First Nations leadership needs to work together with both sides of pipeline debate to determine the best path forward
Over the past few weeks, the divisive issue of energy development and pipelines has returned to the national spotlight due to Wet’suwet’en First Nation protests against the planned construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
This recent conflict between First Nations leaders and oil and gas companies in Wet’suwet’en territory is nothing new and is part of a tumultuous and longstanding disagreement between different levels of First Nations leadership, energy companies, the provincial government and the federal government.
The B.C. Supreme Court has handed down a decision that comes as a great disappointment to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (on whose board I sit). The Court ruled that obliging schoolchildren to take part in an Indigenous smudging ceremony whose purpose is to “cleanse” the spirits of participants does not implicate them in a religious ceremony, but rather a “cultural” experience.
The JCCF was acting for plaintiff Candice Servatius, who was informed in Sept 2015 by the principal of John Howitt Elementary School in Port Alberni, B.C. that the school would be sponsoring a “cleansing” of students and their classroom, which would be performed by a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation of Vancouver Island. As described by JCCF president John Carpay in a November column in these pages,
The letter claimed that without cleansing, the classroom and even the furniture would harbour negative “energy” and would not be safe until the “energy” was “released.” Smoke from sage was fanned over the bodies of children, including Mrs. Servatius’ daughter, who was required to participate in this ritual against her will. Several months later, an aboriginal prayer was offered to a “god” at a school assembly that children were required to attend.
The Servatius family’s suit was not vexatious or motivated by antipathy to Indigenous rituals per se. They had no objection to their children learning about the smudging ceremony via texts, video or a visitor’s explanation. They objected to their children being compelled to take part in a spiritual ceremony.
Students can, after all, learn about Yom Kippur without fasting for 24 hours; they can learn about Catholic repentance without smudging ash on their forehead; girls can learn about the principle of sexual modesty without wearing the hijab (a quasi-religious cultural custom that has generated numerous controversies in law). Why should students have to engage in an actual ceremony to learn the aboriginal concept of “energy” and spiritual cleansing?
Everyone is aware that Canadian law has established that religious freedom does not include the right to impose one’s faith or affirmations of faith on children. Nor should children be forced to single themselves out by making use of an exemption, which necessarily requires an expression of non-belief.
Ah, but according to this judgment, if the ceremony is definitively cultural and not religious in nature, well then, there is no problem. That at least is the gist of what the Court has ruled. From which I infer the thinking was: How could anyone possibly object to taking part in a benign cultural ceremony that does no harm and is educational to boot (and who knows, may even cleanse the school of bad juju)?
The question is: Where does religion end and culture begin? Culture is downstream from religious belief. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, an Intervenor in the case, declared that aboriginal spirituality is not religion, and that First Nations’ languages have no word meaning “religion.” But as Carpay points out here, that won’t wash, because the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled, in the case of Ktunaxa Nation v. British Columbia (2016), that aboriginal spiritual beliefs qualify as “religion” for the purposes of being protected by the Charter’s section 2(a).
I am troubled by this judgment, and it took me a while to work out why. What follows is inference and interpretation on my part. I do not accuse the judges of any conscious wish to patronize or condescend to First Nations in their judgment. Any conjectures as to what is going on below the level of consciousness are mine alone.
The plaintiffs then, it seems to me, are treating Indigenous spirituality as they would treat any other form of spirituality or religion that does not accord with their own or their children’s beliefs. That is to say, they are treating the Nuu-Chah-Nuulth First Nation as civic peers, as Canadians with the same rights they are entitled to and the same limitations they are constrained by. In objecting to their children’s participation in Indigenous spiritual rituals, they are therefore demonstrating respect for the spiritual beliefs of the Nuu-Chah-Nuulth as equivalent in stature and potential influence to their own beliefs.
The Court, it seems to me, sees the Nuu-Chah-Nuulth as children, their beliefs fairy tales and their rituals as charming aesthetic gestures. The burning and smudging are nothing more than cultural theatre, like a Japanese tea ceremony. So parents should not worry that they rise to the same significance as Christian prayers and practices which, naturally, may not be imposed on other students, because they might offend or be perceived as proselytism. That is, Christian beliefs and rituals aren’t theatre; they are real; they have potential influence.
To me, this judgment bespeaks the same kind of virtue-signalling embodied in the now-prescriptive land-acknowledgement mantras that begin meetings and talks all over the nation. They are spoken and received with deep piety of voice and expression, but they are not taken seriously, because they are purely ornamental. Nobody who parrots them is afraid the land will actually be taken back by the original owners. It’s theatre.
Likewise with the smudging ceremony.
The culture and the beliefs of Indigenous people are not accorded real respect. They are vehicles for the performance of “reconciliation”—feel-good gestures without any real meaning attached to them. This case should be reviewed at a higher level. If we are content to let it stand, then we are assenting to the principle that with regard to compelled participation in spiritual rituals, some Canadians are more equal than others. I have too much respect for Indigenous peoples to infantilize them, and so should the courts.
