Courthouse in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file)

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

Lawyers lay out arguments in case regarding indigenous cultural practice in Port Alberni classroom

Lawyers involved in a Supreme Court case around smudging in the classroom argued the credibility of a student’s account and the impacts of the cultural ceremony.

On Nov. 21, lawyers from both sides presented their arguments to Justice Douglas Thompson in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo.

Port Alberni mother Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian, has filed a petition in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, arguing that her daughter’s rights to religious freedom were infringed on when she was forced to participate in a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony at John Howitt Elementary School in September 2015. Servatius has accused Alberni School District 70 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

Jay Cameron, a lawyer with Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms who is representing the Servatius family, told the courtroom the evidence presented during cross-examination shows that the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony is supposed to be a voluntary experience but wasn’t and that “non-secular practices” should occur outside of the classroom.

“I think that this is an exceedingly important point because if the experience is not entered into on a voluntary basis, it changes the experience,” he said.

Cameron said the smudging ceremony resulted in “heavy” smoke in the classroom and that Servatius’s daughter had a negative experience as a result of being forced to participate.

“Certainly from [Servatius’ daughter’s] perspective, there was confusion, there was a loss of trust,” he said.

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

The ceremony wasn’t a demonstration but an event the students participated in, Cameron said, adding that the school district may argue that it was merely a demonstration, but evidence during cross-examination suggests otherwise.

“It is one thing to say these are the accoutrements of the ceremony, this is the sage, this is the shell. It’s entirely different to actually do the ceremony. It’s no longer just a demonstration,” he said. “That means in a classroom where the smoke is moving around the classroom, where people are required to be respectful, especially young children, the intention of the people performing the ceremony is to cleanse the energy of the room and the students were in the room, it’s not just a demonstration.”

Cameron also said the smudging ceremony is no different than if the school district were to have a priest come in and perform an “exorcism” and then say “this is just a demonstration” because those who perform a ceremony of that nature, have “deeply held beliefs” that something is “actually happening.”

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

Throughout the week, Cameron cross-examined people associated with the ceremony, often questioning them about the wording of a letter that the school sent to students. That letter, which informed students and parents about the smudging ceremony, did not provide a date for when the ceremony was to occur. It also didn’t specifically include wording that instructed parents what to do if they wished to opt out of the ceremony but did provide a contact for parents if they had any questions.

The school district’s legal counsel presented their rebuttal arguments later in the day Thursday. Keith Mitchell of Harris and Company told the court that the letter is a “complete red herring” because the case isn’t about was said in the letter but what “actually” happened.

Mitchell said there is more “reliable” evidence from the teachers than from Servatius or her daughter. He said Servatius is relying what her daughter told her and that her daughter does not remember the events accurately.

“Her evidence is not credible,” Mitchell said.

ALSO READ: Nuu-chah-Nulth Tribal Council hopes for resolution in SD70 court case

Children, according to Mitchell, don’t have a “knee-jerk reaction” to “things that are different,” but do care about how their parents or authority figures feel.

“Children are very much concerned whether their parents are upset, or whether the authority figures of their lives, particularly their parents or pastor, tell them something is wrong and that they should have felt a certain way,” he said.

Mitchell said the Servatius family members are part of the most “prevalent” faith group in Canada and any “interference” in the family’s ability to observe and practice their beliefs is “trivial.” He added that evidence suggests that Servatius’s religious beliefs were not reasonably impacted, Mitchell said.

“It didn’t change the way the Servatius family lives their lives,” he said.

The hearing is expected to conclude tomorrow, Nov. 22 at the Nanaimo Courthouse.







nicholas.pescod@nanaimobulletin.com 
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