Coast Mountains School District 82 says they respect the decision of a B.C. Supreme Court judge who ruled against a Vancouver Island mother claiming her daughter’s religious rights were violated when an indigenous smudging ceremony was performed in her elementary school classroom.
“I don’t have a feeling about the decision and I respect the courts and the decisions they make. So we [SD82] respect that,” says Agnes Casgrain, director of instruction, Indigenous Education at SD82.
Casgrain says SD82 facilitates smudging ceremonies very rarely and only when a school or community requests it. It usually takes places outside of school property.
“It’s voluntary and no student is forced to go. Parents are informed and know it is not a regular process,” she says.
“We’ve had no push back, parents have been totally supportive. Most of the time it [smudging ceremonies] goes on in communities.”
Casgrain says the Ministry of Education dictated that schools should teach kids about Indigenous practice and culture and smudging ceremonies fall under that category.
“The practices differ from nation to nation, and we have 10 nations in our district. So the practice we use depends on the territory, and someone from the nation comes and leads it. We follow the directives of the nation.”
Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian from Port Alberni, had filed a petition in the Supreme Court of B.C. against Alberni School District 70, claiming that her daughter’s rights to religious freedom were infringed on when she participated in a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony at John Howitt Elementary School in September 2015.
Servatius also says the school district breached its duty of neutrality and that her daughter experienced “anxiety, shame and confusion as a result” of the ceremony.
The Attorney General of B.C. and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council were also named in Servatius’s petition, which sought a court-ordered ban on smudging in schools across the province.
A week-long hearing took place in a Nanaimo courtroom late last year.
In his 47-page ruling released last week, Justice Douglas Thompson dismissed the case, explaining that Servatius “failed to establish” that the smudging ceremony infringed on her or her children’s “ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs.”
Thompson noted religious freedom is not compromised when students are taught about other beliefs.
In her affidavit, Servatius’s daughter says she was forced to remain in the classroom while the smudging ceremony took place and that “there was so much smoke” she had difficulty seeing.
But in his ruling, Thompson says Servatius’s daughter’s memory of “important details” was “not accurate” and that claims of coercion and being uncomfortable during the ceremony were false.
He also says Servatius’s daughter did not raise her concerns with her teacher, despite claiming she did and that the room was not filled with as much smoke as she described.
Jenna Cocullo | Journalist
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