Faith Today

Standing in a long line

Canadian churches navigate the challengin­g waters of religious freedom and public health when in-person services are suspended

- / JANUARY / FEBRUARY 2021 Fawnda Bullshield­s lives in Vancouver and works for the Squamish Nation in child and family services.

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

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