Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Canada

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Jehovah's Witnesses experienced religious persecution in Canada during both world wars because of their evangelical fervour, conspicuous abstinence from patriotic exercises and conscientious objection to military service.[1]

World War I[edit]

During World War I Jehovah's Witnesses were targeted because of their anti-war attitudes and refusal to take part in military service. Rather than being banned directly, Jehovah's Witnesses had to deal with censorship of their literature during the war and the court’s refusal to recognize them as a legitimate denomination, thus rendering unable to claim the status of conscientious objectors.

World War II[edit]

During the late 1930s, Witnesses were tried for sedition because their literature attacked the clergy and political leaders of the country.

In 1940, one year following Canada's entry into World War II, the Jehovah's Witnesses denomination was banned under the War Measures Act. This ban continued until 1943. During this period, some of their children were expelled from school; other children were placed in foster homes; members were jailed; men who refused to enter the army were sent to work camps. In 1940, twenty-nine Witnesses were convicted and sentenced to terms averaging one year.

In his book State and Salvation, William Kaplan wrote:

In July 1940 the government of Canada banned the Jehovah's Witnesses. Overnight it became illegal to be a member of this sect. The law, passed under the War Measures Act, was vigorously enforced. Beatings, mob action, police persecution, and state prosecution confronted the Jehovah's Witnesses as they ignored the ban and continued to go about their work spreading the word of God... The struggle was bitter indeed. Jehovah's Witness children who refused to sing the national anthem and salute the flag during patriotic exercises in public schools were often expelled from class, and in a few cases, removed from their parents' care and placed in foster homes and juvenile detention centres. Men of military service age who refused to fight spent the war trying to get out of alternative service camps established across Canada for conscientious objectors. Jehovah's Witness spent a good deal of time in the courts during the war years; they challenged government policies with which they disagreed, and were arrested in the hundreds and charged with being members of an illegal group.[2]

Duplessis era[edit]

From 1936 to 1959, Jehovah's Witnesses faced religious and civil opposition in Quebec. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church had been the dominant institution in the life of the province of Quebec and a major influence on French Canadian culture. It nurtured the young people of Quebec, in language and faith; and at the same time it endorsed the legitimacy of British rule and of the established economic order.

For generations, the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec worked with the government, schools, and the courts to maintain the values and attitudes that supported the Church. This encouraged people to vote for politicians who favoured the status quo, the existing political, economic and social order.

Under the premiership of Maurice Duplessis, politics and the Church were intertwined as the latter continued to maintain a firm and influential hold on the people of Quebec. Throughout his political career, Duplessis courted the support of the Church.

After World War II, the Church came under attack by the Jehovah's Witnesses who challenged its doctrines. They were determined to seek Catholic converts. In response, the Duplessis regime mounted a campaign of persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses and communists. The result was a legal struggle between the Duplessis regime and lawyers such as Frank Scott and Pierre Trudeau who argued in defence of the rights of minorities.

The clash between Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church became an issue of the competing ideas of freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. Jehovah's Witnesses went to court to establish the right to distribute their literature on the streets of Quebec. They also became political dissenters because during the Duplessis era, a challenge to the Church was tantamount to challenging the government. Any limitation of the Church's authority would mean limiting Duplessis's authority.

Duplessis' efforts to rid the streets of Jehovah's Witnesses took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The legal issues concerned freedom of speech as much as it concerned freedom of religion. The Supreme Court held that there can be no freedom of religion without freedom of speech.

Saumur v. The City of Quebec[edit]

In 1953 the case of Saumur v. The City of Quebec (1953) 25 CR 299 (in which a Jehovah's Witness challenged a Quebec City bylaw prohibiting public distribution of literature without a permit) left the question of religious freedom undecided, with some judges actually arguing that: "both Parliament and the provinces could validly limit freedom of worship providing they did so in the course of legislating on some other subject which lay within their respective powers."

This decision was part of a series of cases the Supreme Court dealt with concerning the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses under the Duplessis government of Quebec. Previous to this there was the case of R. v. Boucher [1951] S.C.R. 265 that upheld the right to distribute pamphlets. Subsequent to Saumur was the case of Roncarelli v. Duplessis [1959] S.C.R. 121 which punished Duplessis for revoking a Jehovah's Witness liquor license.

Other cases[edit]

In several other cases, including Chaput v. Romain (1955) and Lamb v. Benoit (1959), Jehovah’s Witnesses successfully sued the police for damages. In Chaput v. Romain, police had raided a home where a religious service by Jehovah’s Witnesses was being conducted, seized bibles and other religious paraphernalia, and disrupted the service despite not having a warrant and no charges being laid. In Lamb v. Benoit, a Jehovah’s Witness was detained for a weekend for distributing seditious pamphlets on city streets, and was offered freedom from jail if she agreed to sign a release form absolving police from charges of wrongful detention. After she refused, she was charged with sedition but later acquitted. In each case, the accused were successful in defending their rights in civil court.

Canadian Bill of Rights[edit]

In order to obtain religious freedom the Jehovah's Witnesses popularized the idea of a Canadian Bill of Rights and established numerous libertarian precedents before Canada's highest courts (see Human rights).

On June 9, 1947, they presented a petition to Parliament for the enactment of a Bill of Rights with 625,510 signatures. John Diefenbaker became an advocate of the Canadian Bill of Rights and eventually introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights to Parliament during his tenure as Prime Minister.

The Canadian Bill of Rights was the precursor of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which is part of the Canadian constitution.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Legalization of the Work in Quebec
  2. ^ Kaplan, William (1989). State and Salvation. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.