The first step to decolonizing Humanism

We acknowledge that this event takes place on the traditional and unceded shared territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skxwú7mesh (Squamish) & səlil̓wətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

Attend nearly any event in Vancouver in the past few years, particularly ones held by progressive organizations, and you are likely to hear some variation on those words. The practice of territorial acknowledgements has spread farther, with variations in communities across Canada and the USA recognizing the local indigenous peoples.

For many Humanists, these statements can be reminiscent of ritualistic Christian prayers that have often been said before formal events (and in some places still are). This is further complicated when a local indigenous elder is invited to give the acknowledgement and they invoke a deity — either from their own spiritual traditions or in some cases the Christian God.

But given our commitment to reason, we should resist knee jerk reactions and look critically at these issues.

An estimate of the overlapping territories of First Nations in British Columbia via

British Columbia, as it is today, is the result of European explorers invoking what was known as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. The Doctrine of Discovery was a tool of competing European monarchies whereby they would only recognize claims to lands made by representatives of other Christian monarchs. Similarly, terra nullius is a Latin phrase meaning “nobody’s land” and represents the theory that if no European nation had made a prior claim to a territory, a European explorer could claim it for their country. Through these related concepts, much of the land belonging to the indigenous nations along the west coast was claimed by British colonists, including BC’s first Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Trutch.

This is what it means when much of British Columbia is described as “unceded” territory. No war was fought, no treaty was signed, no exchange was made. Settlers merely started moving onto these lands and eventually they forced those who’d been living here prosperously for tens of thousands of years onto smaller and smaller Indian Reserves.

At the same time, the Government of Canada also began expanding the Residential School program, largely through partnerships with the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches.

The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change. — Prime Minister John A MacDonald

The effect of these schools is well documented through the thorough work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose final report is worth the time to read. Among its Calls to Action (which the BCHA has endorsed) is that we “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.”

This should be a low bar for Humanists. We already reject the existence of the divine, so the divine right of kings and queens that was used to justify the colonization of these lands is logically also nullified. Therefore, we should see no challenge in asking by what basis British Columbia and Canada has to claim these lands.

Indigenous village, photo by ArtTower from Pixabay

Of course, to raise such questions is to invite consideration of serious and radical challenges to the legitimacy of the society we live and work in. However, as Humanists we shouldn’t shy away from denying a truth because of potentially unsettling consequences.

If we set aside (for now) those larger ramifications, we can at least start with some practical first steps toward reconciliation. This is where territorial acknowledgements come in.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls’ Calls for Justice for All Canadians asks us to:

15.2 Decolonize by learning the true history of Canada and Indigenous history in your local area. Learn about and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ history, cultures, pride, and diversity, acknowledging the land you live on and its importance to local Indigenous communities, both historically and today.

Territorial acknowledgements are a symbolic recognition of the local indigenous history by recognizing the first peoples of these lands and the relationship of the current state to those Nations. The practice evolved out of traditions of many indigenous peoples that would begin gatherings by recognizing the lands that they met on. For settlers and the decedents of settlers (like myself), it can be the first step in acknowledging the continuing injustices that undermine the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples.

As a core principle of Humanism is affirming the rights and dignity of every human being, the Board of Directors of the BCHA recommends we adopt the practice for our own meetings and work.

Of course, acknowledging the land is only a small first step.

One of the criticisms levelled against territorial acknowledgements by indigenous activists, and others, is that it’s too often merely a form of lip service. A way to say the words of reconciliation without doing the hard work. And I agree that this criticism can be valid.

For me, however, this is not a reason not to adopt the practice but rather it’s a reason to make sure it is only the first step of decolonizing our institutions. This isn’t a choice between doing nothing and meaningless virtue signalling: We can use territorial acknowledgements as a launching point from which to begin conversations about our role in affirming the worth and dignity of all people.

Finally, there remains the unresolved tension for Humanists of indigenous elders delivering a welcome that might incorporate spiritual or religious themes.

The BC Humanist Association’s supports a secular society that affirms the right of every individual to practice any religion or none, free from coercion by the government, private institutions or their community and that the state has a duty of religious neutrality, meaning it must neither endorse nor prohibit any belief or non-belief.

As I understand it, this type of welcome is a traditional practice for many First Nations that is not intended to promote or proselytize an indigenous worldview but merely to welcome guests and affirm the connection with the land. This is in contrast to Christian or other Abrahamic prayers said at similar events that are far more often coercive in intent and nature. By this I mean they’re intended to show the dominance of the religion and pressure others to convert to that worldview.

It is clear from Canada’s history that the state has long taken an active role in not just prohibiting indigenous beliefs but actively suppressing them by force. These actions are described by the TRC and MMIWG as genocide.

Unsurprisingly then, many of the young indigenous activists that I’ve met are eager to preserve elements of their culture, whether those elements would be deemed secular or spiritual by you or me. And this holds true regardless of whether those activists believe in the spiritual elements in the way a Christian believes in God and the resurrection of Jesus.

It’s also the case that many of the elders who are invited to provide these acknowledgements are survivors of Residential Schools. During those formative years, many adopted some level of Christian beliefs and their contemporary invocations reflect that.

While I think this is all important context for these discussions, I don’t think any of this points us in a specific direction to solve our initial dilemma, however.

Supreme Court of Canada, photo by Ian Bushfield

The Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay is clear that the state has a “duty of religious neutrality.” The court wrote:

The state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others.

Additionally, Canadian courts and Human Rights Tribunals have been consistent that intent matters less than impact. Rather, we must consider whether it can reasonably be argued that an indigenous welcome with spiritual elements will discourage the participation of non-indigenous Canadians, regardless of the elder’s (and the state’s) intention.

I would argue the precedent in Saguenay pretty clearly sets out that a government-run event shouldn’t open with a Christian prayer, regardless of the source. However, it is less clear to me whether an indigenous elder’s use of the word “Creator” could be seen as equally detrimental to the participation of non-indigenous Canadians (whether they believe in any Creator or not).

A further complication is that dictating what an invited elder can or cannot say as part of their welcome could be seen to be part of a continuation of the subjugation of indigenous peoples by the state that borders on a suppression of their freedom of expression or religion.

Perhaps one way out of this dilemma is to apply the logic of subsection 15(2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15 guarantees the equality rights of every Canadian. Subsection 2 states that the section

…does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

This caveat allows the government to proactively combat discrimination. While contentious in some quarters, this approach allows us to recognize the privileged position that Christianity enjoys in Canadian society relative to other religious and non-religious worldviews. Under this analysis, there could be room for an indigenous elder to give a spiritual welcome before an official as a way of recognizing and attempting to right history’s wrongs.

Finally, if we take seriously the ramifications of the unjust colonization of much of these lands, then the answer ultimately shouldn’t come from what colonial institutions will “permit” but rather from actively engaging with indigenous leaders themselves. Through that dialogue Humanists can support territorial welcomes while also making the case for those invocations to adopt inclusive language.

I don’t pretend to have arrived at a conclusion as to how to reconcile these questions and nor has the BCHA itself. Undoubtedly any formal position one way or another will provoke disagreement from one subset of our membership or another. In any case, our goal should be to begin these conversations, to take seriously the competing values, to have compassion for all who engage with us and to respect one another where we may otherwise disagree.

I hope that this initial step can serve as a sign that the BCHA takes its role in working toward reconciliation seriously. Unpacking our history will be an important step in this process. It will require us to look critically at our own organizations and structures and how those can be decolonized.

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