Aboriginal religion assumes public status and draws conflict in Canadian province

There is a growing controversy over the use of religious practices in public schools and universities in the Canadian province of British Columbia, reports the Vancouver Sun (November 19). The use of native Canadian or aboriginal spiritual concepts and practices, such as “smudging” (burning sage over one’s body and “spirit”), has been common in schools in the province for decades, with Buddhist-oriented mindfulness practices more recently introduced. Secular educators say they promote these rituals and practices to show respect for aboriginal people or, in the case of mindfulness, to heighten concentration and relaxation. British Columbia parents are now protesting that such practices violate Canadian religious freedom laws. “The parents argue that aboriginal smudging and mindfulness are essentially religious observances, which have been forbidden in Canadian public schools since Christianity’s Lord’s Prayer was abolished decades ago,” Douglas Todd writes.

The use of these practices and ceremonies seem to be more than educational efforts. Members of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council led a ceremony at an elementary school last year in which they told participants that “everything is one; all is connected,” and that “everything has a spirit and energy.” Another parent argues that expecting his children and other students at their elementary school to take part each day in scheduled mindfulness practice is a form of “legislated meditation.” Todd adds that both cases “echo similar movements in higher education…. Even though most academics officially uphold worldviews that are rigorously secular, if not anti-religious, many are finding ways to welcome aboriginal spirituality and Buddhist-style meditation into universities.” He reports that “Metro Vancouver academics now routinely open their conferences, for instance, by thanking First Nations bands for the privilege to meet on their ‘unceded territory.’ An aboriginal prayer usually follows.”06aboriginalreligion