How to Start a Church: Legal Pagan Religious Organizations in Canada

cropped-silver-song-banner-2.pngOne of our most popular posts! Reprinted here for your delight and edification!

Keep in mind that the regs have recently changed, so not everything in here might go as smoothly. Let us know how you fared!

Many pagans have a few problems with legally recognized groups.  As a very self-directed spirituality, there is some debate on the validity and desirability of institutions and organizations.  I understand and sympathize with those anarchist views, but there are also some serious benefits that we are not able to partake of if we continue to insist that we remain outside official structures.  To that end, I wanted to create a legal corporation to allow those groups who do not, in fact, wish to go to all the bother, but still get some of the goodies – like events, insurance, property purchases, ability to perform weddings and have a legal or full-time clergy, etc…

There are no ‘officially recognized’ religions in Canada. None. Nada. I know some folks think that Christianity was already an official religion, but it just seems like it, since it’s everywhere and many of our laws are based on its tenets. But Canada only recognizes religious not-for-profits (such as churches, mosques, synagogues or druid groves) on an individual basis and then only as corporations. The ability of its representatives to legally officiate at weddings is a separate right granted after certain conditions are met, and it is entirely civil in power. There is absolutely no doubt that we are aswim in a Christian culture, and that the lawmakers wrote laws according to those traditions, but in Canada, it’s not official policy, nor is there a mechanism for such. Which makes it much easier for us to push for recognition of holidays from other traditions, and we don’t have to put up with the Baby Jesus in our public schools, and our nuns and priestesses can legally perform weddings after they finish the qualifying paperwork as legitimate clergy, and not just as civil marriage commissioners. It’s still not a cakewalk, but it remains much easier than other countries. Stats Can does actually put on certain religions on their census form for informational purposes, and these can change. The past few years offered ‘pagan’ as a option in most places and on most forms, but that is entirely a choice of the statisticians. Paganism IS recognized by the Canadian Military, and that’s as about as ‘official’ as Canadian religions get.

Up until a few years ago, churches were individually recognized as religious not for profit’s largely in the provinces of incorporation, as long as they do not devote more than 10% of their work and funding to social work. If they did, they were considered a social NPO without any of the religious benefits. Each province had different legislation for incorporation of religious NPOs, with a different amount of names or paperwork required.

After weighing the options, we decided to go with the newly re-written incorporation laws as a federal religious not for profit corporation   It requires at least three (3) signatories and two different form submissions.  It used to require by-laws AND a constitution to start off with, but now they are allowed as one document, and isn’t required for the first full year. (So, yay!  Procrastination…) Federal incorporation also allowed us to have signatories in different parts of Canada.   We can have branches all over the country.  Heh. We also had up to a year to elect new Directors, instead of just us, which comes into play if you want to bring in more than $10 thousand a year.  Then you are a “soliciting not-for-profit corporation” and different rules apply, like Board members not being employees… Things like that.

Consulting our non-local co-founder as to intent and wording, we came up with by-laws and a constitution anyway, just to be sure we were all on the same page, in part to forestall as many disagreements about direction as possible in future. A few long emails back and forth, and we now had it fleshed out. It remained to fill in the darn paperwork, and that was quite a task.

There are almost no examples of what the actual documents are supposed to look like on line, and we aren’t lawyers.  After reading through most of the gibberish, we came up with something we thought they would like. The by-laws we wrote up didn’t go to waste, either.   The Mission statements and a few other bits were darn handy for a couple of questions.  A note to the wise, however.  *You cannot cut and paste in any of the forms.  Everything must be re-typed anew, and none of it can be saved.*  Seriously.  Every last bit must be typed in and printed out before you close the window.  Attempting to save it just saves a blank version, so don’t even try to do this at night or over a few days, just in case you are prone to crashing.  Weirdest system ever.  I was really concerned that our writing wouldn’t be good enough for the bureaucrats so I insisted we type the damn thing, but looking back I suppose we could have just written really neatly.

Another choice we had to make was if we were going to attempt to set ourselves up to be a religious not-for-profit with charitable status at some point in the future. Industry Canada strongly suggests that if you wish to do that, make sure your set-up will allow it when you first apply.  We never did find out what specifically that meant, but I really held out for not bothering anyway.  As a corporation we are able to generate funds the same way everyone else does – by providing goods and services – even if our money then goes out to good works instead of investors. As a charitable org, however, the government, and the Harper government in particular, really had many of them by the short hairs. All charitable not for profit organizations are officially required to be non-political in nature. This includes most churches, which are usually NPO’s, though some are charitable Societies.  Those Churches, therefore, are most specifically NOT allowed to engage politically, officially or unofficially. Technically, even people representing those churches are not permitted to express opinions, provide services, or in other ways participate politically. Of course, during the Same Sex marriage looniness, many clergy raised their voices, but they weren’t supposed to, or risk jeopardizing their churches’ status. That naturally never happened to them, but the local Pride Centre, which was also a charitable NPO, did actually have a former board member speak up on the subject (duh) and it lost its charitable status.  For nearly a decade…

So to ensure we have flexibility and the political freedom to operate, since it’s much harder to do good works without that, we’re just going with the non-charitable status. It only works on Canadian taxes anyway, and donations really should just be gravy, not the sole support.  Gives us more motivation, doncha know..


