Sweat lodge sacrificed -- for a parking lot

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'A horrible act, holy space bulldozed'
Sweat lodge sacrificed -- for a parking lot
By Bill Dunphy
The Hamilton Spectator
More articles by this columnist
(Sep 2, 2005)
Aboriginal leaders say they are hurt and angry that corrections officials bulldozed the foundations of a sacred sweat lodge at the Bell Cairn Training Centre last week, crushing and scattering the fire pit stones and foundation markers -- to make room for a parking lot.

The year-old lodge had been built to deliver sensitivity training to prison guards, police and parole officers.

"It's insensitivity training as far as I'm concerned, to do something like that," said Martin Powless of the Southern First Nations Secretariat.

"It's very disrespectful. It's taken as a personal affront."

Rev. Evelyn White Eye, a chaplain and aboriginal issues adviser in the provincial corrections system, helped design and deliver the ground-breaking cultural awareness training offered at Bell Cairn last year.

Last night she went even further than Powless, characterizing the act as "a desecration."

"It was a thoughtless, horrible act -- a holy space was bulldozed, and it was done to make way for additional parking."

When she first heard of it, she said, "I thought immediately, 'What is this, shades of Oka? ' "

Oka, of course was the site of a six-month-long armed standoff between native activists and the Canadian army that resulted in three deaths. It was precipitated by the expropriation of native lands for a golf course.

No one has died at Bell Cairn and there are no guns or soldiers in sight on the Beach Boulevard property, just a mess of raw earth and grey gravel -- a week-old wound that shows no signs of healing quickly.

John Lilly, co-creator of the program, is a trainer at the centre and a non-aboriginal who has twice been awarded eagle feathers by First Nations elders for his efforts at raising awareness of native culture.

He helped build the lodge, (fire pit, marker stones, 21 poles and seven layers of tarps and skin and earth) under the direction and teaching of Isaac Day, a Hagersville-area elder, and was anointed fire keeper. Fire keepers are guardians, trusted with keeping the ceremonial fire within the lodge lit.

In an earlier interview, he said he'd dismantled the outer skin of the sweat lodge (the poles and tarps) months ago at the request of an elder.

The poles and tarps were smudged and prayed over, given the appropriate dismantling. But the site was left intact, ready to be revived when the next awareness program was being offered.

And this seems to be where things started going wrong.

The course allowed non-native justice officials a rare chance to learn details of the aboriginal culture and take part in an authentic sweat lodge ceremony, a sauna-like session designed to purify.

Despite what White Eye said were universally positive course evaluations from the corrections officers, OPP and Hamilton police and parole officers who took the course last summer, corrections officials seemed to be shutting down or stifling the program. Plans to hold the course two more times in 2004 and 2005 just never went anywhere.

Months ago, Lilly filed a grievance over the ministry's alleged refusal to proceed with the program and that complaint is making its way through the system. But he was still shocked that contractors moved in and picked clean the bones of the sweat lodge.

White Eye said that if the lodge site had to be "decommissioned" or converted to a non-sacred use like a parking lot, "an elder would come in there and remove the rocks, move the grandfather rocks from the fire pit, remove anything there that made it look like a sacred site."

A janitor warned Lilly a mere day before the backhoes moved in and tore the site apart. He was unable to stop the destruction or reach an elder for assistance.

Last night, Lilly said he'd been instructed to refer all media calls to the ministry's communications branch and declined to answer any more questions.

Powless said his group, which represents bands from London to Sarnia, was unhappy with the corrections officials' decisions.

"We're just kind of appalled at the way they've been treated by the ministry. It's like a slap in the face."

Julia Noonan, spokesperson for Ontario Corrections, didn't quite use the word "sorry" when responding to the complaints from the First Nations leaders, but she did admit it made a mistake.

"We take these concerns very seriously. We certainly didn't mean to insult anyone or demean their culture."

Noonan explained that corrections officials had been under the impression that the earlier careful removal of the sweat lodge's skin and poles took care of the "decommissioning" of the site.

"The next time an issue like this comes up, we'll do better," she said.

She also denied the ministry has any intention of putting an end to the cultural awareness programs.

"We do have plans to continue with the training programs," she said.

For her part, White Eye is not satisfied with the ministry's response.

"Even though the ministry says, 'Oh they're sorry', this was desecration. It's very difficult for me to be optimistic about sharing our Indian ways. I see no future for cultural sharing when I total up the forces against us.

"I am filled with a hopeless dread."

bdunphy@thespec.com

905-526-3262
 
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