It’s not uncommon, when public institutions hereabouts hold a ceremony to open a new building or mark a milestone of some kind, to invite elders from our local First Nations to offer a prayer.
Such a prayer usually consists of a thank-you to Creator for giving us all that we need, and for bringing us together on this important occasion.
The elders are asked to take part in acknowledgement that Aboriginal peoples were here first. Opening a gathering with a prayer or grace is common anyway, so this simply combines the two.
Yet native prayer at public gatherings has been brought into question elsewhere. A recently released letter from Taskeo Mines Ltd. president Russell Hallbauer asks the Harper government not to consider native “spirituality” in its deliberations on the proposed mine.
Hallbauer wrote that the federal environmental review panel “does not have any right to attribute significance to the spirituality of a place per se,” and aboriginal prayer ceremonies should not be allowed at hearings on the mine’s revised proposal.
This has not gone down well with First Nations leaders. I suspect neglecting to invite local Band reps to civic ceremonies in our own city wouldn’t go unnoticed, either.
The issue isn’t just whether First Nations prayers are appropriate at such events, but whether prayers of any kind are appropriate. We do, after all, live in a country and society where freedom of religion includes the freedom not to have any religion or spiritual belief at all.
For my part, I’m a pacifist on such matters. My agnostic-channelled self takes no offence to someone of faith expressing it at a public gathering, whether it be native elders thanking their creator or a service club member giving thanks to his god for lunch or dinner.
I respect their right to believe what they want, and to express it in a public way. At the same time, I trust they will not be offended if there are some in the room who don’t share those beliefs and, therefore, don’t feel inclined to stand and bow and close their eyes in homage to a higher being.
Those familiar with my past musings on this topic may remember the story from long ago about a non-believer pupil banished to the hallway as his classmates recited the Lord’s Prayer.
It would have made so much more sense for the teacher to just let the kid sit passively at his desk while the rest stood and prayed.
So, demanding that First Nations prayers be removed from public hearings on a mine doesn’t, in my view, make any more sense than it would to insist they be banned from civic ceremonies. We just need to re-set our approach a little to recognize that we don’t all think the same way.
Tomorrow night, a very interesting weekend event gets underway in Kamloops. Hosted by the Kamloops Centre for Rational Thought, it brings together atheists who will ponder the concept, “Imagine No Religion.”
The first evening will feature some top-notch speakers debating the existence of God; I’ve been asked to moderate this debate, possibly in view of my neutral position on the matter (agnostic fence-sitter that I am).
I’ll boldly predict the debate won’t settle the issue. But maybe it will contribute to understanding that having different beliefs — if they’re respectfully expressed — is OK.