Dark stain: Minister says Indigenous ceremonies to continue despite COVID-19


OTTAWA — Canada’s Indigenous services minister says banning sacred ceremonies is a “dark stain” on the country’s history and they will be allowed to continue despite restrictions put in place due to COVID-19.

“Even in the face of a historic pandemic, Canada must not and will not prohibit these important practices,” Marc Miller said Thursday.

Concern that ceremonies would again be pushed underground surfaced after RCMP were dispatched to a Saskatchewan First Nation where people were holding a sun-dance ceremony last weekend. A federal ban on Indigenous ceremonies and potlatchs came into place in 1884 and lasted until the 1950s.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Indigenous community leaders know what needs to be done to keep people safe.

“We should be able to work with them to develop ways of continuing with important customs and practices for them in a way that abides by health recommendations,” he said.

Saskatchewan RCMP said they received two reports of a large public gathering on the Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation, about 90 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, on Sunday.

There were 35 people taking part in the ceremony, but attendees said they were following precautions set by the chief and council, including social distancing and having temperatures taken.

A public-health order in Saskatchewan limits gatherings to 10 people. Premier Scott Moe indicated Wednesday that there would be no exceptions.

“The virus doesn’t care. It simply doesn’t,” he said.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, has said provincial public-health orders do not supersede First Nations laws and treaties.

Indigenous Services Canada has not responded to a request for comment.

Miller said First Nations leadership will ultimately decide whether to go ahead with ceremonies and how to do it.

There were 185 positive cases of COVID-19 on First Nations reserves as of Wednesday, 43 of them in Saskatchewan.

— By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg