Crossroads of Culture 200 Years of Canadian Immigration (1800-2000)
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Belief Systems and Ritual in Canadian Immigrant Communities

In their efforts to adjust to life in a new country, many immigrants to Canada turned to established religious institutions and mutual aid societies for vital support (spiritual and otherwise). Religious beliefs and practices provided immigrants and their families with a sense of familiarity and continuity with the past, in the midst of the many changes and adjustments they faced in a strange new land.

Belief systems shared by immigrants gave them a common bond that was strengthened by meeting together regularly in worship and/or fellowship. The temple, meeting hall, synagogue, or church often functioned as a community center in which immigrants could socialize and provide each other with mutual aid, comfort and assistance.

Many ritual objects used by immigrants in religious and ritual practices were prized not only for their practical purpose, but also for their symbolic value. Ritual objects typically are rich in layers of symbolic meaning. As religious traditions and belief systems have been modified and adapted to meet the changing needs of immigrant communities in Canadian society, these objects have taken on new meanings and significance for members of those communities.

Using a selection of artifacts from the museum's collection, this module will consider the importance of belief systems and their ritual objects and symbols in the history of Canadian immigration, acknowledging the role of various religious organizations and fraternal societies in shaping the current political, social and ethno-cultural profile of Canadian society.

The first European immigrants to Canada were French Roman Catholics who settled along the St. Lawrence valley in the 17th and 18th centuries. Catholicism was an integral part of French Canadian immigrant life that affected all aspects of society. Social and educational institutions and hospitals were established and run by the church, a tradition that continued in Quebec well into the 20th century.

Immigrants of Roman Catholic faith continued to populate much of Canada over the centuries, but the strongest presence of Catholicism in Canada remains in Quebec, where over 80% of the population self-identifies as Roman Catholic.

Included among the many Catholic artifacts in the museum's collection are several small religious objects that would have been carried or worn by the individual practitioner. The rosary is one example. A rosary is a set of small beads used in devotional prayer. It is customary to use the beads to count prayers. Rosary beads can be made of a variety of materials including precious stones, seeds, wood, glass, precious metals, and (today) plastic.

Small devotional medals, also portable and wearable by the owner, often are made to commemorate saints, famous places and buildings. They also mays be used to bless or protect the wearer. Often coin-like in shape and size, a religious medal may be worn on a chain around the neck. Common images on French Canadian Catholic medals include the Oratory of St. Joseph's in Montreal, the Madonna and Child, and the Marian Cross.

One of the most important objects of worship in Christianity is the cross. Symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, it is the primary religious emblem of all Christian churches. Crosses and crucifixes of various sizes occupy prominent positions inside the church; large portable crosses also can be carried in procession for special ritual occasions.

Crosses may be found outside of the church, in the home, at crossroads, in graveyards, and as adornment on countless personal items. Of the many forms of the cross in Christianity, the Floriated Cross, in which the arms terminate in a leaf or flower design, was a common early variety.

Approximately 80% of all Canadians today self-identify as Christians. More than 387,000 Canadian Christians adhere to the Orthodox Church, most of them following the Greek or Ukrainian tradition. Ukrainians came to Canada in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, settling mostly on the prairies. Parishes were soon established, as settlers were anxious to recreate familiarity in their new environment, and across the Western provinces, communities of Ukrainians were made visible by the presence of the onion-shaped dome of the Orthodox Church. In the early years these churches were modest, but by the 1940s many were beautifully and elaborately decorated and painted.

The painting of icons, or religious images, is a great artistic tradition that dates from the earliest days of the Orthodox Church. A religious icon in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is a sacred image, usually a painting or likeness of a saint or holy being. Icons are found in specially allocated spaces in Orthodox churches. In addition to their artistic and aesthetic value, the icons serve as visual aids and reminders for the congregation of the theology of the church and its sacred individuals.

