While the importance of religion in western Canada’s history is undeniable, Canadians in general are less religious today than they were 50 or even 30 years ago. Also skewing the numbers somewhat is the fact that, as elsewhere in western society, many Canadians identify themselves with a specific religion, but do not attend services.
Christianity is the dominant faith in western Canada, with 70 percent of the population identifying themselves with this faith. Around 30 percent are not aligned with any specific religion, while the remaining 5 percent are mostly Eastern faiths such as Islam. Roman Catholicism is the Christian denomination of choice for almost one in five British Columbians and one in four Albertans. The other major Christian denominations represented are Anglican and the United Church of Canada, with numbers of Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist present but slowly declining.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is well represented in southwestern Alberta, especially in Cardston, which was settled by Mormons from Utah in 1887. Today, Mormonism is the religion of choice for around 75 percent of this town’s population. Mirroring the rest of Canada, the number of evangelicals—those in organizations like the Pentecostal Assemblies, but also within existing denominations—is on the rise. The vast majority of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs live in the major cities, most notably Vancouver. This city is home to half of Canada’s 260,000 Sikhs, as well as 85,000 Buddhists and 56,000 Muslims. The number of Eastern religion adherents throughout western Canada has doubled in the last decade, mostly through immigration.
English is the official language of both provinces and territories, and the first language of the vast majority of its residents. On a national level, Canada has two official languages—English and French. All communication from the federal government is in both languages, which becomes most apparent in national parks, where by law all signage and literature must be in both languages, and you will be greeted by parks’ staff with “Hello, Bonjour.” The Official Languages Act has many other components you will experience in everyday travel, including the requirement that Air Canada provide bilingual service and that most consumer goods sold within Canada have labeling in both English and French (exceptions include such things as books and items like jars of jam sold at fruit stands). French speakers (around 25 percent of the population) are concentrated in Quebec, but you’ll experience pockets of Francophone culture in towns established by French fur traders, including St. Paul and La Crete (both in northern Alberta).
Arts and Crafts
The arts and crafts of Canada’s indigenous people are available throughout western Canada. It tends to fall into one of two categories: “arts” such as woodcarving and painting, argillite carving, jade- and silverwork, and totem restoration (all generally attended to by the men); and “handicrafts” such as basketry, weaving, beadwork, skinwork, sewing, and knitting (generally created by women). Today, all of these arts and crafts contribute significant income to First Nations communities.
Painting and woodcarving are probably the most recognized art forms of Pacific Northwest natives. Along the Pacific coast—in museums and people’s homes, outdoors, and of course in all the shops—you can see brightly colored carved totems, canoes, paddles, fantastic masks, and ceremonial rattles, feast dishes, bowls, and spoons. Fabulous designs, many featuring animals or legends, are also painstakingly painted in bright primary colors on paper.
Basketry comes in a variety of styles and materials. Watch for decorative cedar-root (fairly rare) and cedar-bark baskets, still made on the west coast of Vancouver Island; spruce-root baskets from the Queen Charlotte Islands; and beautiful, functional, birch-bark baskets from Fort Liard (NWT). In Alberta, jewelry, beaded moccasins, baskets, and leatherwork such as headdresses are favorite souvenirs. And all outdoorspersons should consider forking out for a heavy, water-resistant, raw sheep’s-wool sweater; they’re generally white or gray with a black design, and much in demand because they’re warm, good in the rain, rugged, and last a lifetime. One of the best places to get your hands on one is the Cowichan Valley (Vancouver Island).
Carved argillite (black slate) miniature totem poles, brooches, ashtrays, and other small items, highly decorated with geometric and animal designs, are created exclusively by the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands (Northern British Columbia).
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition