Spiritual colonialism is still reverberating throughout Canada's justice system
When synagogues, temples, or mosques are vandalized, politicians condemn the acts as assaults on places of worship. But the ongoing desecration of sacred Indigenous sites fails to attract similar censure and solidarity.
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The Supreme Court recently ruled against the Ktunaxa Nation’s efforts to block construction of a ski resort in Jumbo Valley, B.C., on land the Ktunaxa consider the sacred home of the Grizzly Bear Spirit.
The court concluded that building the resort would not violate the Ktunaxa’s freedom of religion, because “neither the Ktunaxa’s freedom to hold their beliefs nor the freedom to manifest those beliefs is infringed by the Minister’s decision to approve the project … The state’s duty is not to protect the object of beliefs or the spiritual focal point of worship.”
Freedom of religion is supposed to provide equal protection for all religions. The Supreme Court’s judgment disadvantages Indigenous spiritual traditions, whose objects of reverence are connected to pieces of land vulnerable to physical destruction.
The judgment shows how Eurocentric ideas about religion enable the continuing appropriation of Indigenous lands.
“The concept of religion was introduced outside the West in the context of European colonization, and the introduction of the concept often served the interests of the colonizers,” observes theology professor William Cavanaugh. Colonizers “entered [Indigenous] cultures into a comparative framework in which — compared to the norm of religion, Christianity — their practices would be found wanting.”
Most Canadians are now aware of the role that Christian churches, funded by government, played in spiritual colonialism through the abuse of First Nations children in residential schools.
If they survived, children returned to their communities traumatized, stripped of their cultures and languages, and without the life skills necessary to live on their ancestral lands. They were, however, able to read the Bible.
The Indian Act prohibited Indigenous peoples from engaging in ceremonies and other cultural practices integral to their systems of spirituality and governance. John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, denigrated these ceremonies as “debauchery of the worst kind,” and participation in them was punished with imprisonment.
This was amended in 1951, but by then spiritual knowledge and resources had already been lost. Among these resources was land.
Spiritual colonialism in Canada is grounded in the centuries-old Doctrine of Discovery, which permitted Christian explorers and settlers to seize the lands of non-Christians around the globe. The Doctrine regarded Indigenous peoples as subhumans, and authorized mass forced conversions and enslavement.
In many parts of this continent, enslaved Indigenous people built churches and missions, worked in church agricultural fields, were servants in clergy households, and were sexually abused by priests, ministers and other church officials.
The Doctrine of Discovery is still the implicit basis for Canada’s claims to sovereignty over lands occupied by Indigenous nations for thousands of years.
The idea that no one owned these lands prior to European arrival impacts Indigenous land claims to this day. To pursue a land claim, Indigenous communities must borrow money from the government to file, under Canadian law in Canadian court, and then prove that they had a pre-existing relationship with the land in question.
There is no onus on the government to provide treaties, leases, contracts, or any other documentation to show how Indigenous territories — like Jumbo Valley — magically became Crown lands.
The issue of land is crucial to the survival of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Land, culture, economy, governance, and spirituality are intricately connected in any society. Take away the land, or take the people away from the land, and you take away their culture, oral histories, family, ancestry, identity, and resources to feed, clothe, house, and heal themselves. For Indigenous peoples, you also take away their burial grounds, ceremonial places, spiritual tools, and sources of comfort and solace.
These spiritual resources continue to be destroyed by development projects that seize and contaminate land and water. From Jumbo Valley in British Columbia, to Chaudiere Falls in Ottawa-Gatineau, to Muskrat Falls in Labrador, and many other locations across Canada — places that have been sacred to Indigenous nations for thousands of years are being violated for the sake of exploitation, extraction, or entertainment.
Non-Indigenous religious groups understand how traumatizing it is when their places of worship are assaulted, when sites meant to be spaces of prayer and sanctuary are turned into spaces of violence and loss. When synagogues, temples, or mosques are vandalized, politicians and voices across religious denominations issue condemnations.
The fact that the ongoing desecration of sacred Indigenous sites fails to attract similar censure and solidarity is a sign of spiritual colonialism’s enduring power.