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

 

Just Posted

Eastbound lanes of Harvey Avenue closed after car crash

A mini-van and a car collided at the intersection of Dilworth and Harvey Avenue.

Icewine harvesting underway in Okanagan

Hundreds of tonnes of grapes expected to be harvested this year for icewine in surrounding Okanagan area

City of West Kelowna proposes 4.8% tax increase for 2020

Tax increase will generate $2.3 million more in revenue in comparison to 2019 budget, city says

Nominations for Kelowna Chamber of Commerce “40 Under Forty” now open

The chamber said the search for “Best of the Best” is on

Kelowna city council approves off-leash dog beach on Lake Avenue

This is the fourth off-leash dog beach to be implemented in Kelowna

Fireballs to fill the sky Friday for brightest meteor shower of the year

Geminid meteor shower features colourful, brighter, longer shooting stars

Province sues over sailing incident that killed teen with disabilities

Gabriel Pollard, 16, died from injuries after marine lift failed

First Nations want Big Bar landslide cleared ASAP to allow fish passage

Leadership calling for urgent action and resources to remove obstruction on the Fraser

Assessed value of Lower Mainland homes expected to decrease in 2020

Other areas of province may see modest increases over last year’s values

Book examines history of B.C. wine industry

Author Luke Whittall has studied the growth of the industry from the mid-19th century to today

Chilliwack family’s therapy dog injured in hit and run

Miniature pit bull Fifty’s owner is a single mother facing close to $10,000 in vet bills

Competitive Christmas decorating takes sarcastic turn in Princeton

It’s not uncommon for neighbours to good-naturely compete with one another when… Continue reading

Most Read