Oh, the forms; the FORMS!

I have jpegs of all of the paperwork we generated and received, since we couldn’t find anything to use as a template when we searched. To make this even easier, I’ll go over some of the more trying bits in detail.

Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act (NFP Act): Form 4001: Articles of Incorporation

Full size here.
Full size here.

1) Corporate Name.

Slightly harder than it looks, and we really wrestled with it.  It has to reflect the religious nature of your organization, but you can’t use Society, unless it’s actually a Society, which has a different structure.  After researching the terms, most etymologies suggest that “church” comes from the old Greek, meaning ‘gathering place for Christians’ . So after some discussion, we brainstormed on other terms; Gathering, Congregation, Grove, Hive, Circle, Sorority, Sisterhood, Fellowship…  In the end, we originally went with Order. It’s hard to get a good acronym, even though we really tried, so we used Dìsir as the title brand. But you can always change your name later, with Board approval, so we just picked one to get the thing done.

After we printed the form up, we called the office up to be sure, and since we had only put Dìsir as the original name, we wrote the rest of it in pen. Just to make it official, we used blue pen (so they knew it was original) and all initialed the change when we signed off.

4) Statement of the purpose of the corporation.

We used our by-laws statements for that.  We already had them done up, and this looked like the place where they go. No one at Industry Canada said anything…

6) The classes, or regional or other groups, of members that the corporation is authorized to establish.

This is mostly about who have voting rights.  Is it just paid-up members who vote? Or a different group in your inner circle that has the ability to vote on policy and directors?  Who gets notice of AGM’s?  If there are two or more levels of voting rights, this is where you state that.

7) Statement regarding the distribution of property remaining on liquidation.

This is actually spelled out pretty clearly in the Income Tax Act, so we just looked it up and copied it.  You aren’t allowed any leeway on it, so why they bother to ask I don’t know.

8) Additional provisions, if any.

Again, these are pretty well spelled out in the Not for Profit Corporations Act.  We copied and pasted the relevant parts we thought we were likely to apply to us.

All in all, nine (9) questions on that form.  Each incorporater signs (blue ink, remember), and you’re done with that one.

Next, you need proof that you have run a NUANS Name search report on the name you’ve selected, to show that it doesn’t conflict with any other corporate names.  We were pretty darn sure there weren’t many other pagan humanist religious orgs. to conflict with in Canada, but there might have been another “Dìsir” involved in some business that didn’t come up when we Googled the name.  It’s worth it not to have that impediment in your application, and it’s only a few bucks if you do your own on-line. Include this report in your application package.

Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act (NFP Act): Form 4002: Initial Registered Office Address and First Board of Directors

Full sized here.

Four (4) questions, all self-explanatory. It says you can’t use a post office box, so we used one of our addresses as the official office.


And that’s really all there is to it!  Now you print and submit all the forms, with a $250 ‘processing’ fee. (Link to procedure here) I used the hard copy mail version, which meant that I could include a cheque for the fee, instead of just sending off my credit card number in an email. Which I feel totally secure about, given all the trust I have for the current elected federal government.

If everything is a go, you will simply receive a Certificate of Incorporation, and the subsequent forms and receipts, in the mail about a week later.  No fanfare, but have a bottle of champagne chilled, say. I got a bit snorkled…  Hey, rituals are important for such significant events!

Full sized here.
Full sized here.


Full sized here. And Here.

Our FB page is up and running, with other congregations and potential members already inquiring about events and services.

Now, since our name change, because goddam Nazis, we will have a board meeting to ratify our new name. It will still be simpler than making a new org, and all the directors are behind it, so it just requires another form. So don’t sweat if if you aren’t happy with your first branding. Try, try again!

I personally love informal gatherings, covens, and individual work, even though I am largely solitary. But many pagans complain that we are not allowed the privileges of other religions – the recognition, the clergy, the outreach work in prisons and inner city, the ability to legally marry…  In Canada, those all come through lobbying from established religious organizations, not some random decision making from the government from census numbers. If we want the goodies the system can provide, we have to create the legal framework that gives us a stake in the game.
Let us know if we can help you or if you have any questions!

Published on Witchvox on June 9, 2013


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