On the need for aboriginal humanism

September 25, 2021

Elder David Maheengun shared with me that a search for indigenous or aboriginal humanism produced only two articles: Decolonizaing Humanism (2019) and First Nations Ceremonies (2016):

“The following two provide some ideas regarding mainstream society’s perspectives on Indigenous religion within the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations.  They are helpful in understanding how Indigenous religion is viewed from without, but not terribly helpful for actual practitioners of that religion.”

Both articles were written by Ian Bushfield of the British Columbia Humanist Association. The 2016 article is about children who were made to participate in an indigenous ceremony at a BC school and gives voice to indigenous people who say that no one should be forced to participate in such events. In the 2019 article Ian speaks with his own voice in stating that the Indian residential schools were “largely in partnership with the churches,” that colonialism involved “forcing indigenous people into smaller and smaller reserves,” and it is permissible to open public meetings with indigenous prayers but not Christian or Moslem prayers.

The statement that the residential schools were “largely in partnership with the churches” minimizes the role of the churches in the residential school debacle. In fact, the first Indian residential schools in the 1830s were totally church run without government involvement. Beginning in the 1870s the government of Canada signed numbered treaties covering northern Ontario and most of Western Canada and each treaty contains a clause whereby the federal government is responsible for providing education to the signatories and their descendants. The federal government satisfied its responsibility by striking a deal with the churches. They would expand their residential school program into the treaty areas and pay for the maintenance costs if the government would pay the capital costs. As we know that did not work out too well. The point is, every Indian residential school was church run until the government shut them down in 1969 (with the exception of Saskatchewan where the chiefs lobbied to keep them open with the eventual transfer to Indian authorities and in the North West Territories where the federal government ran the schools). The greatest failing of the federal government was not that they were in partnership with the churches but that they abdicated their responsibility to adequately monitor and fund the schools.

Bushfield also shows an inadequate understanding of the history by stating indigenous people were forced into “smaller and smaller reserves.” In fact, the treaties stipulated that each family of five would get 160 acres added to reserve land. Some people were not counted forming a land entitlement which, when met, has meant that reserves have gotten larger (they actually use descendent population at the time of settlement which means the reserves are actually larger than they would have been if the count had been done properly in the first place). There is one circumstance where a reserve could become smaller. A band by majority vote can decide to sell part of their reserve. There have been instances where this was not done properly resulting in a new land entitlement.

Peculiar, for a humanist, is the argument that indigenous prayers are different from non-indigenous prayers for the purpose of opening governmental and other public meetings. I think that to have humanist organizations endorsing aboriginal religious prayer harms the work of indigenous humanists such as ourselves. We wish to promote indigenous understandings that are not based in the supernatural and the stance of the BCHA (if Mr. Bushfield does indeed represent them on this issue) undermines our efforts. In a similar way the Woke undermine Moslem apostates by effectively discounting their existence.

We may choose to view Mr. Bushfield as a well-meaning non-aboriginal ally who needs to become more acquainted with indigenous history and culture before issuing statements on our behalf (although I did give him a primer on residential school history in 2016 which he, apparently, inadequately understood). But for me, the really telling part is that David did a Google search combining indigeneity and humanism and Ian’s articles were what came to the fore. This means that we need to get writing and publishing, and I agree with a suggestion David made that I need to also target non-academic audiences with fact-based culturally relevant information. With that in mind, I have just completed some culturally based research into the concept of “two-spirited.” While this research began from personal interest, it could be lengthened into a short publishable piece. I would appreciate any input you care to give. As you may have guessed, David was the Anishinaabe elder consulted.

Kind regards,


Lloyd Robertson