Asian Religions in British Columbia
November 4, 2013
Review By Diana Lary
The cityscapes of British Columbia have changed dramatically over the last two or three decades. Alongside the high-rise towers and sports stadiums have risen new religious buildings. Very few of these are churches. The new buildings are temples, mosques, and shrines built by congregations of people originally from Asia – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Daoists, Zoroastrians – of many different national origins and many distinct religious traditions. Number 5 Road in Richmond is now lined with large religious establishments, almost all of them serving congregations of Asian origin. The road is known colloquially as the Highway to Heaven and is famous well beyond British Columbia.
This wonderfully detailed and comprehensive volume provides the first study of Asian religions in British Columbia through a series of portraits of specific religious communities. It brings together the work of a number of scholars who know intimately the religions they describe. They tell stories that are old and new. Asian religious groups have been established in British Columbia since the beginning of outside settlement a century and a half ago, and they have been joined by successive waves of immigrants. The stories may come as a surprise to many people in an increasingly secular, postmodern society in which religious observance seems to be declining. British Columbia’s Asian religious communities, by contrast, are flourishing in a richness and variety hard to grasp without reading this book. Many of these communities practise religions of Asian origin, but Christianity, too, is flourishing in several Asian communities. In 2006 there were 110 Protestant parishes in Greater Vancouver whose congregations were largely Chinese. Presbyterianism, the stern faith of Canada’s forefathers, is alive and well in the Korean and Taiwanese communities in British Columbia: it was taken to Taiwan and Korea by Canadian missionaries and brought back to Canada by recent immigrants.
The Asian religious congregations function not only as places of worship but also as centres of community and social life, and their extensive buildings reflect these roles. These are places where families gather together to keep their customs and languages going. They are places to which new immigrants turn to help get established, to find jobs and social contacts. Food is an integral part of community: the congregations are places where the best food of a culture can be found.
Besides these benevolent religious activities there are secular issues associated with places of worship. Taiwanese Presbyterian churches are closely associated with the Taiwanese independence movement. Zoroastrians, many of Iranian origin, anguish over what should be their attitude towards the Islamic state in their homeland. And some Sikh places of worship have had complex involvements with the movement to create a Sikh state – Khalistan – in India. Asian Religions does not focus on the secular activities associated with religious groups in British Columbia; rather, it stresses the peaceful mix of religions in this province. To quote Daniel Overmyer, the humane and dedicated scholar who has done more than any other to promote the study of Asian religion: “British Columbia provides a positive example for the future of the world.” He points to the tolerance between religions in British Columbia – religions that elsewhere in the world are at war with each other – as well as to the larger society’s acceptance of a wide range of beliefs and customs. These religious groups have played a key role in the maintenance of cultural traditions that matter to many people. It would seem that the Asian religious groups in British Columbia are a true realization of the multiculturalism promoted by Pierre Trudeau.
Asian Religions in British Columbia, edited by Larry DeVries, Don Baker, and Daniel Overmyer
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. 310 pp. $85.00 cloth, $32.95 paper, Library e-book