Jim Dumont adds some tobacco to the sacred fire that will burn for the duration of the seven-day Parliament of World Religions in Toronto, which has drawn delegates from over 70 countries. Photo by Michael Swan

Indigenous spirituality key part of Parliament of World Religions

  • November 2, 2018

When Indigenous people from across Canada and beyond took centre stage, conducting the first of two opening ceremonies Nov. 1 at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto, it was far more than a token appearance.

Indigenous spirituality and traditional wisdom are woven throughout the week of interfaith study and dialogue that has brought close to 10,000 people to Toronto’s downtown convention centre to discuss religion’s place in the world.

Though officially just one of 10 themes woven throughout 900 workshops, musical performances, art exhibitions and plenary sessions, the Indigenous people’s program is the secret sauce spread liberally throughout the seven-day event which has drawn delegates from over 70 countries, said Toronto co-chair of the Parliament Rev. John Joseph Mastandrea.

Acknowledging the original inhabitants of the land beneath North America’s fourth largest city isn’t about guilt. “It’s about the grace of truth,” Mastandrea told The Catholic Register just before ceremonies got underway. “It’s about helping people rediscover who they are…. It matters simply to understand who First Nations people are.”

“We live in the great spiritual Indigenous revival,” Anishnawbek elder Kevin Deer told a couple of hundred delegates who braved a constant cold rain to take part in the Indigenous opening ceremonies for the Parliament of World Religions. “When we look at what’s happening, those future generations are in danger because the Indigenous, sacred knowledge knowledge of this land has been forgotten.”

Because native spirituality is so connected to the land, it becomes ever more important in an age of climate change as the environment shifts underneath us, Indigenous working group co-chair Bob Goulais told the gathering around a sacred fire that will burn in Olympic Park for the duration of the Parliament of World Religions. The sacred fire and Indigenous opening ceremonies were sponsored by the University of St. Michael's College. 

The Anishinaabe people want to see the “Eighth Fire Prophecy” come true at the Parliament of World Religions, Goulais said. The prophecy foresees a time when the Anishinaabe will share their traditional spirituality and knowledge about the environment with the rest of the world, according to Goulais.

Delegates to the Parliament of World Religions who attend some of over 60 Indigenous-developed-and-led workshops, panels, film screenings and other events, plus attend an eight-hour intensive program, can earn a “Certificate in Indigenous Cultural Awareness” from the First Nations Technical Institute while at the week-long conference. The FNTI is based on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory halfway between Belleville and Kingston, Ont.

Elder Isaac Day took out one of the booths in the trade-show portion of the sprawling Metro Toronto Convention Centre to promote his Giizhigat Maple Products from Serpent River First Nation. But he is also at the Parliament of World Religions because he believes interfaith dialogue is “very important.”

Day argues that climate change requires a spiritual response.

“When you change the environment, you change your mental state your spiritual state,” he said.

Grade 8 Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School student Nora McLeod is one of a small band of student volunteers who are watching the Sacred Fire in Olympic Park behind the convention centre full of delegates from around the world.

“Is it important? Yes,” McLeod told The Catholic Register. “Keeping the fire going is important.”

A couple of hours later McLeod was listening as Dene Suline elder Francois Paulette brought greetings from the Athabasca region.

“I come from a place that is suffering right now,” Paulette told the crowd. “It’s the last territory in this part of the world that is vast… The river that flows by me is polluted. You have to think about the tar sands. It produces one third of Canada’s greenhouse gases, but concentrated in one place.”

Scientific knowledge about what’s happening to the environment isn’t complete without spiritual knowledge, Paulette argued.

“These people who do not understand Mother Earth, who do not know fire, who do not know water, we need to teach them. I encourage you (Indigenous) to colonize them,” he said. “I’m here to assimilate a few white people.”

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