Standing in a long line
Canadian churches navigate the challenging waters of religious freedom and public health when in-person services are suspended
Oki (“Hello” in Blackfoot). My name is Fawnda Bullshields. I am from the Blood reserve in Southern Alberta. I come from a long line of matriarchs and chiefs that fostered and implemented Indigenous law in my community before colonization. Indigenous law is a lot like Christianity. It is a value system that includes respect for people along with respecting the land and being a good steward of the land. It means not taking more than you need regarding hunting and moving along the land so the land can replenish itself.
How I navigate the world is based on my history and how I am treated in this world as an Indigenous person, which has often been negative. I am Indigenous and I am Christian. That is very complicated in itself. In the eyes of some of my family I am a traitor because of how much residential schools hurt them. I have encountered God on a personal level, and He is real to me and has guided me in my life. It’s not something I can explain so easily to my people, but in how I live my life they can see a difference and some have inquired of my walk with God.
I believe that until reconciliation is accomplished with the government and the churches, there can’t be genuine healing for Indigenous people.
My life has been impacted by colonization and an insidious relationship with the government that continues to infringe on its sovereignty by law, and that has been carried out by force through the military in many instances. That history includes forcing children to attend residential schools, and banning potlaches and pow wows. As part of a policy of assimilation, the federal government banned the potlatch from 1884–1951 in an amendment to the Indian Act. The potlatch ban was part of the government of Canada’s cultural assimilation. If you were found guilty, you could face up to six months in jail (Indian Act 1876). Currently Canada continues to deny Indigenous sovereignty, so they can’t govern their own communities.
I am the first generation in my family to not attend residential school. Everyone I know before me attended residential schools, including my parents. The impacts of this atrocity are still unfolding. It is not an issue of the past. It occurred for many decades, and the major role played by the Church has fragmented the relationship between Indigenous people and the Church today.
Why were residential schools created? They were established to colonize the Indian, who were considered inferior to the “white race.” According to Satzewich and Liodakis (Race and Ethnicity in Canada, Oxford University Press, 2013), there is a white gaze. “The white gaze is a refusal to recognize the reality of racism and a refusal on the part of white people to recognize that they are disproportionate beneficiaries of the way the world is organized.” The government contracted churches to save the Indian rather than embrace them as they were. Indigenous people were forced to conform to a foreign culture. This forced colonization had serious negative effects for Indigenous people. But it did not break their resilience.
Who are the colonizers and how do they have power over others? Perry G. Horse wrote, “White privilege is synonymous with dominance in a racially stratified society that is based on oppression” (Native American Identity, John Wiley & Sons, 2005). Any form of oppression, such as racism or sexism, is a relationship between dominant powerful groups and a subordinated or oppressed group. This describes the Indigenous relationship with the government, and how that relationship influenced others in society to engage with Indigenous people in the same manner.
I challenge non-Indigenous people to look at themselves and ask themselves these questions: Have you ever been followed around in a store as if you are going to steal? Do you have access to clean drinking water? Do you feel comfortable talking to the police? Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people would answer these questions differently. That is not okay. How we live our lives as Christians matters. Our life is important to God and so is how others see you. Jesus came for the brokenhearted and the oppressed. It is our Christian duty to make right what has been wronged. This begins with non-Indigenous people recognizing their privilege and their ancestors’ compliance with residential schools, and creating equal relationships with Indigenous people. Because they are not the saviour – God is.
Have you ever been followed around in a store as if you are going to steal? Do you have access to clean drinking water?”
The EFC has been tracking the responses of various provinces and the restrictions placed on religious services. It is important to note churches have not been closed, rather they are coping with restrictions about holding or not holding public services. Some churches have decided not to hold public services, even though they are allowed by their respective provinces.
In the most restrictive jurisdictions, public services have been suspended, but the buildings can still be accessed by staff and individuals, though in limited numbers. Provincial restrictions vary and we’ve seen them change depending on the severity of the virus in the area. In Alberta, for example, church services have been allowed to be held, but restricted in numbers depending on where the churches were located. Restrictions in B.C. have been similar to Ontario’s lockdown measures, depending on the region.
Some Christians have voiced concerns about church closures and religious freedom. The guaranteed freedoms outlined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not absolute and can be abridged if doing so can be justified in a free and democratic society (Section 1 of the Charter). If challenged governments would need to show a convincing justification for imposing restrictions on freedom of assembly, for example an evidence-based decision to protect public health and safety. A legal challenge would need to provide convincing evidence that the restrictions were not justified.
A second concern we’ve heard is that a violation of religious freedom occurs if religious gatherings are restricted in ways other similar gatherings are not – such as movie theatres or lecture halls. Restrictions imposed in B.C. prompted some to question why a church would be limited to having ten people present when movie theaters could be open if they ensured social distancing. Some B.C.-based religious bodies questioned their provincial government about this inequity and asked for a rationale.
Most Canadian churches have conceded a temporary suspension of public religious services will be tolerated for the sake of public health and safety in a pandemic. In fact, the majority of Canadian congregations have closed for the good of their communities and viewed that in itself as an act of Christian love and service.
“The pandemic has brought to the surface critical issues that may yet need future legal challenge, but our interaction with church leaders also reveals resiliency and creativity in continuing ministry and care through this difficult time.” —David Guretzki, executive vice-president and resident theologian of the EFC