The iconostasis is a screen that separates the altar and nave in Eastern Orthodox churches. Typically, it is decorated with rows or horizontal layers of icons arranged in a particular order. Full height iconostases can stretch from floor to ceiling, with up to five horizontal rows of icons. The most prominent icons in the iconostasis will depict Jesus Christ, Mary with the infant Jesus, and guardian saints such as St. Nicholas, St. George, St. Michael and St. Gabriel.

Icons may be painted in a variety of styles, but 20th century Ukrainian-Canadian artists and iconographers often painted in a neo-Byzantine style that featured the use of gold gilded halos around the head of the subject and little extra ornamentation. Clothing and pose are dictated by tradition and often are symbolic. For example, a white robe indicates purity or innocence, and a blue garment may indicate devotion or closeness to heaven or the divine.

The icons in this module are from the iconostasis of St. Onuphrius Church, originally near Smoky Lake Alberta. They were painted in 1934 by Leo Snaychuk, a decorative artist from Edmonton. The congregation of St. Onuphrius donated the church and all of its contents to the Museum of Civilization in 1996. It has been reassembled in the museum, and is now on display in the Canada Hall.

Coming from diverse areas of the world including Europe, Israel and other areas in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, Jews in Canada are an incredibly diverse ethnocultural and religious group with a shared tradition that is thousands of years old. Small numbers of Jewish settlers came to Canada in the 18th century, but significant immigration did not occur until the late 19th century, when a substantial wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled primarily in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. Although Toronto and Montreal continue to be dominant centers, Jewish urban and rural settlement throughout Canada has continued over the decades and Jewish synagogues are found in cities and towns across the country. Today, Canada is home to the fifth largest Jewish population in the world. [2001 Census]

The Torah is accepted by all followers of Judaism as the sacred word of God. One of the most important features of the synagogue is the Torah Ark, known in Hebrew as the Aron Kodesh (holy cabinet), used to house the Torah scrolls. The Torah Ark has both doors and a curtain (parokhet). For certain prayers, the doors and/or curtain may be opened or closed by a member of the congregation. All stand when the Ark is open.

The museum possesses a beautifully detailed Torah Ark made in 1923 for the Congregation Sons of Israel in Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island. Jewish immigrants came to Glace Bay in the late 19th century. By the early 1920s approximately 100 Jewish families lived in this community; today approximately 30 Jewish families remain.

The Ark is elaborately decorated with images and symbols. Two tablets depicted on the top of the Ark and on the curtain represent the Biblical stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments that were written by God and presented to Moses. The Lions on either side of the tablets symbolize the Tribe of Judah (one of the twelve tribes of Israel). Also depicted on the Ark in several places is the Star of David, a hexagram which has become the main symbol of Judaism recognized all over the world, much as the cross is the primary symbol of Christianity.

Placed in front of the Torah Ark in Jewish synagogues is a special ritual lamp known as the Ner Tamid (perpetual light). It is suspended from the ceiling and its receptacle and chains are often made of precious metal. The Ner Tamid is a symbol of the menorah that burned continually in the ancient temple in Jerusalem; some also interpret the continual light of the Ner Tamid as symbolic of God's continual presence in Israel. The Ner Tamid in the museum's collection is also from Glace Bay; it is decorated with the Star of David and a Hebrew inscription that translates as "Eternal Flame."

In addition to religious institutions, fraternal groups and mutual aid societies played an essential role in forging a sense of community among immigrants to Canada. Many of these organizations have adopted symbols and rituals from ancient religions and operate under a strict moral code of conduct that focuses on the spiritual development of members. One such organization is Freemasonry, an international fraternal society, or philosophical brotherhood.

The origins of Freemasonry can be found in the stonemason guilds of Medieval Europe, but Masons often trace their mythological origins to the building of King Solomon's temple in Biblical times. As a result, some of the major symbols of Freemasonry include the columns of Solomon's temple, in addition to typical construction tools of stone masons, such as the compass and square.

