Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education, Vol 2, No 1 (2012)

The New Mission Field: International Service Learning in Canada, a Socio-Historical Analysis

Joanne Benham Rennick



The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) states that Canada, “has been a consistently strong voice for the protection of human rights and the advancement of democratic values” (DFAIT, 2011). In fact, volunteer initiatives based on social justice, social welfare, missionary, and civilizing agenda have a long history in Canada and are tied to nationalistic values growing out of a Christian heritage.  Today, recognition for religious (as well as ethnic and linguistic) identity are embedded in the Constitution, laws, and institutions, including of course institutions of higher education.  Even as Canadian society becomes progressively more sensitive to religious diversity and religion becomes increasingly privatized, much of our foreign policy “that gives Canadians this warm fuzzy feeling that Canada is a caring country” (Michaud, 2007, p.  347)  can be traced to Christian origins. 

This article provides a socio-historical analysis of the context out of which most international learning programs in Canada have developed. I argue that many institutions and participants continue to carry quasi-Christian or diffusely religious beliefs with them into the service learning environment and I call for greater clarity of purpose in how these programs are promoted and delivered.

[1] For a brief history of volunteer initiatives in Canada see


[2] Some scholars argue that Canada has already failed in this regard.  See for example Cohen, A. (2004). While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart; Welsh, J. (2004). At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Vision for a 21st Century. Toronto: Harper Collins.

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