Courthouse in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file)

Courthouse in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file)

‘Our culture is not a religion,’ Indigenous educator tells B.C. Supreme Court in case of smudging at school

Mother also gave evidence Tuesday in Nanaimo courtroom, case continues Wednesday

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

Fish and Loaves Humane Society volunteers Bobby Burns, left, and John Enns, right, receive Volunteer Recognition Awards from acting mayor Duncan McMaster during the free food hand out at the Tofino Legion on Feb.24. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Tofino Fish and Loaves volunteers Enns and Burns cheered for community service

“He’s a very conscientious and hard-working, giving volunteer.”

Ucluelet CAO Mark Boysen has resigned his position and is heading south-Island. (Westerly file photo)
Ucluelet CAO Mark Boysen resigns

Mayor Mayco Noel says he and his council “completely caught off guard”

Tofino will elect a new mayor and two new councillors on March. 6. (Westerly file photo)
Tofino councillor candidates identify differences

Tofino will elect a new mayor and two new municipal councillors on March 6.

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. seniors aged 90+ can start to sign up for vaccination on March 8

Long-term care residents protected by shots already given

Tofino Resort and Marina has temporarily shut down after several staff members tested positive for COVID-19. (Nora O’Malley photo)
COVID-19 confirmed at Tofino Resort and Marina

Resort apologizes to Hesquiaht First Nation for Valentine’s Day boating incident.

t
Province invests $2M in three Vancouver Island food hubs

Hub network provides shared-use processing facilities to small agri-businesses

A vial of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a family doctor office, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Paris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP -Christophe Ena
Trudeau ‘optimistic’ that timeline for rollout of COVID vaccines can be accelerated

Canada set to receive more than 6M COVID-19 vaccine dose than initially expected, by end of March

Beginning late Tuesday, anti-pipeline protesters blocked the intersection of Hastings Street and Clark Drive in Vancouver. (Instagram/Braidedwarriors)
Demonstrators block key access to Vancouver port over jail for pipeline protester

They group is protesting a 90-day jail sentence handed to a fellow anti-pipeline protester

Two Vancouver police officers were struck by a car when the driver learned he was being arrested for allegedly using a fraudulent credit card to pay for food. (Vancouver Police Department)
Driver being arrested for alleged food order fraud rams Vancouver police with car

Two officers are in stable condition, suffering with soft tissue injuries following the incident

A discarded blue surgical mask is shown hanging in a bush in Montreal, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
B.C. RMT suspended for not wearing a mask after confirmed by undercover clients

College of Massage Therapists has 5 open files, said suspension necessary to protect public

Victoria Police Department vehicles outside the headquarters building. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria police investigating sudden death in Beacon Hill Park

Police, paramedics responded to a report of an unresponsive person early Wednesday

Accident rates, injury claims and court costs have driven ICBC into deficit in recent years. (Black Press Media)
Judge rejects taking lawyers out of minor ICBC injury cases

Ruling the latest setback for B.C. NDP’s insurance cost reforms

Most Read