In the 17th and 18th centuries Freemasonry evolved from an operative society of stonemasons to a philosophical society. Freemasons are concerned primarily with fellowship and tolerance, the development of peaceable and law-abiding citizens with high moral standards, and the support of charitable work within the broader community. Membership is restricted to adult males who believe in a supreme being, but this need not be limited to the Christian God. As a result, some Freemason lodges (or organizations) may include members from several different religious traditions.

Some of the first European settlers and visitors to Canada were Freemasons and many prominent Canadian politicians have been Masons as well, including Sir John A. MacDonald. The earliest record of a Freemason in New France is in 1637. In 1738, the first civilian Masonic Lodge in Canada was formed in Nova Scotia. Other lodges soon followed in St. John's Halifax, and Quebec. In the 19th century, Freemason lodges were established in the Western provinces. Today there are approximately 200,000 Canadian members.

Freemasonry is a hierarchical organization; members progress through various levels or "degrees" of teaching, in which they learn about and then participate in rituals that symbolize moral precepts. Tools of the old stone masonry trade are used as symbols for the various degrees, in effect, becoming metaphors for spiritual growth and development.

The symbols of Freemasonry are found on regalia and special ritual attire used in meetings. The primary badge of the mason is the apron. Leather aprons once served a practical purpose for stone masons, who wore them to protect their clothing while working. For Freemasons, the apron is a badge of membership that must be worn by all Freemasons during meetings. It is the first gift of the master to apprentice, once he has been initiated into the Lodge.

Masonic aprons generally are made of white leather, and they may be decorated with symbolic designs. Some of these include the compass and square, the columns of Solomon's temple, the all-seeing eye of the Supreme Being, Jacob's Ladder (hope, faith and charity), the beehive (industry and hard work), the anchor (security, stability), and the three steps (the three degrees of Masonry).

Masonic medals (also known as "jewels" or "badges") are worn by members to mark initiation into various degrees, or to commemorate years of service to a Masonic Lodge. These medals are decorated with Masonic symbols such as the square and compass, and the all-seeing eye. The silver-coloured badge in this set also features the symbol of the 47th Problem of Euclid, also known as the Pythagorean Theorem (a formula expressing the relationship in size between the sides of a right-angled triangle, which would have been of practical use to stonemasons).

Another fraternal society which has played an important role in Canada's history is The Orange Order. A Protestant fraternal society, the Orange Order was formed in Ireland in the late 18th century, to commemorate the victory of Sir William of Orange (a Protestant) over the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690; as a result of this victory, Sir William then became King William III of England.

Immigrants from Ireland brought the Orange Order to Canada, and the Grand Orange Lodge of British North America was established in 1830 near Brockville, Ontario. English, Scottish and European Protestants immigrating to Canada also joined, and eventually the order ceased to belong solely to the Irish, or to immigrants. It remains, however, a Protestant institution whose members profess loyalty to the Crown of England and the government of Canada. Ontario is the heartland of the movement in Canada, but members in significant numbers also are found in Newfoundland.

Familiar institutions like the Orange Order helped male immigrants to feel more at home in their new environment. Meetings in lodges helped to solidify social networks and provided new members with a sense of belonging to the wider community. The Orange Order also provided social benefits to members in the event of illness or death.

Many of the symbols, rituals and organizational structures of the Orange Order were adopted from Freemasonry. Like Freemasonry, the Orange Order is a ritual bound society. Organizations of Orangemen are known as Lodges, and, as in Freemasonry, members progress through various degrees or stages. Some of the symbols common to both organizations include the all-seeing eye, Jacob's ladder, the sun, moon and stars. Symbols exclusive to the Orange Order include the open Protestant bible and the figure of King William on horseback.

The museum possesses in its collection a number of artifacts from Orange Lodges. Perhaps the most unusual is an Orange crown from the late 19th century, which is an example of a distinctly Canadian blending of traditions. Its beading indicates that it probably was made by a First Nations individual from the Haudenosaunee (Eastern Iroquois) for an Orange Lodge. Orange Order symbols on the crown include King William of Orange on a white horse, Jacob's ladder, and the Ark of the Covenant.

