Courthouse in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file)

Courthouse in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file)

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

Mother also gave evidence Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court, case continues Wednesday

A Vancouver Island woman seeking a provincewide ban on indigenous smudging ceremonies taking place in schools told a Nanaimo courtroom that her daughter was told by a teacher that it was “rude” to not participate.

Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian, is claiming her daughter’s rights to religious freedom were infringed on when she was forced to participate in a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony at Port Alberni’s John Howitt Elementary School in September 2015.

Servatius alleges that her daughter was “unwillingly subjected to being fanned by smoke” during the ceremony and that her daughter expressed a desire to leave the room but was told by her teacher that it would “be rude” to opt out, according to court documents. The mother claims her daughter experienced “anxiety, shame and confusion as a result” of the ceremony, accuses the school district of breaching its duty of neutrality and is seeking a court-ordered ban on the cultural practice in schools across B.C.

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

On Nov. 19, Servatius told B.C. Supreme Court that on the day of the smudging ceremony, her daughter was told by her teacher that it was “disrespectful” for her to opt out of the event even though she felt uncomfortable.

“[My daughter] was told that it would be rude not to participate. My child is not a child that is going to want to be rude to anybody. She is told to be respectful of adults,” Servatius said. “[My daughter] was put in a position with an authority figure that was telling her that it would be disrespectful if she was not part of it and she was told to sit down.”

According to court documents, the school provided students with a letter explaining that Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremonies would take place in classrooms and that students would “hold onto cedar branches” and that they would be “smudged.” The letter does not provide dates for when the ceremonies were to take place.

Servatius said her daughter never got such a letter but that once she read it, she discussed the ceremony with her children and told them not to worry as they would not be participating. She said didn’t have any “intention” of belittling the beliefs of First Nations people.

“I believe that what they described in the letter and what my daughter described is very much a spiritual or religious thing that is happening and I do believe and I know, in my beliefs, that God is the one true God and we are not to pray to or have a type of ceremony to any other god or other beings,” Servatius said.

Servatius also told the court that the ceremony hasn’t changed her beliefs or impacted her daughter’s beliefs, but it has affected her as a parent and had an impact on the family.

“It didn’t change the way that I am living my life or my children living their life believing in God, but it did change what that day looked like,” she said. “We sat down, we talked about and we prayed about it and we had a discussion about … their feelings and why they felt that.”

RELATED: Port Alberni mom takes school district to court over Indigenous smudging, prayer in class

Later in the day, Sherri Cook, a Nuu-chah-nulth educator who helped oversee the smudging ceremonies, was cross-examined by Servatius’s legal counsel, Jay Cameron of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. Cook told the court that First Nations culture is not a religion but a way of life for her and her people.

“Our culture is not a religion and I am deeply hurt that I am even sitting here today,” she said.

Cook said there were a few smudging ceremonies performed in classrooms on the day in question, that they lasted between 15-20 minutes, that they were all similar in nature and that the smoke was “strong” at times. She also said she didn’t receive any complaints, particularly from either Servatius or her daughter, before, during or immediately after the ceremony.

“She did not bring that to my attention…” Cook said. “If I was clear on how the student was feeling and how the family felt I would have made other accommodations. I have done it in the past. I have put students in the library to get caught up on homework while we did cultural teaching in class in other circumstances.”

Cook explained that she comes from a family with a “long line” of chiefs, that her grandparents “lost” 21 grandchildren to the residential school system and that her mother has “lost of all her culture” because of a colonial system that forced her to believe in a God.

“Because of my history and because of my family, I would never put a human, let alone a child in a situation where they are uncomfortable because I know personally, all too well, how my family was forced to go to residential school,” Cook said.

The school district disputes the claims made by Servatius. A teacher began giving evidence late Tuesday afternoon and the case will continue Wednesday, Nov. 20, at the Nanaimo Courthouse.







nicholas.pescod@nanaimobulletin.com 
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram

 

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

Just Posted

Nanaimo RCMP investigated after a threat was made at Woodgrove Centre on Tuesday, Jan. 19. (News Bulletin file photo)
Threat directed at Woodgrove Centre, Nanaimo RCMP investigating

Officers have searched areas of the mall accessible to shoppers and have deemed it safe

(News Bulletin file photo)
Car crashes along the Nanaimo Parkway, driver abandons vehicle

Mazda with ‘extensive damage’ found in the ditch in the early-morning hours Jan. 19

Quitting smoking can start with becoming a non-smoker for just a day, says medical director of community health in Nanaimo. (Stock photo)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Plenty of support available to help people quit smoking

Doctor urges smokers to try to become non-smokers for a day tomorrow, Weedless Wednesday

Vancouver Island University. (File photo)
Province announces funding for VIU to train mental health workers

Provincial government says pandemic has intensified need for mental health supports

The City of Nanaimo’s Community Services Building at 285 Prideaux St., where the 7-10 Club is located, will host a warming centre seven days a week through March 31. (City of Nanaimo photo)
Warming centres for people experiencing homelessness open today in Nanaimo

City of Nanaimo and social agencies partnering on Wallace and Prideaux locations

B.C. Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth (Black Press files)
B.C. watchdog says mentally ill children and youth retraumatized in hospital

The number of children held under the Mental Health Act has increased an alarming 162 per cent in past decade

Paige Karczynski is the new executive director of Nanaimo Community Hospice Society. (Photo submitted)
New executive director leading Nanaimo hospice at a time when grief counselling is greatly needed

Paige Karczynski takes over as Nanaimo Community Hospice Society begins its 40th year

A new video from NCCIH and BC Northern Health titled ‘Healing in Pandemic Times: Indigenous Peoples, Stigma and COVID-19’ was animated by Joanne Gervais. (Photo Provided By: NCCIH Archives)
VIDEO: Stigma against Indigenous people is a ‘social sickness’

A new short animated video is aiming to educate the public on the stigmatization

A pinniped was attacked by an unseen predator off the shores of Dallas Road Monday night. (Courtesy of Steffani Cameron)
VIDEO: Seal hunting, not being hunted in video shot off Victoria waterfront

Victoria woman captures footage of pinniped activity off Dallas Road

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau vows to keep up the fight to sway U.S. on merits of Keystone XL pipeline

Canada’s pitch to the Biden team has framed Keystone XL as a more environmentally friendly project than original

The British Columbia Hotel Association (BCHA) sent out a sharply worded release late last week, in which it noted that the Tourism Industry Association of BC recently obtained a ‘legal opinion’ on the matter (Alex Passini photo)
Hotel associations push back against any potential ban on inter-provincial, non-essential travel restrictions

B.C. Premier John Horgan is seeking legal advice on banning non-essential travel

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)
COVID rapid tests in long-term care key during vaccine rollout: B.C. care providers

‘Getting kits into the hands of care providers should be a top priority,’ says former Health Minister

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. turns to second doses of COVID-19 vaccine as supplies slow

Pfizer shipments down until February, to be made up in March

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
No Pfizer vaccines arriving in Canada next week; feds still expect 4M doses by end of March

More cases of U.K. variant, South African variant found in Canada

Most Read