Ask Dr. P.B. 3 – History and History-Making: Public Prayers & Land Acknowledgements

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 land acknowledgements.

Scott Douglas: Jacobsen: What were some of the numbers regarding prayers and land acknowledgements?

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff: I can run down those numbers. As I mentioned before, the BCHA Research Team was looking at 871 prayers delivered at the start of sessions of the BC Legislature from October 6, 2003, to February 12, 2019. We found that 42 of them included a single Indigenous word.

A vast majority of those were ‘sabaxsa’ which is a Gitxsan term, and it was used most often by the MLA’s from Stikine and Skeena, as well as ‘Hych’ka,’ which is a “thank you”-like term in SENĆOŦEN. These were almost all delivered BC NDP MLAs.

We had one sentence in an Indigenous language, one instance of several sentences, and then five entire prayers were delivered in Indigenous languages. It is noteworthy though that the prayers that were delivered completely in Indigenous languages were delivered by people who were guests of the BC legislature.

The way that the prayer works in the BC legislature is on a day-to-day basis, MLAs are invited to deliver a prayer of their own devising or a prayer off a sheet of sample prayers. But on days when a Speech from the Throne is being delivered, a member of the community is invited to deliver a prayer. On five occasions, these have been delivered by Indigenous leaders – three of these occasions were Chief Albert George, and the other two were prayers were delivered by Delphine Armstrong and Shirley Alphonse.

Overall, we found that about 5.6% of all prayers being in the legislation containing at least one word in an Indigenous language, and we did find that there’s been an increase over time. In the timeframe we studied, we noticed a gradual increase in Indigenous content, which is promising. Although, it’s still dismally low. And then the other aspect that we noticed was that there was a huge disparity between the use of indigenous content by political parties in the legislature.

Jacobsen: If you take the activism around equality in prayers and invocations, or not, if you take equality and human rights applications across the board, if you look at permissive tax exemptions in another case, or if you look at land acknowledgements as not merely symbolic to the Aboriginals throughout Canadian society, what is the hope for the impact with these? How will this develop in the 2020s?

Phelps Bondaroff: The research we’ve been doing on legislative prayer has already had an impact. We released the House of Prayers Report last year, and shortly thereafter members of the BC Legislature unanimously voted to amend their standing orders. So, daily routine business now begins with ‘prayers and reflections,’ whereas they previously began with prayers. This is a small terminological change, but it does have some impact.

We’re actually doing another study to look at whether changing the name of the standing order will actually impact the content. The reason we think it might be the case is because when you’re asked to deliver a prayer, even though you have the option of doing anything, e.g., you could read poetry, something from your favourite book, call for a moment of silence… But when you’re asked to deliver a prayer, you typically colour within the lines.

While we identified some totally secular statements – reading poetry, or songs, or thoughtful commentary that was not religious at all – but still the vast majority of MLAs still ended their prayers with the word ‘amen.’ Why? Because they felt constrained by the structure imposed upon them by being asked ‘to lead us in prayer’ by the Speaker.  

So our research has already had an impact. Our hope is with this supplementary report is that it provides information to members of the legislature, but also to members of the community who might want there to be a territorial acknowledgement at the beginning of sessions of the BC legislature.

One notable change that we’ve seen occurred on March 23rd, 2020: the deputy speaker of the House did start the session with a territorial acknowledgement – he started by acknowledging that the BC Legislature is founded on the traditional Indigenous territories. To our knowledge, that was the first time this has been done, or at least it was the first time we have seen this being done, and we’ve looked at the beginning of every session since 2003. We don’t know if that’s going to be an ongoing change, or if it was because the deputy speaker just wanted to recognize the importance of being on Indigenous territory that one time.

Moving forward, I think the goal behind this research is to produce information that brings to light hidden practices that otherwise would be invisible. So, for example, when we started looking into prayer for the House of Prayer study, one of the reason why we started doing this was every time we talked to someone about prayer in the legislature, they would say: “Oh no, it’s super diverse. Lots of different groups are represented. We had a Jewish prayer a little while ago, and there was a Sikh prayer or a Muslim prayer.” We didn’t have enough knowledge or data to see whether that was actually the case – it was anecdotal.

When we crunched the numbers, we found that “No, the prayers are disproportionately religious.” And when we could identify their religion, they were disproportionately Christian. And so this told us what the actual practice is.

Our goal in this supplementary report is to highlight what’s going on in the BC Legislature, with a hope that more information – better information – will help encourage change.

Jacobsen: Why a territorial knowledge in the first place?

Phelps Bondaroff: That’s a great question. Ultimately, it’s not for you or I to say, right? We think it’s an option that could be considered. A lot of places that have meetings and gatherings will start with a territorial acknowledgement. It can be an important part of reconciliation if done properly. So that’s one of the recommendations in the report, which is to have the Legislature work with Indigenous stakeholders to develop protocols around a potential territorial acknowledgement, if Indigenous people wanted one.

The reason that you do a territorial acknowledgement is to show recognition and respect for Indigenous peoples. It recognizes the past and the present, and it establishes a basis for respect and recognition. This is important if you’re going to develop some healthy reciprocal relationships with different communities, right? Acknowledging past harms is important for reconciliation to happen. And this can be an important part of reconciliation if done in a meaningful way.

Jacobsen: Dr. Bondaroff, thank you so much for your time.

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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