Nanaimo courthouse, where a B.C. Supreme Court case was held in the fall around indigenous smudging in a public school classroom. (News Bulletin file photo)

B.C. mom loses case about Indigenous smudging ceremony in daughter’s class

B.C. Supreme Court judge releases ruling in case against Port Alberni school district

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled against a Vancouver Island mother who claimed her daughter’s religious rights were violated when an indigenous smudging ceremony was performed in her elementary school classroom.

Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian from Port Alberni, had filed a petition in the Supreme Court of B.C. against Alberni School District 70, claiming that her daughter’s rights to religious freedom were infringed on when she participated in a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony at John Howitt Elementary School in September 2015.

Servatius also said the school district breached its duty of neutrality and that her daughter experienced “anxiety, shame and confusion as a result” of the ceremony.

The Attorney General of B.C. and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council were also named in Servatius’s petition, which sought a court-ordered ban on smudging in schools across the province.

A week-long hearing took place in a Nanaimo courtroom late last year. The core of hearing focused mainly on the events that occurred at the Port Alberni school in September 2015 but also included an indigenous hoop dance ceremony and prayer that took place during a school assembly in January 2016.

RELATED: Student tells Nanaimo courtroom she wasn’t allowed to leave indigenous smudging ceremony

In his ruling released on Wednesday, Justice Douglas Thompson dismissed the case, explaining that Servatius “failed to establish” that the smudging ceremony infringed on her or her children’s “ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs.”

Jay Cameron, Servatius’s lawyer, said in a press release that his team is reviewing its next steps and that Thompson’s ruling is “disappointing” for people from “any religion or cultural background” and that they have the constitutional right to be free from “state-compelled” spirituality.

Judith Sayers, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president, said the council is “very pleased” with the court’s decision and that Servatius was trying to “redefine” their cultural practices as religious practices.

“Smudging does not fit into the categorization of a religious practice, nor should it be made to. To attempt to do so, is to attempt to force ancestral practices into square boxes which the courts have said cannot happen,” Sayers said in a press release.

RELATED: Province argues in B.C. Supreme Court for smudging in schools, says it relates to curriculum

In his 47-page ruling, Thompson said one’s religious freedom is not compromised when students are taught about other beliefs.

“Being taught about beliefs is not an infringement of religious freedom – even when taught by an elder at close range and in a manner that engages the student’s sense of smell as well as her sense of sight and sound and even if this teaching results in some cognitive dissonance,” Thompson wrote.

The judge said while Servatius “does not oppose the incorporation of indigenous worldview” into the province’s curriculum, he noted that there is “some irony” to her position that the smudging ceremony and hoop dance performance amounted to religious indoctrination and noted that the Alberni Indian Residential School, which was operational from 1891 until 1973, was located about four kilometres away from John Howitt Elementary School.

In her affidavit, Servatius’s daughter said she was forced to remain in the classroom while the smudging ceremony took place and that “there was so much smoke” she had difficulty seeing.

RELATED: Teacher says student was ‘happy’ to watch smudging ceremony at Vancouver Island school

But in his ruling, Thompson said Servatius’s daughter’s memory of “important details” was “not accurate” and that claims of coercion and being uncomfortable during the ceremony were false. He also said Servatius’s daughter did not raise her concerns with her teacher, despite claiming she did and that the room was not filled with as much smoke as she described.

“In no classroom were the students, their desks, or their belongings smudged,” Thompson wrote. “In each classroom, the students’ participation was limited to learning: observing, listening, and taking in the smell of the burning sage.”

RELATED: ‘Our culture is not a religion,’ indigenous educator tells Nanaimo court in case of smudging at school

RELATED: Smudging in B.C. classroom had ‘trivial’ impact on Christian family’s faith, says school district’s lawyer

Speaking to the News Bulletin, Cameron explained that his client has no issue with her children learning about different cultures including indigenous culture in school, but the government went too far with her daughter.

“She wants to keep the government in its lane,” he said.

Asked whether he would appeal the ruling, Cameron said he is reviewing all their options but no decision has been made at this point, only that he disagrees with the conclusion Thompson reached.

“We think that anytime the government imposes on free citizens a spiritual or supernatural or religious ceremony, especially with little kids, that is an infringement of [the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms] and we respectfully disagree with the judgment,” Cameron said.

Should Cameron decide to appeal the ruling, he said one of the things he will be looking at is Thompson’s rejection of Servatius’s daughter’s evidence because the lawyer said there are “a number” of witnesses who can corroborate the girl’s version of events.



nicholas.pescod@nanaimobulletin.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

QUIZ: How much do you know about British Columbia?

On this B.C. Day long weekend, put your knowledge of our province to the test

Province restricts non-resident travel to Haida Gwaii amid COVID outbreak

Provincial staff will help enforce travel restrictions from islands, mainland

Strong season but no market for B.C.’s spot prawn fishers

Sector hopeful low prices will catch the eye of local prawn lovers

Fairview Terminal expansion receives regulatory approval

DP World expects expansion will add 300 jobs at the Prince Rupert facility

Community outbreak of COVID-19 confirmed on Haida Gwaii

Contact tracing has confirmed a total of 13 cases, according to Northern Health

VIDEO: Otter pups learn to swim at B.C. wildlife rescue facility

Watch Critter Care’s Nathan Wagstaffe help seven young otters go for their first dip

Plane crashes into Nelson supermarket parking lot

Pilot and passenger have minor injuries

Michael Buble among 13 British Columbians to receive Order of B.C.

Ceremony will be delayed to 2021 due to COVID-19

U.S. border communities feel loss of Canadian tourists, shoppers and friends

Restrictions on non-essential travel across the Canada-U.S. border have been in place since March 2`

Rollout of COVID-19 Alert app faces criticism over accessibility

App requires users to have Apple or Android phones made in the last five years, and a relatively new operating system

Alleged impaired driver sparks small wildfire near Lytton after crash: B.C. RCMP

Good Samaritans prevented the blaze from getting out of control

B.C. First Nation adopts ‘digital twinning’ software to better manage territory

Software allows users to visualize what a mountain might look like if the trees on its slopes were logged

All inquiry recommendations implemented after fatal Port Hardy RCMP shooting: Ministry

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. cleared the RCMP officers involved of wrongdoing

Most Read