Parent says traditional smudging ceremony a religious rather than cultural activity
By Megan Thomas, CBC News Posted: Nov 15
A mother in Port Alberni, B.C., is taking the school district to court, alleging her children were forced to participate in an Aboriginal spirituality ceremony that she considers religious in nature.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has filed a petition on her behalf in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo, B.C.
It seeks a declaration that the actions of School District 70 violated the right to religious freedom for Candice Servatius’s children.
Servatius’s two children attend John Howitt Elementary School in Port Alberni. In September of 2015, the principal wrote to parents to tell them that the school would be hosting a traditional Aboriginal smudging ceremony.
Parents were informed in the letter that students would participate by holding a cedar branch while smoke from sage was fanned over them to experience “cleansing energy.”
The school board also noted the ceremony would be an opportunity for students to learn more about the Nuu-chah-nulth traditions.
Servatius went to the school to learn more, but discovered that the ceremony had already taken place, and that all students were required to participate, said John Carpay, president of the JCCF.
“This is contrary to the School Act which expressly prohibits religion in the classroom, religious practices, and it is also contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Carpay said.
The petition also seeks a court order to prevent School District 70 from engaging in similar actions in the future.
“The distinction here that the school board is not honouring is a difference between teaching about religion and actually practising religion by forcing kids to go through a religious ceremony,” Carpay said.
Servatius also took issue with a January 2016 activity at the school involving an Aboriginal hoop dance performer who started by reciting a prayer.
School district disagrees
The school district said it is aware of the court petition but is not commenting further until it reviews the matter with its lawyers.
“Our only comment is that our schools operate on a secular, inclusive and non-discriminatory basis, but there is teaching and learning about different cultures and traditions, and that is an important part of learning,” said Greg Smyth, the superintendent for School District 70.
The district did provide a more detailed response to Servatius’s complaint through a letter last month from its lawyer. That letter is included in the court documents for the case.
It indicates that the district is committed to ensuring its educational programs comply with the Charter and section 76 of the School Act, but it does not agree that there has been any violation of rights.
“The actions of the School do not constitute it professing, adopting or favouring one belief to the exclusion of all others,” the letter said.
However, the district does indicate in the letter that it could have made it more clear that participation in the cultural ceremonies was optional for students.
Read the complete article at CBC News