On First Nations ceremonies in BC classrooms

The BC Humanist Association affirms that in a secular country like Canada, the state has a clear duty of religious neutrality, meaning it must neither endorse nor prohibit any belief or non-belief.

As part of our Secular Schools campaign, we have fought against the distribution of Gideon Bibles in public schools as it suggests a state endorsement of a religious belief and discriminates against those who do not share that belief. Similarly, we’ve supported our allies in Alberta and Saskatchewan who are fighting to end the practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which still happens in some public schools in those provinces.

At the same time, I’ve spoken in support of the importance of teaching about religious and secular worldviews in an objective way, as is mandatory in the Quebec curriculum. Our own polling has found strong support for the idea of teaching about religion and strong opposition to encouraging students to practice a specific religion.

Our ultimate aim is that individuals – particularly vulnerable children – should be able to practice any religion or none, free from coercion.

So naturally, we were concerned when we learned that a Port Alberni mother claimed her child was forced to participate in an indigenous spiritual ceremony at school and that she has since sued the district over it.

Among the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on residential schools was to improve education about First Peoples and their culture in Canadian schools. In BC this has taken shape as a government mandate for schools to incorporate aboriginal culture, language and history.

School districts are now scrambling to create lessons and to involve local First Nations in demonstrations for students. In Port Alberni, it seems this took the shape of having a smudging ceremony performed in several classrooms, with students taking part.

Members of the local Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation claim the ceremony is a spiritual and cultural part of their way of life, rather than a religious practice. However, while indigenous beliefs are not structured in the same way as those of the Catholic Church, they still meet the criteria set out by the Ontario Human Rights Commission*. While the parent doesn’t set out what her or her child’s beliefs are in their submissions to the court, they do argue that being required to participate in this ceremony would be an affront to their religious beliefs.

So as Humanists and secularists, we stand with the parent in speaking out against the forced participation of students in such a ceremony.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Following the mother’s original complaint, the School District apologized for the incident and committed to reviewing its policies to ensure that it’s clear in the future that participation in these types of demonstrations is always voluntary. The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation has also said that they do not want to see anyone forced to participate in their cultural practices.

Priscilla Watts, a Nuu-chah-nulth woman, writes:

In regards to the children being told they must participate, that was indeed not ok.  I can only imagine at this time that a well meaning teacher thought it would be seen as disrespectful for some children to not participate.  That isn’t the case at all.  When we are sharing our culture with others it should be a choice whether one wants to participate or to observe.  Bearing witness to our culture is just as powerful as participating.  The act of witnessing is acknowledged and practiced in many Indigenous cultures and can also be a teachable moment for those students who are non-Indigenous or Indigenous from other Nations in BC and Canada.

The mother also claims that an elder included a prayer in a presentation at a school assembly. On its face, this is also problematic but the context can be important. Students learning about Catholicism could watch a video of the Pope mention a prayer without it being an endoresment. Watts continues:

Nevertheless, when a dancer recites a prayer before they perform a dance that is not intended to indoctrinate anyone into Indigenous spirituality, nor could it. Our culture cannot be joined just because one has heard a prayer in our language, we are not seeking to recruit anyone. It is actually a fundamental part of the dance, it further shows our traditions around the interconnectedness of all things. Spirit, mind, body, land, animals, etc.

The line between demonstrating a religious practice and endorsing it is thin and blurry. Humanists will likely not agree on whether this prayer as part of a demonstration was appropriate or not - I'm not sure myself - but these are important conversations to have as we move forward.

Unfortunately, with a lack of resources to implement the well-meaning goal of integrating aboriginal content into their lessons, many school districts are bound to struggle. It’s unlikely that this is the only case where the line is crossed from learning about and observing a spiritual ceremony to requiring religious participation. In fact, we have received a few unconfirmed reports of such incidents occurring elsewhere in the province.

These are not simple black and white issues. Learning about different worldviews is an important path to promoting tolerance and pluralism and seeing these practices first hand can be a far more effective lesson than reading about it from a textbook. However, the fundamental importance of keeping our classrooms free from coercion must not be given up to otherwise good intentions.

Finally, the BC Humanist Association has not yet had to turn to the courts to achieve our success in challenging religious privilege in BC schools. Through collaboration with school districts, First Nations groups, teachers and parents, I’m hopeful that we can start to allay these concerns and work towards a better understanding of practices.

*Note: The best definition I've come across for religion in Canadian law is this policy on creed from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the BC Human Rights Commission was abolished in 2003). I'm not a lawyer but in my experience the BC Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are generally interpreted using this criteria. The OHRC uses creed roughly interchangeably with religion, only “creed may also include non-religious belief systems.” For clarity, the OHRC defines creed as something that:

  • Is sincerely, freely and deeply held
  • Is integrally linked to a person’s identity, self-definition and fulfilment
  • Is a particular and comprehensive, overarching system of belief that governs one’s conduct and practices
  • Addresses ultimate questions of human existence, including ideas about life, purpose, death, and the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence
  • Has some “nexus” or connection to an organization or community that professes a shared system of belief.

From these points, I think it's fairly non-controversial to view the smudging ceremony as a religious exercise.

Banner image credit: University of the Fraser Valley Flickr

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