A Port Alberni mom will soon have her time in court after she claims her two children’s rights to religious freedom were infringed on after their elementary school held an Indigenous smudging ceremony.
Candice Servatius, who is an evangelical Christian, is suing School District 70 and seeking a court-ordered ban on the cultural practice in schools across the province. The petition, first filed in late 2016 and is set to be heard in Supreme Court in Nanaimo on Monday.
At the beginning of the school year in 2015, John Howitt Elementary School’s principal Stacey Manson sent out a letter informing parents that a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation would be visiting the school to talk with students about their culture and history.
“This will be our opportunity to learn about Nuu-chah-nulth traditions and experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom, previous energy in our classroom, and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us,” a copy of the letter reads, according to court documents.
Manson explained that the students would be asked to hold cedar branches and participating in a smudging ceremony, a practice that involves fanning smoked sage. It didn’t specify when the ceremony would be happening.
“Classroom and furniture will also be cleansed to allow any previous energy from: falls, bad energy, bullying, accidents, sad circumstances, etc. to be released and ensure the room is safe for all and only good things will happen,” Manson wrote.
Parents were invited to observe if they wished to.
In her legal submission, Servatius said she went to the school to voice her concern about the cleansing ceremony and its religious nature but was “shocked” to be told it had already taken place.
The legal submission says that Servatius’ daughter, in Grade 5 at the time, “experienced anxiety, shame and confusion as a result of being forced to participate in a religious ritual that conflicted with her own religious convictions.”
Servatius claims her daughter was coerced into participating, and when she told her teacher she didn’t want to participate the teacher allegedly told her “it would be rude” if she opted out adding that “all students are required to participate.”
In the weeks that followed, Servatius reached out to the superintendent for the district, Greg Smyth, who told the mom that no religious or spiritual exercises would again occur without giving adequate notice.
But on Jan. 7, the school closed an assembly with an Aboriginal prayer, Servatius says, “directed to an unspecified god.”
Smyth argued that the prayer was not religious and instead cultural.
The Nuu-chah-nulth are an intervenor in the case. In an interview with Black Press Media’s Alberni Valley News in 2016, after Servatius filed her petition to the court, defended their culture.
“Nuu-chah-nulth is not a religion, Deb Foxcroft, the former president of the tribal council said at the time. “We are a group of Indigenous people who have been here on the West Coast of Vancouver Island since time immemorial. Our language and culture is what makes us unique.”
She added that reconciliation includes encouraging cultural practices to be taught through the education system.
The ruling has the possibility to impact B.C.’s public school curriculum, which introduced Indigenous studies for Kindergarten to Grade 12 courses beginning in 2018.
Black Press Media has reached out for further comment from the tribal council, as well as from the BC Teachers’ Federation.