Nicholas Shrubsole, What Has No Place, Remains: The Challenges for Indigenous Religious Freedom in Canada Today, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2019. 254 pp. $28.95. ISBN: 978-1-4875-2344-2.
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the phrase “religious freedoms” has frequently appeared on different news feeds here in British Columbia, Canada. While there are a number of reasons for that, especially notable for me is how the phrase is used by an array of Christians to assert their right to attend in-person Sunday services at their church in spite of an ongoing pandemic that has killed thousands in Canada and millions around the world:
- “It’s a protected right.”
- “The government is overstepping.”
- “Worship services are an essential service.”
Phrases like this give away, intentionally or not, a whole host of assumptions about what it means to exercise religious rights and freedoms in Canada, what role the Canadian government plays in determining boundaries around that, and how government officials should publicly assess what some may consider to be a private system of values and practices. While religious rights and freedoms may be an ongoing hot topic for Christians and health authorities in the midst of this pandemic, it has been far from just another “hot topic” for people groups who have had to publicly negotiate their religion with the Canadian government long before the pandemic. Reading Nicholas Shrubsole’s What Has No Place, Remains will draw anyone to this fact. Shrubsole outlines ongoing religious challenges Indigenous peoples face in relation to the colonial government of Canada—a power that made the destruction of Indigenous identity, culture, and religion a fixture of its ideological past and, some would argue, its present. Fundamentally, the book poses the question: Why is the realization of Indigenous religious freedoms so challenging in Canada today?
To answer this, Shrubsole offers key reasons that the Canadian government has largely failed to protect and understand Indigenous religions, especially in the case of sacred sites and spaces. In particular, he draws attention to reasons like the following:
- the government’s shallow and biased understanding of religion, thus requiring Indigenous communities to operate on terms that stem primarily from a historically European Christian religious framework;
- the government’s inability or unwillingness to recognize its own location as an interested party in disputes (vs. a neutral arbiter);
- framing Indigenous religions primarily as historical and static (vs. evolving and fluid); and
- a consistent lack of meaningful inclusion of Indigenous leaders in decision-making processes.
Shrubsole draws these conclusions through case histories, highlighting events like the standoff at Gustafsen Lake in 1995 and court rulings made by federal and provincial authorities (e.g., Ktunaxa Nation v. British Columbia 2017, SCC 54).
While I could simply read What Has No Place, Remains as a scholarly exploration of legal and religious history in Canada, I recognize that it has deep connections to and implications for my own context:
- personally, as a settler on unceded land;
- religiously, as somebody whose faith heritage is largely responsible for colonialist ideologies; and
- professionally, as a pastor whose work is deeply tied to sacred space and faith formation.
When understood in this light, Shrubsole’s work offers a powerful call. It reminds me that I am not a neutral party who happens to live on this land. Rather, I am a citizen of a settler colonial state, a state that impacts the spaces—including religious and spiritual—that we all live in. If I benefit to the detriment of others, I bear some responsibility for that injustice. Shrubsole’s book highlights how I, as a Christian, have been given every opportunity to flourish because I live in a society that was constructed through Western Christian logics, institutions, powers and privilege . . . a society that still maintains and upholds those Christian logics and privileges (although not always in such overt fashion). This society has actively suppressed Indigenous peoples’ spiritualities in the past—criminalizing Indigenous rites and practices, and assimilating thousands of Indigenous peoples into Christianity through residential schools. And this same society continues to violate Indigenous peoples’ place-based spiritualities (e.g., harming or destroying sacred sites by privileging resource extraction).
Since I call myself a Christian—one whose faith has been weaponized to destroy Indigenous identities and cultures—and since I am recognized as pastor and leader within my faith community, I must call attention to and help undo the violent colonial ideologies—often wrought in the name of Jesus—that have harmed generations of Indigenous communities. In that vein, What Has No Place, Remains, while not written from a Christian perspective, not only raises questions of reparation and redress but also invites churches to ponder how government institutions continue to violate Indigenous rights and how we might address such. As Shrubsole says, government violations take place “not in the construction of overt mechanisms that seek the destruction of Indigenous cultures, like residential schools, but in the spaces between the lines of Supreme Court rulings and government policy” (192) that continue to marginalize, forcibly reshape, and erase Indigenous cultures and religions.
With this in mind, I return to where I started: the COVID-19 pandemic. For faith communities that have only recently had to face the reality of navigating access to religious space with our government, What Has No Place, Remains is a sobering reminder that what Canadian Christians are facing right now is but the smallest drop of water compared to the ocean of struggles and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced for over a century. As a pastor who started his first pastorate during the pandemic, I have felt the effects of the physical distancing and “lockdown” restrictions deeply. I understand the struggles of many churches in Canada right now. But the narratives offered in Shrubsole’s book are a strong reminder that what Christians are going through is far from “persecution” by the government. Indigenous peoples are the ones who have been, and are being, persecuted. They have literally had their sacred sites demolished to build golf courses and pipelines.
What Has No Place, Remains invites honest reflection on how the very definitions of religion within Canada’s framework have been set up to advantage Canadian Christian Settlers at the cost of this land’s original diverse inhabitants. And maybe that reflection can help us Settlers understand that Indigenous peoples have a lot to teach about religion and spirituality—about land, our relationship to space and place, and how the reconciliation of all things necessarily includes the land—land that is not primarily a resource to be extracted and dominated but a revelation of our Creator’s very own goodness and purposes for the world.
Justin Sun was born in Treaty 6 territory (in Edmonton, AB); graduated from Columbia Bible College (Abbotsford, BC) in 2020 with a BA in biblical studies; and is now a pastor at Peace Mennonite and Peace Chinese Mennonite Church on the traditional and unceded territory of the Coast Salish people in Richmond, British Columbia.