A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled against a Port Alberni mother who claimed her daughter’s religious rights were violated when an Indigenous smudging ceremony was performed in an elementary school classroom.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) had filed a petition on Candice Servatius’s behalf against the Alberni School District in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo, B.C. back in 2016.
Servatius, an Evangelical Christian, claimed on Sept. 16, 2015, when her daughter was a student at John Howitt Elementary, her daughter had the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony imposed on her in the classroom, harming her spiritually and violating her constitutional rights.
The Calgary-based, Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has taken up the case free of charge to defend Servatius’ case, claiming smudging made her child very upset and that she couldn’t sleep the night of the ritual.
The Attorney General of B.C. and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council were also included in Servatius’s petition. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) who served as intervenors.
Justice Douglas Thompson noted that the petitioner’s arguments centred on the smudging event, but Servatius submitted “that both the smudging and the prayer that accompanied the dance interfered with the religious freedoms of herself and her children guaranteed by the Charter of Rights. She seeks a declaration to this effect and an order in the nature of prohibition enjoining further events of this nature in the school district.”
In Wednesday’s ruling, Thompson dismissed the case, writing that Servatius “has not established any infringement of religious freedoms.”
“The petitioner has failed to establish that the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging in her children’s classrooms or the prayer said by the hoop dancer at the school assembly interfered with her or her children’s ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs,” the judgement said.
‘The petitioner has failed to establish that the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging in her children’s classrooms or the prayer said by the hoop dancer at the school assembly interfered with her or her children’s ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs.”
Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council wrote in a statement that following the ruling that “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 that the council’s goal is “to make schools a place where Nuu-chah-nulth students could see themselves and their culture reflected, to make the schools our children attend a culturally safe space.”
“The NTC advocates for education for cultural inclusiveness in schools because all young people have to be taught about cultural differences. This is a crucial part of reconciliation and changing the relationship between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Canadians. People Cannot honour differences if they cannot understand it,” Sayers said.
This was an incredibly difficult case to go through and the court agrees that some of the Petitioner’s arguments were insensitive and regrettable hyperbole especially considering the magnitude of what occurred in the Residential school. It was tough for all concerned to sit through this hearing and listen to assertions about Nuu-chah-nulth culture and hope that it never happens again.”
The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs applauded the decision as well.
“Given the traumatic history and legacy of residential schools which attempted to systematically destroy Indigenous culture and tragically harmed Indigenous children, educational experiences that celebrate Indigenous beliefs and traditions should be welcomed, not punished. Honouring and integrating Indigenous knowledge and practices into our education systems is a step towards reconciliation,” Chief Don Tom, vice-president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said in a statement.