Courthouse in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file)

Courthouse in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file)

Province argues in B.C. Supreme Court for smudging in schools, says it relates to curriculum

Hearing concludes in case regarding indigenous cultural practice in Vancouver Island classroom

A five-day hearing for a Supreme Court case that could determine whether indigenous smudging ceremonies can happen in public schools concluded today, Nov. 22, in a Nanaimo courtroom.

Candice Servatius, a Christian mother from Port Alberni, filed a petition against Alberni School District 70, claiming that her daughter’s religious rights were infringed on when forced to participate in a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony at John Howitt Elementary School in 2015. Servatius is seeking a court-ordered ban on the practice in schools across the province. The Attorney General of B.C. is also named as a respondent in Servatius’s petition.

Throughout the week, lawyers from all sides presented their arguments in front of Justice Douglas Thompson, who will be ruling on the matter.

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

During Friday’s session, Katie Webb, legal counsel for the attorney general’s office, told the court that the province takes no position with regards to the accusation that the school board wronged Servatius or her daughter, but opposes any order that would ban smudging ceremonies in schools.

“The proposed order would be in conflict with aspects of the provincial curriculum requiring the incorporation of indigenous knowledge,” she said.

Webb said Canada has a history of assimilationist educational policy towards indigenous children, specifically the residential school system, which has contributed to the disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous students today. She said the court should consider the “broader” historical context when rendering a decision.

“It would be an error for this court to consider [the case] in isolation from that broader context,” she said, adding that evidence suggests that 14 to 15 per cent of students at John Howitt Elementary are indigenous.

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

In order to address the “horrors” of the residential school system and to make the public education system in British Columbia more inclusive for everyone, Webb said the province began integrating a new curriculum with a focus on indigenous learning in 2016. She said the smudging ceremony reflects the efforts made by the school to implement that curriculum.

“The incorporation of indigenous knowledge and world views in the educational program promotes a more inclusive educational experience in a culturally safe space, for indigenous and non-indigenous students alike,” she said.

In this case, according to Webb, there hasn’t been a constitutional challenge of the province’s curriculum and therefore it would be “unfair” for the courts to impose any such ban. She said the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not require the school’s administrators to “achieve a perfect calibration” between charter values and a statutory mandate, but rather a “proportionate” balance.

Webb also said it isn’t clear how such an order would be enforced and that the term “religious practices” – which she said had been debated heavily during the hearing – is vague.

“In my submission, that very vagueness is exemplified by the fact that seven lawyers have spent five days in this room arguing about whether we can characterize these events as religious,” she said.

Speaking to the News Bulletin afterwards, Jay Cameron, legal counsel representing Servatius, said the province needs a “statutory mandate” in order to permit smudging ceremonies in schools without parental consent, but that it has no such mandate.

“There is no statutory mandate to cleanse small children against their will without their parents’ knowledge or permission,” he said.

Cameron said his client respects indigenous history culture and is supportive of people wanting to learn about it, but that the province went too far.

“The state crossed the line when it imposed a spiritual ceremony on her children without proper notice to her or the ability to consider opting them out,” he said. “Her position is that shouldn’t happen to anyone no matter what they believe.”

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







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

Longtime basketball coach Allison McNeill is worried that the COVID-19 pandemic will adversely affect high-school athletes with university athletic aspirations. (Garrett James/Langley Events Centre photo)
COVID-19: Young athletes scrambling for scholarships, opportunities amid pandemic

‘They lost their whole Grade 12 year’ says Semiahmoo basketball coach Allison McNeill

When his owner had knee surgery, Kevin, 2, was able to continue to go for walks thanks to volunteers from Elder Dog Canada. (Contributed photo)
White Rock woman among dozens in Lower Mainland to benefit from Elder Dog program

Dog-care organization has a fleet of volunteer walkers ready, but requires more clients to serve

South Surrey’s Historic Stewart Farm. (City of Surrey photo)
City receives $400K grant to build Indigenous Carving Centre in South Surrey

Construction of showcase venue to be completed mid-2022

Travis Selje with Rex, the family dog he got to enjoy for the final six months of his life. (Submitted photo)
Defence says evidence ‘compelling, overwhelming’ to acquit Surrey woman in deadly crash

Epileptic seizure caused fatal crash that killed Travis Selje, lawyer argues in final submissions

TEASER
WATCH: Surrey-made anti-bullying video urges youth to #BlockEmDontShareEm

“Break the chain by deleting the image and never forwarding – not even to a best friend’

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

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)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

A woman boards a transit bus through rear doors, in Vancouver, on Friday, March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
TransLink slow to reveal crucial details about ransomware attack, says union

Union says company took months to admit what info was stolen, including SIN and bank account details

According to a new poll, a majority of Canadians want to see illicit drugs decriminalized. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Majority of Canadians think it’s high time to decriminalize illicit drugs: poll

More than two-times the B.C. residents know someone who died from an overdose compared to rest of Canada

Photograph By @KAYLAXANDERSON
VIDEO: Lynx grabs lunch in Kamloops

A lynx surprises a group of ducks and picks one off for lunch

(Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents can reserve provincial camp sites starting March 8

B.C. residents get priority access to camping reservations in province

Two women were arrested in Nanaimo for refusing to wear masks and causing disturbance on a BC Ferries vessel. (File photo)
B.C. ferry passengers arrested and fined for disturbance, refusing to wear masks

Police said woman threatened their pensions in Feb. 21 incident aboard Nanaimo-bound boat

Most Read