School smudging demonstration didn’t violate Christian family’s Charter rights: B.C. Supreme Court

File photo of an empty classroom. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A Vancouver Island woman who claimed an Indigenous smudging demonstration at her kids’ school violated her family’s abilities to practice their Christian faith has lost her case in the B.C. Supreme Court.

Candice Servatius had brought a civil claim against the Port Alberni School District over the demonstration in September 2015 by a Nuu-chah-nulth elder, along with an Indigenous hoop dancing performance several months later in which a performer recited a prayer.

She described her children’s experiences as ‘compelled participation in state-sponsored religious exercises’, and said the customs involved were ‘unbiblical’ and forbidden to Christians.

Servatius said the school district’s written arguments against her case were hostile against and denigrated the history of Christianity.

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She also claimed it was “in a certain way, an echo of the gross abuses of the residential school days where First Nations children were taken from their homes, deprived of family support, and compelled by the state to participate in religious practices against their will.”

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson called this position “insensitive and regrettable hyperbole,” especially considering that the Alberni Indian Residential School had operated for 82 years nearby.

Thompson said Servatius failed to establish that the demonstrations at her children’s school interfered with her family’s ability to practice their Christian faith,.

“Accordingly, no infringement of the petitioner’s or her children’s freedom of religion has been proved,” he wrote.

But the judge rejected much of the evidence coming from Servatius’ daughter, who was nine years old at the time of the incidents, pointing out that it was at odds with all the evidence coming from John Howitt Elementary School school officials and the people who took part in the demonstrations.

For example, the girl said that the Elder who conducted the smudging demonstration purposefully wafted smoke onto students’ desks and property, filling the room with so much smoke Servatius’ daughter couldn’t see.

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The judge rejected that evidence, accepting the testimony of school officials that smoke was kept to a minimum, restricted to the perimeter of the classroom, with no smoke being wafted towards students or their belongings.

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The judge also pointed out the smoke alarm was not activated, as it would have been if smoke filled the entire room.

Servatius also claimed her daughter was forced to participate in the exercise by her teacher, who she said told her it would be rude to leave.

“The teacher told my daughter that ‘it would be rude’ if she did not participate in the cleansing ritual, and that ‘all students are required to participate’,” Servatius told the court.

“My daughter was unwillingly subjected to being fanned by smoke, and she was told that her ‘spirit’ needed to be ‘cleaned’ of negative ‘energies.'”

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But the judge found the teacher had made it clear before the exercise began that anyone who didn’t want to take part could leave the classroom, an option that about five of the 30 students in the room used. The teacher testified that Servatius’ daughter ‘took in the demonstration with enthusiasm’.

The judge also found nobody was ‘fanned with smoke’ or told their spirit needed to be cleansed of negative energies.

The second incident included in Servatius’ complaint involved a hoop-dancing performance in January 2016, in which the performer said a short prayer during his performance.

“The prayer was strange and foreign to my children, and was directed to an unspecified ‘god’. No parental notice of the prayer was issued by JHES. The prayer caused my children to feel very uncomfortable,” Servatius said.

Servatius’ daughter testified that she was told if she didn’t bow her head and close her eyes during the prayer, she would be in trouble. Thompson found that this did not happen.

B.C. Supreme Court documents show about a third of the students within the Port Alberni School District are Indigenous, and the school district says its strives to increase awareness of Nuu-chah-nulth culture.

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