The British Columbia Supreme Court has dismissed the case brought by Candice Servatius, the Port Alberni mom who claimed that a 2015 demonstration of Indigenous smudging ceremonies in school was a violation of her children’s religious freedom.
The same mother also objected to a prayer said by an Indigenous hoop dancer before she performed at a school assembly.
According to Judge Douglas Thompson, who wrote the ruling:
The petitioner failed to establish that the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging in her children’s classrooms or the prayer said by the hoop dancer at the school assembly interfered with her or her children’s ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs.
What’s more, testimony from teachers indicates that Servatius’ version of events (and her child’s) were highly exaggerated and inconsistent with teachers’ recollections. Children were not required to remain in the classroom for the smudging ceremony — five of the thirty students present chose to leave — and not one child was told that their spirit needed to be “cleansed of negative energies.” The teacher testified that Servatius’ daughter “took in the demonstration with enthusiasm.”
It’s not unreasonable to conclude that Servatius, uncomfortable with the ceremony for her own reasons, intentionally or unintentionally influenced her daughter’s recollection of events, associating it with the guilt and fear of punishment many former evangelicals know well.
Nuu-chah-nulth Council president Judith Sayers says the decision is a victory for the many Indigenous students in British Columbia:
It allows Nuu-chah-nulth to continue to teach in the school district about our culture to all children, not just Nuu-chah-nulth children. But it also helps to make Nuu-chah-nulth children feel comfortable in their schools.
Ken Watts, vice-president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, has previously expressed disappointment that the case couldn’t be settled out of court. As he has maintained for years, however, the activity was cultural, not religious, and does not represent a violation of others’ religious freedom:
Our way of life isn’t a religion. It’s our way of life. It’s our culture. It’s who we are… What we are trying to do here in Port Alberni, and with the school district and other areas, is to bridge the gap and actually help people better understand who we are and where we come from.
The lesson seems to have been lost on Serviatus, who called both instances “compelled participation in state-sponsored religious exercises” that were forbidden to her and her children because they were “unbiblical.”
For anyone familiar with the colonial history of Canada, that’s a pretty rich accusation. Generations of Indigenous people were forcibly converted to Christianity, while their own religious and cultural practices were forbidden by law.
Unfortunately, Serviatus knows just enough about that ugly history to weaponize it against the school board, comparing her family’s experiences to those of Indigenous survivors:
[This is] 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.
Judge Thomas saw right through that, calling her position “insensitive and regrettable hyperbole.”
The Servatius children’s experience — in which they participated in a mock ritual as a classroom exercise, with no expectation that they abandon their own religion, culture, or community, then subsequently witnessed another child praying a non-Christian prayer — doesn’t even come close to the experiences of Indigenous children taken from their families and forcibly indoctrinated into Christianity throughout Canada’s history.
(Image via Shutterstock)