Nunavut community demands morning prayer be allowed in local schools
But Nunavut government says it never banned the practice in the first place
The Government of Nunavut’s education department said it has never restricted the use of prayer in the territory’s schools, despite claims in Arviat that the practice was recently banned.
Some residents of Arviat are circulating a petition asking the education department to “reinstate traditional morning prayer” in the Kivalliq community’s three schools.
A group of individuals who signed the petition and are sending it around to others say they weren’t consulted before a decision was made to take prayers out of the schools.
“The Lord’s Prayer is the closest prayer that expresses our innermost feelings and needs that we want our children to have as a foundation to learn,” reads the document, which is still making the rounds in the community of about 2,600 people.
“The majority of residents of Arviat practice prayer in all occasions and in all places.”
Signatories of the petition contacted by Nunatsiaq News declined to be interviewed.
But a spokesperson for Nunavut’s education department said it issued no such direction in Arviat or anywhere else in the territory.
“Prayers are something that most of us who have been in Nunavut for some amount of time understand is deeply intertwined in the culture,” said the department’s assistant deputy minister, John MacDonald.
“That’s something we’ve seen in practice for many years.”
To that end, many public government meetings open with prayer, including meetings of Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly and Iqaluit City Council.
The territorial government does not have a policy on prayer in public institutions, nor has the education department ever asked a school to stop the practice of reciting prayer, MacDonald said.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to freedom of religion. In the case of prayers recited in public institutions such as schools, non-religious or non-Christian Canadians have used the charter to argue that public prayer infringes on their rights.
While the territory’s education department hasn’t intervened on any schools’ prayer practices, MacDonald said the department has issued informal communications to schools in recent years, asking the administration to be sensitive to religious diversity.
“We try to remind people that we have a publicly operated and publicly funded school system and we want to be as welcoming as possible,” he said.
Although the education department has yet to hear from concerned parents in Arviat, MacDonald said the petition may have been launched in response to that communication.
The place of religion within the territory’s schools may also have been raised in discussions over changes to Nunavut’s Education Act, as part of community consultations, he said.
Schools in the territory aren’t permitted to host any devotional or doctrinal studies focused on one religion, although a local district education authority could approve that as an extra curricular activity hosted at the school.
Mary Thompson, chair of the Arviat District Education Authority, said she was aware of the petition, although the issue hasn’t yet been brought forward to the DEA for discussion.
Thompson couldn’t say whether students at any of Arviat’s three schools have been reciting morning prayers.