Ferntree, a member of the Cowichan Tribes in B.C., partakes in a smudging ceremony during a Native American protest against Columbus Day, Monday, Oct. 10, 2011, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Smudging in B.C. classroom did not affect Christian family’s faith, says school district lawyer

Lawyers make closing arguments in a Port Alberni case about the Indigenous cultural practice

Just how much of an effect an Indigenous smudging ceremony had on children in a Grade 5 classroom in Port Alberni was at the centre of closing arguments on Thursday in a civil trial against the school district.

Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian, filed a petition against School District 70, claiming her daughter’s right to religious freedom was infringed upon when the girl participated in a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations smudging ceremony at John Howitt Elementary in 2015. She is seeking a ban on the cultural practice in schools across the province.

RELATED: Student tells B.C. court she wasn’t allowed to leave Indigenous smudging ceremony

Servatius’ lawyer, Jay Cameron with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, argued the children were forced to participate in the smudging ceremony, and that it was not a demonstration, but an actual performance of the ritual.

“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,” said Cameron.

“Certainly from [the daughter’s] perspective, there was confusion. There was a loss of trust.”

Smudging is a common Indigenous spiritual practice in which herbs such as sage, sweetgrass and cedar are burned for ‘cleansing’ purposes.

Earlier in the week, teacher Jelena Dyer told the court the Nuu-chah-nulth elder had come to the classroom, explained the ceremony and her people’s beliefs to the kids, and burned a bit of sage.

The court heard conflicting testimony about the amount of smoke in the room, from “heavy” to “barely any.”

RELATED: ‘Our culture is not a religion,’ Indigenous educator tells court in smudging case

Cameron also referred to a letter that had been sent home before the ceremony, without a date or a clear way for parents to opt their children out of it.

The school district’s lawyer, Keith Mitchell, dismissed the letter, saying the case is about what happened in the classroom.

He argued Servatius and her daughter are not reliable witnesses, because Servatius is only relying what her daughter told her, and her daughter does not remember the events accurately.

“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.

He referred to earlier testimony from teachers, such as Dyer, who’d told the court the girl appeared “happy” to watch the ceremony, sitting in the front row, and had not expressed any concerns. The instructor also said it was made clear that there was no intent to “impress” beliefs on anyone.

Finally, Mitchell argued the family’s religious beliefs were not significantly affected by the ritual or how they practice their own faith, so the ceremony should still be allowed.

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

The trial is expected to conclude on Friday.

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

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







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

 

An artist sprinkles ashes from a smudging ceremony on his sculpture unveiled at Penticton Regional Hospital in 2018. (Mark Brett/Western News)

Just Posted

Ktunaxa, supporters celebrate protection of Qat’muk and the Jumbo valley

Speeches, acknowledgements and ceremonies mark an emotional gathering in Cranbrook

Jumbo Valley to be protected, ending decades-long dispute over proposed ski resort

Development rights permanently retired for site of proposed year-round ski resort west of Invermere

FedEx distribution centre coming to Castlegar

Development permit for ground facility before council next week.

Kootenay teams heading for curling provincials

Team Buchy and Team Nichols won the senior playdowns.

B.C. VIEWS: Few clouds on Horgan’s horizon

Horgan’s biggest challenge in the remainder of his term will be to keep the economy humming along

Victoria family focuses on ‘letting go, enjoying time together’ after dad gets dementia

Walter Strauss has developed an interest in music and now takes line dancing classes

B.C. forest industry grasps for hope amid seven-month strike, shutdowns, changes

Some experts say this could be worse for forestry than the 2008 financial crisis

Northern B.C. RCMP investigating alleged sexual assault in downtown Smithers

One person was transported by ambulance to hospital following RCMP investigation at Sedaz

UBC, Iranian-Canadian community create memorial scholarship in honour of victims

The Jan. 8 crash killed 176 people, including 57 Canadians

Disrespectful that Horgan won’t meet during northern B.C. tour: hereditary chief

Na’moks said he was frustrated Horgan didn’t meet with the chiefs

Canucks extend home win streak to 8 with 4-1 triumph over Sharks

Victory lifts Vancouver into top spot in NHL’s Pacific Division

Most Read