The image of King William III is found on many objects from the Orange Order, including furniture. One of the most elaborately decorated pieces in the museum's collection from the Orange Order is the Worshipful Masters chair, constructed in the late 19th century. The many and varied symbols on the chair indicate that it might have been used for more than one function. In addition to the figure of King William in gold, the chair is decorated with symbols from the various degrees including pillars and arches, the colour blue, Jacob's ladder, the Star of the East, and twelve candle holders symbolizing the twelve apostles.

Buddhism came to North America with Asian immigrants in the late 1800s, but Buddhist practice in Canada grew significantly after the influx of Southeast Asian refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today over 300,000 Canadians self-identify as Buddhists.

Asian immigrants have brought a variety of Buddhist traditions to Canada. All forms of Buddhism share a basic core of teachings that are connected with the narrative of the Buddha's life. Buddha, the founder of the religion, functions as a paradigm, embodying the ideals of compassion, selflessness and wisdom that are central to the tradition.

Buddhist temples, like the churches and synagogues of Jewish and Christian immigrants, have become important community centers for refugees and immigrants in Canadian cities. For refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam suffering the traumas of war, genocide, displacement and loss, the temple has played a significant role in rebuilding shattered lives, providing spiritual and emotional guidance and support in a familiar linguistic and cultural context.

Buddhist temples in Canada usually contain a shrine that displays important ritual objects, including many statues of the Buddha, large and small, in standard seated, standing and reclining poses. At home, a Buddhist often will have a small shrine as well adorned with Buddha images and statues.

The Buddha is said to have worn a humble robe made of patched pieces of cloth that were donated to him. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia wear saffron or ochre coloured robes in imitation of the Buddha, and to represent their detachment from material possessions. In Southeast Asia, new robes are presented to monks by members of the community every year during the Kathina ceremony following the rainy season. The robes are presented in a bundle and usually are combined with foods and other gifts that are carried in a procession to the monastery. This tradition continues in Buddhist temples here in Canada.

Many other traditions of Buddhist practice have been modified in order to adapt to the Canadian environment. For instance, Buddhist monks in Canadian communities do not go door-to-door on alms rounds as they would in Cambodia, Laos or Thailand. Instead, food for the monks is brought to the temple by members of the community. However, the alms bowl is still an important symbol of Buddhism and of the sangha (community of monks), and it is used regularly on important Buddhist ritual occasions to present rice and food to the monks.

Paintings depicting scenes from the Buddha's life, or teachings of the dharma, are found in many Buddhist temples in Canada. In addition to being beautifully decorative works of art, these paintings serve a practical purpose, as visual representations of the Buddhist cosmology and as reminders of sacred stories and teachings that are central to the Buddhist tradition. The museum possesses a unique Buddhist painting from Cambodia that is rich in layers of symbols.

The Buddha is depicted here [at left] in three separate settings. First, in the realm of the heavens, he preaches the dharma surrounded by tevoda (heavenly beings) and gods. He then descends from the heavens escorted by the tevoda and gods. Finally on earth (bottom) he again preaches the dharma to monks and lay people. Beyond illustrating this basic story, the painting contains many specific symbols of Cambodian culture. The tevoda flying in the clouds in the middle of the painting are holding Cambodian musical instruments, and they are dressed in Cambodian textiles of silk embroidered with traditional designs. Also, the Buddha is descending to earth accompanied by two Hindu Gods—the blue faced Indra, and the multi-faced Brahma. Cambodian Buddhism has incorporated elements of Hinduism (which predates Buddhism in Cambodia) into Buddhist ritual practice and cosmology. This painting not only reminds Cambodian Buddhists of a well-known story in the life of the Buddha but also acts as a powerful affirmation of traditional Cambodian culture.

