Thursday, April 26, 2018

Native Benedictions, Secularism & Treaty Equity

An interesting development here in Canada is the emergence of First Nation benedictions and blessings on public events. For instance, public education events now usually start with a recognition of whose ancestral land the event is taking place on. Then there is usually a benediction by an Elder. In some rare cases this may involve requests for the audience to participate (say turn to each of the four cardinal directions).

It is great to see our first nations being respected and represented. Canada's reconciliation movement is making significant strides.

The incorporation of prayer into public events present some pluralistic conundrums.

Honouring, Coercion, & Voluntary Attendance

For one, state sponsorship/promotion of religion (via public institutions) is a legal no no.  Well, more technically, sponsorship of a particular religion is a no no. Here's an except of an opinion from Canada's Supreme Court (via this law review)

So is having a prayer given by a certain denomination coercion? This is highly doubtful. There is no force of action. What about peer pressure to follow a requested action, like turning to the four sacred corners? This seems to be more of a grey area. For instance, we no longer allow public prayer in schools, perhaps because of its de facto coercive nature. Are voluntarily attended public events run by government entities any different? By sake of their voluntary nature, the answer is, probably. But there is still the legal opinion that prohibits the government (or its proxies) from involvement in religious matters. Prayers are religious matters.

Teasing out Religion
However, when religion doesn't follow Western separation of culture & religion, interpretations of this can be divided. For instance, perhaps the prayer is a cultural expression of saying "hello, welcome" rather than an overtly religious act?

British / Canadian case law takes a fairly liberal view of things here. This view seems to match my (and others) necessary but not sufficient factor approach (i.e. any 6/10 of the following factors)

Thus the cultural approach may be fine, or it may not. In non distinguishable culture-religions, perhaps it depends upon the intent of the act itself? Is the act a religious ceremony? Is is asking for belief? Is it requesting audience participation? Or, is it just a "hello, welcome"?  Can you say no to the religion without also rejecting or being seen to reject the culture?

I'd suggest, at least in my treaty area, benedictions are usually intended as more of a semi-official treaty partner greeting. But, as we'll soon see, that really depends upon who such greetings are reciprocated. My feeling is that they are not reciprocated appropriately and this is why there is more tension (and head burying) than is needed around these events.

De Facto Monoculturalization

One other way to view the prayer issue is to suggest that no particular religion is favoured. All participants and participant groups have equal standing and equal representation of their religious beliefs as expressed through invitational based benediction honours. This seems to be a very Canadian approach - let each group do their thing. We'll all respect it and not feel threatened by it, but rather celebrate each other's heritage.

But what happens when benedictions become monocultural? Say only seventh day adventists start giving every single prayer at public University dinners?

The most common response I've seen to this issue is to say any steps to reconciliation are good and anything that would suggest otherwise is bad.  The issue I have with this is

  1. I think church state separation is good
  2. I worry about the backlash sticking your head in the sand causes (see Trump phenomenon), especially toward marginalized populations
  3. I think this actually infantilizes / tokenizes Native groups in some rather subtle and insidious ways
  4. I don't think it respects the treaty partnerships upon which many blessings / benediction stories are ultimately based.
In short, I think we can do pluralism better. As one person said to me, "its just not that big a deal. It helps reconciliation". Yes, that is probably true, but that argument is eerily similar to the ones Protestants and Catholics used to use when school prayers were around. After all, you didn't "have to" participate back then either....

Doing It Better

The worst thing about the sacralization of these topics is that it prevents rational conversation. When sacralization happens, intent doesn't matter. Blasphemy is insensitive to both intent and context.

With that in mind, let me propose a better solution....

I think the first big shift one needs to make is to view treaties as a two-way street. In my treaty areas, the treaties aren't simple land - benefit/right exchanges. There was an expectation of growing together. Paying for blessings is not growing together. It is, or rather can be, tokenization. Interactions between two peoples involves the exchange of stories - the sharing of moral understandings and values.

When government entities have a native benediction, what is reciprocated? Money / gifts? The conference content? I don't think that exchange is fair nor honourable. What kind of story is the other treaty partner giving back? When there are no reciprocal expectations, there is no opportunity to grow together. The story shared becomes devoid of true significance, and, I'm afraid through good intentions people might be treating the native groups as a type of curio that gives groups "woke" points.

A benediction story requires an exchange of how both sides will come together as treaty partners. This paradigm offers a chance to share what both value and the actions / promises both make. Thus, respect (having a benediction) may be a start, but it can quickly ossify into de facto state religious sponsorship and tokenization.  Instead, if you are going to ask for a benediction, what stories and treaty related unifications are going to be put forward by the asker?

Words are one step. But we can do better. Actions can do better.

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