Parks Canada no longer charging fee for sweat lodge ceremonies

After a backlash, a national historic site in Manitoba will no longer charge a fee for sweat lodge ceremonies.

'It looks like a tourism draw to me,' says AFN regional chief

Assembly of First Nations regional chief Kevin Hart says a sacred ceremony is being treated like a tourism draw. (CBC)

Parks Canada will no longer charge a fee for sweat lodge ceremonies it offers at a national historic site in Manitoba. 

The sweat lodge is a purification ceremony usually conducted by an elder or someone who has been taught strict spiritual protocols. In order to take part, people usually make an offering of tobacco or cloth to the person conducting the ceremony.

But Parks Canada was advertising sweat lodge ceremonies on three dates this summer, at a price of $59.50 per person. The ceremonies are to take place at the Lower Fort Garry National Historic site, near Selkirk, Man.

"This is not a recreational program, but an authentic and traditional experience coordinated in an appropriate manner by the recognized Sweat Lodge Keeper on lands that were important to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada," read a statement from Parks Canada. 

The statement also said that offering sweat lodges was never meant to generate revenue, rather the fee was to offset costs associated with the ceremony.

Still, ads for the sweat lodge ceremonies had angered many Indigenous people in Manitoba and across the country.

This ad offering a sweat lodge ceremony for $$59.50 per person has sparked anger among Indigenous peoples. (Parks Canada)
"We don't charge for ceremonies," said Kevin Hart, Manitoba regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. "It looks like a tourism draw to me."

Hart said he understands there are costs associated with building the sweat lodge itself, which is a dome-shaped structure usually covered in tarps or blankets. Gathering materials and just getting to a ceremony isn't cheap, Hart said. But providing money for expenses is one thing, charging admission is quite another.

"People are being taken advantage of if there's a charge," he said, adding that he's received numerous complaints about the ceremonies, including from a council of First Nations elders in Manitoba.

Hart warns that there have been 'fly-by-night elders' who don't know how to properly run sweat lodges. He points to the case of James Arthur Ray, an Arizona man who charged thousands of dollars to run sweat lodge ceremonies that resulted in the deaths of three people.

Earlier on Wednesday, Hart reached out to federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who is also responsible for Parks Canada. Hart said ministry officials responded this afternoon and assured him they would work with First Nations in Manitoba to address the issue.

Ceremonies held for 5 years

Parks Canada said in an email this is the fifth year the ceremonies have been offered at Lower Fort Garry, which is a fur trade-era stone fort.

"When groups book a sweat lodge ceremony, they can either bring an elder that they have made arrangements with, or Parks Canada can make arrangements with an appropriate elder to do the sweats on an as-needed basis," the email reads.

A photo of the lodge was posted on a Parks Canada Facebook account on May 20, with a description of the lodge and ceremony.

"This purifying ritual is waiting for you to experience. The intense heat can stimulate reflections and insights that helps purify ones' self and opens you to ask for blessings and healing," reads the caption.

Every comment on the photo is critical of offering ceremonies for a fee.

"Sweat lodges are meant to be built by those who have been taught proper protocol & understand the teachings & sacredness of building one. People do not pay money nor is it a tourist attraction," wrote one person.

Parks Canada should have consulted with First Nations in Manitoba before offering anything that can be seen as sacred, Hart said.