The following is an excerpt from The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations, by Mark Milke, published by Thomas & Black, 2019. Milke, PhD., is an independent policy analyst, author of six books, and dozens of studies published in Canada and the United States.
It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.
— U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts
Serenity, the “most beautiful angel”
“Marie,” as the government named her but whose real name was Serenity, was a four-year-old native girl who in 2014 was admitted to a central Alberta hospital with dilated pupils, hypothermia, and a head injury. But Serenity had been a potential tragedy long before that day. Before she was born, two older half-siblings were removed from her mother’s home given her dependency on drugs, abuse of alcohol, and her live-in boyfriend’s violence. (Serenity’s father, “Wyatt,” was not normally involved with the family.) After Serenity came into the world, the provincial child welfare agency allowed her mother to keep her for a time; but after Wyatt appeared and beat Serenity’s mother in front of her, Serenity was placed in foster care at seven months of age.
Described later in a government report as a “a shy little girl” with “dark hair and big brown eyes,” her mother and social workers visited Serenity at her foster home and, by all accounts, found her healthy, thriving, and of normal weight. Also, the later review of her shortened life acknowledged that all three children were better off in foster care and likely grieved when moved from those families back to kin. But Serenity and her siblings were transferred back to the extended family (and presumably the reserve, though only alluded to in the government report) for the defensible impulse to protect families as families, except with the add-on policy preference that applies to no other ethnicity, to also support culture and the local community, i.e., the collective that is a First Nations reserve and where Serenity’s tragedy began.
Adoption policy in Alberta mandates identification of the father and mother if First Nation or Métis with the same information to be provided by those who wish to adopt and not for mere statistical purposes. Since at least the 1990s, Alberta policy preferred that where a child is assumed a resident of a First Nations reserve, or of that cultural background, the reserve government or its agents should approve or deny a child’s non-native adoption.
While not always followed in practice and thus criticized by some, this preference for kinship placement, as it is known, refers not only to direct relatives but also to the wider community, i.e., friends, neighbours, and institutionally to the reserve government and its agencies. In practice, the policy means First Nations politicians and civil servants hold actual institutional power over registered First Nations children. In 2014 and 2018, the Alberta government reaffirmed those policy preferences. A 2018 committee appointed to review child care intervention, along with the government response, both assumed that culture should play a larger role in foster care and adoption, that collective control based on ancestry was desirable, and that “colonization” explained much of the disparity between aboriginal and other Canadians.
In Serenity’s case, her grandparents volunteered to care for her and passed the usual checks, including past criminal activity and any record of past child intervention in the home. However, as the provincial report on Serenity’s death would later obliquely note, the grandparents’ other adult children living in the household were never vetted. That omission was contrary to policy, but it mattered less than one might hope. In Serenity’s case, just two months after the grandparents were given guardianship, someone in the community complained to Child Intervention Services. During the subsequent investigation, “unexplained” marks, bruises, and scratches were found on Serenity and her half-siblings; they also appeared malnourished.
The grandmother told the caseworker that Serenity had fallen and bruised her cheek and forehead. Serenity’s mother, who regularly visited her three children, told Child Intervention Services she was concerned that they were being hit and not given enough to eat, and that Serenity was left alone some nights in the basement. The mother told the caseworker that she wanted her three children moved back to a foster home. The response from the caseworker: “The situation is being assessed.”
After the investigation turned up nothing official, the matter was closed and the grandparents obtained private guardianship, a move supported by the Band designate. Alberta’s child services agency had no contact with the grandparents or Serenity for eight months, until shortly after Serenity’s fourth birthday when someone again reported the children appeared malnourished (and, as it turned out, had tapeworms) and were roaming about the community unsupervised.
Three months later, Serenity was admitted to hospital with an extensive brain injury and multiple bruises. The grandparents initially claimed Serenity fell from a swing. The next day, after questioning from the social worker and the police, they admitted that they often hit Serenity “because she was bad, did not listen and stole food.” At the time Serenity was admitted to the hospital, her weight was equal to that of a one-year-old child, just 19 pounds. Serenity’s half-siblings, also underweight, were apprehended that same day and returned to a foster home. Serenity died from her injuries six days later.
Assigning blame: Not the adults but colonialism
In reviewing Serenity’s death, a later provincial government report noted that the grandparents may have had a more challenging time with all three children given the domestic abuse they had witnessed (while with their mother). The report also blamed colonial-era history, with the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate explaining cause-and-effect this way: “Aboriginal kinship caregivers may be resistant to getting involved with Child Intervention Services due to historical experiences of oppressive and culturally inappropriate services.” The report also referenced an Australian academic paper that complained of how standard approaches “to Indigenous kinship care do not take into account culturally specific customs, such as communication styles, parenting practices, physical environment, community relationships and household composition.”
