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Making Space for Aboriginal Spirituality in the Religion Curriculum

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


Today we are going to talk about Call to Action #64.


“We call upon all levels of government that provide public funds to denominational schools to require such schools to provide an education on comparative religious studies, which must include a segment on Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and practices developed in collaboration with Aboriginal Elders.” [1]


I thought we would start with the importance of Indigenous spirituality from an Indigenous perspective.


Traditional ceremonies and spiritual practices…are precious gifts given to Indian people by the Creator. These sacred ways have enabled us as Indian people to survive – miraculously – the onslaught of [decades] of continuous effort by non-Indians and their governments to exterminate us by extinguishing all traces of our traditional ways of life. Today, these precious sacred traditions continue to afford [us] the strength and vitality we need in the struggle we face every day; they also offer us our best hope for a stable and vibrant future. These sacred traditions are an enduring and indispensable ’life raft‘ without which we would be quickly overwhelmed by the adversities that still threaten our survival. Because our sacred traditions are so precious to us, we cannot allow them to be desecrated and abused.”

– Christopher Ronwaien:te Jock [2].



Photo credit : Ashily Allan; from the Alberta Children's Hospital Calgary

To understand the significance of this Call to Action, I think it is best to look into Canada’s past. History illustrates the disparaged treatment of Indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices. Aboriginal spiritual practices were outlawed, spiritual leaders were jailed, and sacred objects were confiscated and destroyed. [3] Until 1951, the Indian Act banned pow wows, which are ceremonies of spirituality, community and identity. [4] These measures, along with residential schools, were part of the government’s assimilation policies to eliminate Indigenous culture. [5]


Residential schools were run by “Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches [and] were the major denominations involved in the administration of the residential school system.” [6] The school system was based on the assumption that Christian religions were superior to Aboriginal spiritual beliefs. [7] The schools also played a prominent role in banning Aboriginal spiritual practices. [8] School principals and church officials were against fostering Aboriginal beliefs and traditions in the hopes of assimilation into the white race. [9]


Reconciliation is defined as “...the ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships.” [10] When I think of reconciliation, I see an image of the two-row wampum belt.

A wampum belt is a beaded belt which serves as the representation of political agreement or alliance between different peoples. [11] The two-row wampum belt symbolizes an agreement of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence with a commitment that neither will impose their laws, customs, or language on the other. [12] Canada’s history is an example of the extensive damage that occurs when the line of peaceful coexistence is crossed. When you think about Call to Action #64, try not to think about it in terms of crossing the peaceful coexistence line but as one of the reparative ways in which Canada can create a new covenant of mutual respect.


There are over 600 Indigenous communities within First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples across Canada. The spiritual beliefs and practices that would be integrated into the religion program would need to be specific to the Indigenous populations that are representative of that region. A one size fits all approach would not work.


Keep in mind that not all denominational schools would be willing to add spiritual belief and practice segments into their religion curriculum. Currently only “some publicly funded schools offer history or cultural courses but not all are mandatory and few were developed in collaboration with Indigenous Elders.” [13] Collaboration with Indigenous Elders is crucial because Elders are highly respected members of their communities who possess a lifetime of learned teachings about their Indigenous values, beliefs, and spiritual ways of life. [14] In Alberta, the inclusion of a comparative religious course is decided by the individual school authority which means that not all students that attend denominational schools will learn about Indigenous spirituality. [15]


Religion is one of those touchy subjects that can get heated in a hurry. There are many individuals who will struggle with Call to Action #64, but I think it’s important for denominational schools to teach about Aboriginal spirituality. It should not be seen as teaching about another religion because Indigenous spirituality is not a religion, it's a way of life. By including these segments into the religion curriculum, it acknowledges the role these schools played and their willingness to walk in reconciliation (wampum belt). The Pope believes in the revitalization of Indigenous culture and helping the Church grow in love and respect for these traditions. [16] It can be done. It’s just a matter of when.


Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action” (last visited 2 October 2022), online: University of Toronto Libraries <exhibits.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/2420#:~:text=Citation,%2Fitems%2Fshow%2F2420>.

[2] “Indigenous Spiritual Practices” (Last visited 15 October 2022), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission <https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-preventing-discrimination-based-creed/11-indigenous-spiritual-practices>.

[3] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015) at 8, online: (pdf) <https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/trc/IR4-7-2015-eng.pdf>.

[4] “Pow wows in Canada” (18 October 2018), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/powwows-editorial>.

[5] Supra note 3.

[6] Ibid at 9.

[7] Ibid at 10.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid at 11.

[10] Ibid at 22.

[11] “Wampum” (5 November 2020), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/wampum>.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Beyond 94:Truth and Reconciliation Canada” (26 July 2022), online: CBC News <https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform-single/beyond-94?&cta=64>.

[14] “Guidelines for Working with First Nation, Metis and Inuit Elders and Knowledge Keepers” (last visited 15 October 2022), at 1, online: (pdf) Carlton University <https://carleton.ca/indigenous/wp-content/uploads/Guidelines-for-Working-with-Indigenous-Elders.pdf>.

[15] Supra note 10.

[16] Maggie Parkhill, “Read the full text of the Pope’s apology for Canada’s residential schools” (1 April 2022), online: CTV News <www.ctvnews.ca/canada/read-the-full-text-of-the-pope-s-apology-for-canada-s-residential-schools-1.5844874>.

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