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.

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

NDP candidate Harwinder Sandhu, right, and incumbent Liberal Eric Foster went head-to-head in a tight race for the Vernon-Monashee seat in the Legislature. By the night’s end Oct. 24, the results were too close to call and the final count will be dependant on outstanding mail-in ballots. (Contributed)
Too close to call in Vernon-Monashee race

Incumbent Foster holds slim lead over NDP Sandhu, mail-in ballots still to come

Advance polling saw nearly 10,000 votes cast in Vernon-Monashee. Pictured: Schubert Centre. (Jennifer Smith - Vernon Morning Star)
BC VOTES 2020: Live results roll in for Vernon-Monashee race

That’s a wrap on voting in the provincial 2020 election

BC Liberal Party Shuswap candidate Greg Kyllo and wife Georgina celebrate another successful campaign, with preliminary results for the 42nd provincial general election showing Greg winning the riding with a comfortable majority. (Jim Elliot-Salmon Arm Observer)
Shuswap’s Greg Kyllo faces third term and BC NDP majority

BC NDP candidate Sylvia Lindgren celebrates party’s success

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau speaks at Provincial Green Party headquarters at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe in Victoria. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
VIDEO: Furstenau leads BC Greens to win first riding outside of Vancouver Island

Sonia Furstenau became leader of BC Greens one week before snap election was called

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

Voters are saying they felt safe voting in person despite the current pandemic. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Central Okanagan voters talk about their pandemic election experience

Despite an election taking place during COVID-19, residents said they felt safe voting in person

Efforts to replace the aging Rutland Middle School have been put off by another year by the ministry of education. (File photo)
Education ministry won’t replace Central Okanagan school anytime soon

New Westside Secondary top priority for ministry of education

Most Read