Not all refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia are Buddhist. Minority Christian populations (primarily Roman Catholic) existed in Vietnam prior to the political upheavals of the 1970s and some of the Vietnamese refugees coming to Canada belonged to this minority group. In addition, some Vietnamese refugees converted to Christianity and/or Catholicism upon arrival in Canada. By the mid 1990s, Vietnamese Catholic parishes were established in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Winnipeg and several other cities. Today, an estimated 15-20% of Vietnamese in Canada belong to the Roman Catholic faith.

The final artifact in this module is a painting of Vietnamese Roman Catholic martyrs, donated by the congregation of the Vietnamese Catholic church in Windsor. The primary symbol of Christianity, the cross, is highlighted within the context of a Vietnamese setting. A Vietnamese temple is visible in the background, and Vietnamese Catholics in the foreground are wearing traditional Vietnamese clothing, as are Mary and the infant Jesus who, floating above the congregation, also have Vietnamese features. This artifact emphasizes and affirms Vietnamese ethnocultural identity, an identity that includes Roman Catholicism.


With a history of over 400 years of immigration to this country, the fabric of Canadian society today is a rich tapestry of diverse cultural traditions. As ritual objects, the artifacts in this module provide us with a window into the cultural practices of Canadian immigrant communities over the years as they have changed and developed. The symbolic import of these objects continues to grow and to change as immigrants adapt established traditions, objects and symbols to suit the needs of their own individual ethnocultural communities.

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Belief Systems and Ritual in Immigrant Society: Bibliography

Abella, Irving. A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada. Toronto: Key Porter Books Ltd, 1990.

Art and Ethnicity: the Ukrainian Tradition in Canada. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1991.

Benson, George Willard. The Cross: its History and Symbolism. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1983.

Bespangled, Painted and Embroidered: Decorated Masonic Aprons in America 1790-1850. Lexington, Mass: Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of Our National Heritage, 1980.

Bilash, Radomir. "On the Iconography in St. Onuphrius Church," in Robert B. Klymasz, ed. The Icon in Canada: Recent Findings from the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Gatineau: CMC, 1996.

Blofeld, John. Mahayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Asia Pacific Press, 1971.

Dorais, Louis-Jacques. The Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese in Canada. Ottawa: Historical Association, 2000.

Goa, David J., ed. The Ukrainian Religious Experience: Tradition and the Canadian Cultural Context. Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1989.

Granger, Lesya. "Notes on the Ukrainian Icon Tradition in Canada" in Robert B. Klymasz, ed. The Icon in Canada: Recent Findings from the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Gatineau: CMC, 1996.

Hamilton, John D. Material Culture of the American Freemasons. Lexington, Mass. Museum of our National Heritage. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1994.

Houston, Cecil J. and William J. Smyth. The Sash Canada Wore: a Historical Geography of the Orange Order in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

Keleher, Serge. "Ukrainian Church Iconography in Canada: Models and their Spiritual Significance," in Goa, ed. The Ukrainian Religious Experience: Tradition and the Canadian Cultural Context. Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1989.

Klymasz, Robert B, ed. The Icon in Canada: Recent Findings from the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Gatineau: CMC, 1996.

Mackey, Albert Gallatin. Lexicon and History of Freemasonry. Philadelphia: McClure Publishing Company, 1911.

McLellan, Janet. Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Olivier, Victor. Caodai Spiritualism: a Study of Religion in Vietnamese Society. Leiden: Brill, 1976.

Pick, Fred and G. Norman Knight. The Pocket History of Freemasonry. London: Frederick Muller Ltd, 1953.

Sheppard, Osborne. A Concise History of Freemasonry in Canada. Hamilton, ON: O. Sheppard, 1915.

Swearer, Donald K. Buddhism and Society in Southeast Asia. Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Anima Books, 1981.

Temple, Richard. Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity. Dorset, UK: Element Books, 1990.