Mother challenges Indigenous content in schools, smudging trial underway in Nanaimo

Denise Titian, November 18, 2019

A Port Alberni mother is challenging SD70 over whether Nuu-chah-nulth cleansing ceremonies should take place in public schools. The trial began today in Nanaimo. (Denise Titian photo)

Nanaimo, BC — 

The trial between Candice Servatius and School District 70 (Alberni) began Nov. 18, 2019 in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, in Nanaimo, B.C.

Servatius, a Port Alberni mother, is challenging SD70 on allowing the practice of Indigenous cultural ceremonies like smudging and the recitation of First Nations prayers in school.

SD70 says they are mandated by the province to include Indigenous culture in the curriculum and they deny that the activities that took place in the classrooms in 2016 were not religious, but cultural.

In 2016 Candice Servatius had two children attending John Howitt Elementary School in Port Alberni. In September that year she was alerted by letter from the school that JHES would be hosting a “Traditional Nuu-chah-nulth Classroom/Student Cleansing” performed by a Nuu-chah-nulth member in the school’s classrooms.

When she called to ask questions about the event she learned that it had, in fact, already taken place and that both her children had been involved – against their will, according to Servatius. The mother claimed that when her daughter asked to not take part in the smudge ceremony she was told it would be rude to decline and that everyone must participate.

Counsel for Servatius argue that the school imposed the ceremony on the children, who are being raised according to Pentecostal Evangelical Christian faith, and therefore infringed on their right to freedom of religion in the school. They say their client’s belief system is different from what they were subjected to; “they are not believers in Nuu-chah-nulth spiritual practices.”

Servatius and her lawyers are seeking an order prohibiting religious practices during mandatory school time. This includes “religious or spiritual rituals, cleanings, ceremonies and prayer.”

Nuu-chah-nulth leaders stated that smudging is a cultural practice, not a religious one. The district’s superintendent said that the school is committed to “teaching and learning about different cultures and traditions,” and in fact all B.C. schools have a mandate to integrate Aboriginal content into curriculum.

In addition to lawyers representing the plaintiff and defendant, there was also counsel representing the Attorney General of British Columbia and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

During the first day of the trial counsel on both sides argued over the admissibility of certain evidence. The plaintiffs retained Pastor John Cox as an expert witness hired to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the claims of both Servatius and SD70.

The defence lawyers argued that Cox's report should not be entered into evidence, stating that because he is a Christian pastor, his report is “blatant advocacy” for Servatius. The lawyer argued that, in effect, Cox's report dismisses Nuu-chah-nulth beliefs in favour of Evangelical Protestant Christianity, making his expert opinion biased.

The judge ruled that the report submitted by John Cox would be allowed.

Servatius is being represented by Nanaimo-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms free of charge.

The trial will continue throughout the week of Nov. 18 – 22 in at the Nanaimo Court House.