A win for Indigenous ceremony rights happened last week in Ontario. On October 8, 2020 the Ontario government finally recognized Indigenous ceremony leaders in Ontario have the right to be able to perform legal wedding ceremonies of their own authority. Previous to this, Indigenous ceremony leaders needed to be registered under an outside religious body if they wanted to perform wedding ceremonies legal in the eyes of the Ontario government (weddings are governed province by province). This requirement to be registered with an outside religious body was an act that effectively communicated to Indigenous communities that their traditional wedding ceremonial practices were invalid in the eyes of the government. As Dot Beaucage-Kennedy, an elder and ceremony guide in Nipissing First Nation says in this article, she has been fighting for this change to happen since 1999.
This overturned ban feels like the equivalent to me if we told the Catholic church in Ontario that they couldn’t perform legal weddings, and required every Catholic who wanted a religious ceremony reflective of their beliefs to find a non-Catholic legal authority involved in their ceremony. There has been at least one wedding I have been part of in the last 6 years where it would have been the partners’ first choice to be legally married through a ceremony led by their elders, but that option wasn’t available to them, and they needed to go outside their cultural traditions to obtain legal authority.
This invalidation of Indigenous cultural and ceremonial practices is not new in Ontario or Canada, and the government has a long history and current practice of racist laws. From 1884 to 1951 the Canadian government made the practice of hosting Potlach ceremonies in West Coast nations (and elsewhere in the country) illegal. Potlach is an important ceremony tradition in many Indigenous communities and often connected to weddings, child namings, and funerals. Following making Potlach illegal, powwows and sun dances were also made illegal. This was all part of the government’s genocide against Indigenous peoples, a bid to erase their identity and assimilate them in to white culture. When you ban ceremonial practices, you threaten the cultural fabric, spiritual grounding, and very identity of a people. Sacred objects such as ceremonial masks were stolen from communities, often then privately traded and sold by white people. Some of those sacred objects have since been returned, many are lost forever, or callously displayed in museums the world over. During the Potlach ban, Indigenous communities across the country organized and fought against these racist laws, and held ceremony in secret where possible, but faced the real fear of persecution for doing so.
If you’re a settler on this land like I am, it is our responsibility to know this history and work alongside Indigenous peoples for justice. As a white settler who enjoys the privilege of leading legal wedding ceremonies and ceremonies to mark other milestones, it is my responsibility to do my part of decolonization. It is my responsibility to support the efforts of the original peoples of this land in reclaiming those same freedoms and restoring their traditions harmed by hundreds of years of ongoing colonization. As someone with an earth-based spiritual tradition, and who leads equinox and solstice celebrations, I have a responsibility to this land, and therefore to the original stewards and protectors of this land. I encourage other officiants to find ways to educate yourself, and take real, concrete actions to affect change. Join me in finding Indigenous organizations local to your area who are strengthening the ceremonial practices and traditions of their communities and make regular donations to them. In the Guelph area, I recommend joining me in supporting the work of the Indigenous Healing and Wellness Program. As settlers, we need to do more.
Read elder Dot Beaucage-Kennedy’s response to this recent change in this article in North Bay Nugget.
Learn more about the history of the banning of the Potlach on the website Potlach 67-67 and explore the living tradition of the Potlach in Kwakwaka’wakw Northwest Coast nations here.
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