When Government Supports Interfaith
Engendering Interfaith in Edmonton, Canada
by Netta Phillet
The Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action (EICEA) was officially incorporated in 1996, but its roots go back to at least 1992, when people interested in interfaith dialogue began meeting in this city of just under a million people. The Edmonton Presbytery of the United Church of Canada employed Ann Paludan, from Denmark, to draw together representatives of a dozen faith groups, and information programs were held throughout the city.
The first major undertaking was a highly successful week-long course on multifaith conversations in 1995, co-sponsored with St. Stephen’s College at the University of Alberta. It was led by Dr. Mary Hall from Birmingham, England. Fifty attendants studied five traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism and Islam) and visited their places of worship. Provincial incorporation under the Societies Act of Alberta followed in March 1996.
In September 1998, after prolonged and intense effort by our first president, Don Mayne, we qualified for federal tax-exempt status as a registered charity. This enables us to offer tax receipts for donations. Our primary objectives were to learn about each other and to sponsor public interfaith events in Edmonton. The leaders of the Centre were drawn from active and retired clergy, lay leaders and others who had a sincere belief that knowledge of our neighbours’ faiths leads to respect, friendship and harmony.
EICEA joined NAIN in 1996, and our board member Lila Fahlman was the first Edmontonian to be elected to that board. She was a world leader in the Muslim faith and visited Muslim institutions in numerous countries around the world. A local school has recently been named for her.
Don Mayne was next elected and went on to serve as NAIN’s chair from 2000 to 2004. Other board members have also been involved. After serving as a director and board secretary, Rob Hankinson was chair from 2012 to 2016. Len Gierach is the current secretary, and Virginia Sharek is a new board member. Edmonton has sent delegates to NAINConnects every year, and in 1998 and 2018 hosted very successful Connects, making Edmonton one of two cities to have hosted the summer conference twice.
In 2000 Edmonton’s Interfaith Centre undertook an ambitious project, a Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue, with the theme “What I Want Others to Know and Teach About My Faith, from a Historical Perspective.” This was one in a series of conversations taking place around the world under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz of the Centre for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Scholars from Toronto, Philadelphia, and Halifax came to Edmonton to address more than 300 attendants at Beth Shalom Synagogue for two days of presentations and workshops. Subsequent symposia were held in 2001 and 2004. Other conference themes have included “Opiate of the Masses? The Future of Religions in Canada in the 21st Century”, “Women in Religion,” and “Weeping for the Land – Spiritual Perspectives for Healing an Ailing Planet.” There have also been many day-long symposia on topics emerging from Eastern religion – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism.
When City Government Supports Interfaith
In May 2011, the City of Edmonton sent seven Edmontonians, including five from the EICEA, to Chicago to observe the bidding process to host a Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR). For four years a committee worked towards this goal, but the decision to hold the 2015 PWR in Salt Lake City in 2015 made it appear that there would not be another in North America soon. So we disbanded, but not before a flurry of interfaith activity that lasted several years.
In 2012 we joined PWR’s Partner Cities Network. The City continued its support with a generous grant for us to hold a Western Canadian Conference in May 2014: “Faiths Coming Together through Awareness, Compassion and Justice.” With remaining funds we were able to provide bursaries for a total of 23 people to attend Dialogo Multicultural Universal in Guadalajara, Mexico; the NAINConnect in Regina, Saskatchewan; and the PWR in Salt Lake City, Utah, all in 2015.
One unique program which made us very proud was initiated by the City. Recognizing that City Hall belongs to everyone, the mayor approached EICEA in 2009. He wished to educate the people of Edmonton, especially those visiting City Hall, about the customs and beliefs of their neighbors. Our partnership is called “Celebrating Our Faiths.” Since then there has been a permanent display case and screens which change each month to feature a different tradition. Each day hundreds of people walk through the beautiful building and learn about the beliefs and practices of their fellow citizens.
Every year we hold prayer services to commemorate the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrate the UN Day of Peace, and put on a free concert for World Interfaith Harmony Week. We work with hospitals, the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, Project Ploughshares, the John Humphrey Centre for World Peace, and many others. We have a list of knowledgeable members and contacts willing to answer the wide variety of requests we receive for speakers.
“Interfaith Explorations” take us to different places of worship where our members have the opportunity to observe a service and perhaps have a tour of the building and a special lecture. Over 20-plus years we have visited many mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples, and churches.
Since our inception we have been aware of the issues facing Canada’s Indigenous people, the generational trauma caused by 500 years of colonial oppression, and policies which many describe as genocidal. It is one of the most crucial issues facing our country and was a major focus of NAIN 2018. Edmonton is situated on land covered by Treaty 6, signed in 1876 between the Crown (later known as Canada) and the first peoples of this area, including the Metis of Northern Alberta.
Due to its location this area was both home and a meeting place of these first inhabitants for many centuries. The river crossing at Fort Edmonton brought a fur-trading post which was a major center of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Our Indigenous population is the largest in Canada, and we are committed to doing everything we can to be their allies. The country-wide Truth & Reconciliation Commission which met for several years had its final hearings here, and we were asked to organize a multifaith panel discussion on the topic of forgiveness. More than 300 attended.
We have a program called “Walking Together,” an intergenerational program to teach appreciation of religious diversity to children ages 10 to 15 and their parents. The curriculum so far covers Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. We were also involved with the Alberta Teachers’ Association in the preparation of the “Safe and Caring Schools and Communities” booklets which were sent to schools throughout the province.
A new challenge we are taking up is religious literacy. We know that religion is an integral part of life for many, especially some of our new Canadians. The current animosity to religion in the public sphere, including schools, means a loss of knowledge of literature, classics, history, art, music, politics, philosophy and more. If we do not know our neighbors, we are more easily led to believe untruths about them. Ignorance creates a vacuum, and something will fill it.
Overall, we are very pleased with our first quarter century doing this this important work and feel we are fulfilling our original mandate through education and action.
Header Photo: Wikimedia