In other words, when asked who was to blame for Children Services’ decision to place three native children with grandparents in a household with other adults not properly vetted, this to buttress the indigenous culture, the answer was anyone except the adults present with Serenity or provincial social workers or the Band designate. Instead, non-native social workers were blamed for their lack of cultural understanding, and a general notion of European-induced harm along with colonial history. This has now become a standard response for those who see present tragedies but not present causes. Modern-day harms are instead often traced back to colonialism, Europeans, the British and their progeny, policy, laws, and actions of 50 or 150 years ago. Responsibility assigned to adults in the present is thus foregone.
Medical notes were kept out of the official provincial review of Serenity’s short life but were later leaked to the media: They describe much else beyond the dyspeptic account given in the official report. While the official Child Services report summarized Serenity’s injuries as “unexplained,” the leaked notes reported bruising around Serenity’s pelvic area and that her hymen was gone.
To anyone not writing an official report or attempting to shift blame, such injuries were not inexplicable but obvious, and disturbing: A four-year-old native girl had been abused, starved, and raped by someone who was either family or part of the larger collective because of a policy preference for maintaining cultural continuity via the collective that is the reserve.
The proponents of such policy assumed that governments and others should support such collectives with the force of law and concurrent policy as opposed to the possibility of voluntary attachment to a culture. That preference led to decisions to give Serenity over to marginal caregivers, including her grandparents, merely because they shared the bloodline and/or the same community.
No matter how well-intentioned, Serenity’s placement back on or near the reserve was exactly what advocates of the notion of a purer culture wanted for aboriginal children: collective power over individuals based on a bloodline. The desire for the collective and an ostensible stronger aboriginal culture trumped other possibilities for Serenity’s care, including her own mother’s earlier wishes for the same.
From The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. Published by Thomas & Black. Copyright 2019 by Mark Milke. Foreword by Ellis Ross.
RCMP were prepared to shoot Indigenous people attempting to defend their land from the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline set to run through northern B.C. as per released documents to The Guardian Friday.
The documents came from notes made during a strategy session for a raid to remove the protesters who were mostly of Wet’suwet’en nation. The notes show commanders of the RCMP arguing that “lethal overwatch is req'”–a euphemism used for deploying snipers.
Commanders also instructed their officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want.” This was prior to the operation to remove the Wet’suwet’en people from the roadblock they had built. The roadblock prevented access to their territories which halted construction of the pipeline.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline is supposed to be 670 km long.
The raid took place on Jan. 7 2019. RCMP dressed in military-green fatigues and armed with assault rifles approached the roadblock and dismantled the gate, arresting 14 people.
Prior to the raid one RCMP officer stated that arrests would be necessary for “sterilizing the site.”
The leak has spurred outrage across the nation and rallies in solidarity of Wet’suwet’en people are planned in cities throughout country for Tuesday.
Much of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s boasted spending increases to Indigenous services, projected to surpass $18 billion in next year’s budget–50 percent more since he took office in 2015–is largesse being shifted from Health Canada.
As part of Trudeau’s policy of dividing Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into two separate ministries that began three years ago, more than a quarter of Health Canada staff are migrating to a new Indigenous Services department, while the treaty side at a nascent Crown-Indigenous Relations ministry is scheduled to shrink.
And so this shell game of staffing and spending spilled into Senate Finance committee earlier this December, as Alberta Senator Scott Tannas expressed concern that any new money might be directed to more services, rather than staffing.
“If you add (each new department’s budget) up together, it’s $18 billion dollars,” he said of projected the spending under two separate departments.
“That’s a lot of extra money and I want to make sure that that gets into the hands of Indigenous people, but doesn’t support a bloated bureaucracy here in Ottawa.”
Asked for a “head count”, Annie Boudreau, Chief Finances, Results and Delivery Officer for Crown-Indigenous Relations (CIRNAC) said there were 1,959 “full-time equivalencies” and 6,356, “what’s now over 8000 people,” Tannas remarked.
According to CIRNAC spokesperson Marie-Claude Thérien, the transition cost $60 million to move nearly 2,500 First Nations and Inuit Health Branch (FNIHB) employees, mandated by Health Canada, with 270 additional department staff under the umbrella of Indigenous Services.
“There has not been a significant additional increase in the administrative costs of either department as a result of the dissolution,” said Thérien in an email to The Post Millennial.
Indigenous Services staffing will increased by 1,400 FTEs between 2017 and 2019 while the number of Crown-Indigenous employees shrank by more than 700 for a net increase of 665 new staff.
Thérein provided vague answers to questions on the value of budget figures for FNIHB, and Health Canada services previously allocated to Health Canada, but now under Indigenous Services purview.
“In 2019-20 based on proposed authority, CIRNAC (old and new department) and ISC internal services is $390M. This represents 2.0% of program dollars or 2.0% of total dollars,” said Thérien of staffing costs.
Therien also noted 2020-21, the government has promised spend an additional $1.2 billion over three years on what it calls “closing the gap” for the implementation of Jordan’s Principle giving better access to health, social and educational services.