Natives say spirituality led to firing

Published January 1, 1999

The chief of the predominantly Anglican Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Saskatchewan is determined not to compensate or hire back three fired Native justice workers who practised traditional Native spirituality.

Chief Harry Cook is adamant he will never take them back, despite a recent federal adjudicator’s report that orders two of the men reinstated and all three paid a total of $160,000 in lost wages.

According to a 65-page report by Anne Wallace, a Saskatoon lawyer hired by the federal Minister of Labour to investigate the case, the three justice workers were fired in 1997 because they practised traditional Native religious beliefs on a mostly Anglican reserve.

The chief is asking for a judicial review of the report. He said the men were not fired for their religious beliefs. “Absolutely not,” he said in an interview.

Instead, the chief said the three men, Sol Charles, Larry Laliberte and Robert Ballantyne, who worked on the reserve’s Stanley Mission justice committee, were fired because of “other matters.”

Letters to the men at the time of their dismissal said Mr. Charles was guilty of acts “tantamount to theft or fraud,” Mr. Laliberte’s job was declared “redundant,” and Mr. Ballantyne was accused of “insubordination, breach of code of ethics, breach of oath of confidentiality and conduct which can be interpreted as being disrespectful to the employer and elders.”

However, the three men believe they were fired because of the use of traditional Native spirituality in a controversial case on the reserve. The justice committee on the reserve had brought together a sexual offender and his victim for a session of spiritual healing.

The chief said “the whole community didn’t think it was a good idea,” and that they were “not prepared for that kind of thing happening.”

An Anglican himself, the chief said the firings had nothing to do with a conflict between Anglicanism and traditional Native spirituality. Ms. Wallace’s report states otherwise.

 It backs up the claim that a large chunk of the Christian population on the reserve is wary of Native spirituality, saying the men were “singled out and were discriminated against because of their practice of traditional Native spirituality,” and that the chief and band council “were so concerned to abolish all aspects of Native spirituality that even the word ‘holistic’ took on overtones they could not accept.”

Mr. Charles, one of the men fired, said there are many powerful people on the reserve who don’t agree with Native spirituality. “I think there were people wanting to do away with that,” he said, but added that the “Native spirituality component” was an important part of his work because it was “culturally relevant programming.” He and some colleagues practised Native traditions such as sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies and healing circles.

In the case where the justice committee brought together a sexual offender and his victim, Mr. Charles said both the victim’s and the offender’s families were willing participants in the event. “What kind of healing does an offender have locked away in prison? What healing has taken place? Nothing.”

He said some Christians on the reserve don’t like Native traditions because they’ve been taught “our Native religion is heathen and devil worshipping.” He and his supporters have been trying to “make them aware that it isn’t that type of a cult belief.”

Nationally, Anglicans have taken action to recognize the wrongs of the past against Native people and to build a new relationship of respect with the many Native cultures in Canada.

In 1993, Primate Michael Peers publicly apologized, saying the church is sorry it “tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.”

The primate called on all bishops “to co-operate with me and the National Executive Council in helping this healing at the local level.”

In April 1994, Native Anglicans from across the country signed a covenant, recognized by the church, which states, “we agree to do all we can to call our people into unity in a new, self-determining community within the Anglican Church of Canada – We extend the hand of partnership to all those who will help us build a truly Anglican Indigenous Church in Canada.”

Since the writing of the covenant, some dioceses with a significant Native population have occasionally included traditional Native ways, such as the sacred circle, at their meetings. “But that level of mutual respect has not reached all communities in Canada yet,” said Donna Bomberry, Indigenous Ministries Co-ordinator at the church’s national headquarters in Toronto.

For the three men in Saskatchewan, it has been nearly two years since they lost their jobs and it could take a lot more time before they see a resolution to their case. Ms. Wallace and the men have heard the chief wants a judicial review of the federal government report, but they haven’t seen any evidence of it yet.

Mr. Charles said he isn’t holding his breath but hopes that one day “I’ll get my job back with the Stanley Mission justice committee.”


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