Ask Dr. P.B. 2 – Public Prayers: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Decolonization

by | May 26, 2021
[photo of Teale Phelps Bondaroff]

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff has been a community organizer for more than 15 years. He has been active in Saanich municipal politics. He earned a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge and two BAs from the University of Calgary in Political Science and International Relations, respectively. He is a Board Member of the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network. He owns and operates a research consultancy called The Idea Tree. He is a New Democrat, politically, and is the President of the Saanich-Gulf Islands NDP riding association. He founded OceansAsia as a marine conservation organization devoted to combating illegal fishing and wildlife crime. Here we talk about the recent research work of the British Columbia Humanist Association on prayers and the secondary/supplementary report to the House of Prayers report.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, we got a big prayer project for the non-religious [Laughing]. That’s a weird way to put it. It’s a sub-report dealing with decolonization regarding prayers. What was the entire purpose of the secondary report?

Not to say it’s less important, but to say it’s a significant enough hunk to build off another major report from the BCHA. What was the other report?

Dr. Teale Phelps-Bondaroff: Yes, the BCHA is describing this as a supplementary report. It supplements our bigger study, House of Prayers, which was a comprehensive analysis of all the prayers in the BC Legislature from October 6, 2003, to February 12, 2019.

In total, that study looked at 873 prayers that were delivered in the BC Legislature. We did quantitative analysis of those looking for different features like religiosity and analyses around who said what and when, looking for trends overall.

It extends arguments as to why we should abolish legislative prayer. A lot of the report builds on the analysis, which, basically, found the prayer were not representative of the population of British Columbia. This supplementary report flows directly from the House of Prayers study, wherein, we noticed a tiny number of prayers contained Indigenous language and content. We wanted to do a separate report that explored Indigenous content in BC Legislature prayers, and explored and contextualize the issue in more detail.

We thought it was a significant enough issue worthy of highlighting in its own report, and that’s the background of ‘Decolonizing Legislative Prayers.’

Jacobsen: What is the historical context around colonization linked to religiosity and the rejection of Indigenous claims necessitating this form of human rights and justice reportage?

Phelps Bondaroff: So, we are in a time of truth and reconciliation, where we’re trying to address some of the historical wrongs of colonialism in Canada, and tied closely with that is religion. So, you look at, for example, the truth and reconciliation reports that came out from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and they note that Christian teachings were fundamental aspect of residential schools, and that religion was used as a weapon in this overarching attempt to genocide Indigenous peoples. And so, a lot of times you can see religion and colonialism go hand-in-hand.

That’s one of the aspects that you see with legislative prayer. Likewise, we also have the historical exclusion of Indigenous people from the BC legislature. So, one of the aspects we highlight in the report is not the content and prayers, but also the participation of Indigenous people in the BC legislature.

A lot of folks may not know this, but up until 1949 Indigenous people were not allowed to vote in British Columbia elections, and even more worrisome was Indigenous peoples were not able to vote in federal elections until 1950, but many places didn’t receive ballot boxes until 1962!

So, you have an ongoing history of exclusion of Indigenous peoples, and that’s often reflected in low voter turnout. It is one of many reasons for Indigenous folks not to participate in electoral politics, which is a separate issues and debate.

In the BC Legislature, there was only one Indigenous MLA prior to 2005, from what we could find. This was Frank Arthur Calder. And since then, we’ve had an additional five individuals with Indigenous ancestry.

Jacobsen: What is decolonization?

Phelps Bondaroff: Decolonization does mean different things to different people, but, overall, it’s an attempt to repudiate concepts and practices that were used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands. And to break down the structures that were involved in colonialism. It recognizes that colonialism was a harm – that it was a significant harm to cultures and peoples – and it tries to rectify the harm.

Jacobsen: What if individuals look at a report, analyze the contents, look at the larger context of decolonization, then take this in a theoretical frame of mind and simply say, “Who cares?”? In other words, why should people care from those who would be the strongest detractors from among those who are in it, see it as a form of reconciliation rather than a trivial signaling?

Phelps Bondaroff: That’s a good point. We will to back up a few steps before I answer that question. One of the things that motivated this report were some of the broader recommendations around prayer in the BC legislature. However, many of the other reasons why we thought it needed to be its own separate report is that territorial acknowledgements and prayers are two totally separate issues.

So, when we were submitting articles flowing from our House of Prayer study to several journals, we found that some of the comments we were receiving was that including a territorial acknowledgement in the BC Legislature was one of our recommendations, but that territorial acknowledgements were adjacent to the question of prayer because they could start a session BC legislature with a territorial acknowledgement and a prayer.

We had three recommendations in our original report: 1) abolish legislative prayer, 2) replace it with a minute of silence or quiet reflection, and 3) include a territorial acknowledgement. The territorial acknowledgment again is a separate question, so, we wanted to look at it separately.

Our chief recommendation was that if there was a desire amongst Indigenous people in British Columbia to have a territorial acknowledgement at the beginning of the sessions at the BC legislature, that any protocols and procedures around the acknowledgement be established working with Indigenous communities and stakeholders. It’s not for the BCHA or the BC legislature to say how the protocols around that should work. Instead, it should be up to the large Indigenous community in British Columbia to discuss whether they want to have a territorial acknowledgement or not.

The point that you raised is a good one insofar as, sometimes, here in Victoria, we start a lot of meetings with territorial acknowledgements. But it can become pro forma, people going through the motions and not understanding the purpose of a territorial acknowledgement, except for checking a box on the “to do” list – with the agenda as it were. We wouldn’t want that either. And I don’t think a lot of Indigenous folks would want that – if at all, they would likely want a meaningful statement.

But as you pointed out in your question – obviously, symbolic things, like starting sessions at the BC legislature, are less important than substantial changes that impact people’s lives on a daily basis. Starting a session of the BC Legislature with a territorial acknowledgement would be a symbolic change, a way of recognizing Indigenous peoples, but, at the same time, we need to take active and tangible steps to rectify past harms and dismantle ongoing structures that continue to perpetuate these harms.

So, I can also see why if we were to ask Indigenous folks if they wanted to do this, a significant percentage might say, “No,” because they would prefer more substantial changes. I think that’s a respectable position to take as well.

Our goal overall in releasing this supplemental report was to provide information to people, so they could use that if they chose to push for a territorial acknowledgement and also to inform the government of the current situation. The current situation is that Indigenous content is much underrepresented in prayer in the BC legislature.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Phelps Bondaroff.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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Image Credit: Teale Phelps Bondaroff.

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