikh parade route and providing supplies for refugees through a Ukrainian Catholic church.
A Salvation Army crew has been serving meals to workers preparing Lac Ste. Anne, a lake that was considered sacred for Indigenous peoples before colonization and remains a popular pilgrimage destination, for Francis’ visit.
“This is going to be a historic moment in Canada,” said Captain Peter Kim, pastor of the Salvation Army Church Community in Grand Prairie, Alberta. “We’re blessed just to be a part of it.”
Within the Christian population, Indigenous ministries and recent immigration have boosted ethnic and denominational variety. Catholics celebrate Mass in at least 16 languages in the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
Worshippers used English and Cree liturgy at the recent dedication of a restored sanctuary at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, a Catholic parish oriented toward Indigenous people and culture. Eritrean worshippers, who also have regular Masses in the church, contributed a poignant, rhythmic hymn in their own language.
“There is similar culture, especially in the Mass,” said Simon Tekle, who is originally from Eritrea. “It’s very similar with the drums."
At the end of the service, Indigenous drummers sang robustly outside the church. Across the street, onlookers watched curiously from the steps of a Pentecostal church with roots in Nigeria. On adjacent blocks, others worshipped at a Ukrainian Catholic parish and a Lutheran church with a Danish-language liturgy.
Francis paid tribute to the region's diversity on Tuesday at Lac Ste. Anne, which he compared to the biblical Sea of Galilee, a cultural crossroads where Jesus began his ministry.
“This lake, with all its diversity, thus became the site of an unprecedented proclamation of fraternity; not a revolution bringing death and injury in its wake, but a revolution of love,” the pope said. “Here, on the shores of this lake, the sound of drums, spanning the centuries and uniting different peoples, brings us back to that time.
The Sikh population began to grow in the 1960s and 1970s through immigration. Sikh elders say they experienced prejudice and vandalism early on.
“The local community, I don't think they knew who we were,” said Surinder Singh Hoonjanbut, a Sikh community leader. But he said that has changed greatly as the the Sikh population has grown, interacted with neighbors and engaged in community service.
Also, growing awareness of issues such as the Indigenous experience helps to build more general multicultural awareness, said Sikh community member Gagan Kaur Hoonjan.
“Movements that help one group be understood opens everyone's mind up to conversations for other communities,” she said.
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