Every morning, before the Ontario Legislature begins debating bills or launches into its fractious Question Period, Speaker Ted Arnott stands and says the following words: “Let us pray.”
Canada’s most populous and diverse province is just one of three – along with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – that still begin every sitting day with the Lord’s Prayer. (Nova Scotia MLAs recite a shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer written by a former speaker of that province’s legislature in the 1970s.) But Ontario MPPs are unlikely to stop bowing their heads anytime soon.
Ontario follows its Lord’s Prayer with a rotating selection of prayers from other faiths, and silent “moments of reflection.” The arrangement is a compromise struck by an all-party committee in 2008, after a public backlash stopped an attempt to scrap the Lord’s Prayer at Queen’s Park.
And the controversy – which even saw then-Liberal-premier Dalton McGuinty admit that his own mother was against him – is still so fresh in the minds of many Ontario legislators that some are reluctant to discuss it publicly. Aides to Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford did not respond to requests for comment.
Leader of the Opposition NDP, Andrea Horwath – whose diverse caucus includes MPPs of Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths, as does the governing party’s – is also not keen to raise the issue again.
“In places like this, traditions die hard, let’s put it that way,” Ms. Horwath said in a recent interview, a few metres from a Christmas tree in Queen’s Park. “I think we always need to reflect on whether we’ve got it right or not. And I am always ready to have that conversation. I have not received a lot of input on this."
Kaleed Rasheed, a Muslim PC MPP from suburban Mississauga, said he has no problem with hearing the Lord’s Prayer first thing in the morning. But he was thrilled to hear the Speaker read a translation from the Koran afterward recently.
“As a Muslim, and as Christians, we hold the same belief of one God,” Mr. Rasheed said, adding that Jesus is revered as a prophet in Islam, second only to Mohammed. “For me, you just respect all races and religions.”
Some provincial and territorial legislatures start their days with non-denominational but still Christian-sounding prayers, as does the federal House of Commons. Some jurisdictions, including B.C. and Nunavut, allow members to read various prayers meant to represent different faiths. Quebec, which has controversially banned religious clothing for certain civil servants, has long had only a moment of silence. Legislators in Newfoundland and Labrador say no prayers at all.
The B.C. Humanist Association recently published a report criticizing that province’s legislature, which allows MLAs to draft and recite their own prayers, for overwhelmingly favouring Christian ones. Some days, the prayers even slide into subtle partisanship or political backslapping: An MLA once thanked God for a federal shipping contract.
Teale Phelps Bondaroff, the association’s research co-ordinator, says the country’s legislatures should eliminate daily prayers and replace them with either nothing, a moment of silence or an Indigenous land acknowledgement. He says starting with prayer wrongly privileges religion, and Christianity in particular, over other belief systems.
“The fact that you are starting a political meeting with a prayer might actually disrespect the prayer itself,” Dr. Phelps Bondaroff said. “It trivializes a sacred thing.”
According to Statscan numbers from 2011, 65 per cent of Ontarians identify as Christian, despite immigration and growing numbers who say they have no religion. And largely Christian social conservatives remain a force in Ontario’s PC Party: Mr. Ford won the leadership with a pledge to scrap the province’s new sex-ed curriculum, only to later largely reinstate it.
John Fraser, a Catholic MPP who is the interim leader of the Liberal Party, says he is happy to start the day with the Lord’s Prayer, followed by prayers from other faiths – although he is open to tweaking the procedure.
“I think it’s very appropriate that we have a prayer that people can participate in, and that we do it in a multifaith way,” Mr. Fraser said. “… There is something bigger than us. That’s a big part of a majority of Ontarians’ lives."
Sam Oosterhoff, a 22-year-old PC MPP for Niagara West who has earned headlines for his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, said the current prayer practice respects both the province’s religious pluralism and its long-held traditions: “As a practising Christian myself, I find it very grounding at the beginning of the day to start in a contemplative sort of meditative place from that prayer."