The mother of two former John Howitt Elementary students has lost her appeal of a January 2020 court ruling, which determined that a smudging ceremony held at the school did not infringe on her children’s right to freedom of religion.
Candice Servatius, a devout Christian and mother, took issue with Indigenous cultural demonstrations held at a public school attended by her children, claiming that the events were religious in nature and went against her own church’s teachings.
In September 2015 a Nuu-chah-nulth education worker arranged for a smudge ceremony at John Howitt Elementary School, as part of her work to support students and to introduce Indigenous culture to them. Student attendance at the ceremony, the court heard, was voluntary and some students chose not to take part.
Servatius’ then 9-year-old daughter remained at the ceremony.
The following January, the school held an assembly in which an invited guest, a hoop dancer, said a prayer in an Indigenous language over the microphone before his performance. Servatius asserted that this prayer also infringed on her children’s right to freedom of religion.
Dissatisfied with the school’s response to her concerns, Servatius took the matter to court, alleging that the school infringed her Charter-guaranteed freedom of religion by compelling her children to participate in religious ceremonies contrary to their own faith. She also claimed that the demonstrations violated the principle of state neutrality.
She sought relief prohibiting School District 70 from allowing Indigenous cultural events in schools.
Represented by Alberta-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), the matter went to trial in November 2019, with testimony given by members of the Servatius family, her church, John Howitt teacher and staff of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.
The following January the B.C. Supreme Court released it’s ruling. The trial judge found that the students were observing the events as educational experiences and not participating in them, and that their freedom of religion was not infringed.
The trial judge also found that the issues in the litigation were of general public interest and ordered the parties to pay their own costs.
In June 2022, Servatius filed an appeal and SD70 filed a cross appeal on the issue of court costs.
The B.C. Court of Appeal issued its decision Dec. 12, 2022. Servatius’ appeal was dismissed. The court found that neither school event breached the student’s freedom of religion nor the school’s duty of state neutrality.
“The Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge did not make an error in his findings of fact that the children did not participate in the smudging or the prayer and the school did not promote or favour a set of beliefs,” reads the ruling.
“The NTC is very happy that the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in the smudging case that there was no breach of the children's freedom of religion by either the smudging demonstration or the hoop dancer's prayer before he danced,” said NTC President, Cloy-e-iss, Judith Sayers.
She went on to say that the court agreed with the lower court that smudging is not a religious thing, nor can anyone define spirituality for Nuu-chah-nulth except Nuu-chah-nulth.
“It is a strong ruling that no child was forced to take part in smudging; in fact, they were told [they] could leave the classroom and only watched the smudging and did not participate in any way,” Sayers added. “The court clearly stated that smudging was not part of a belief system that would be used to convert other people from one religion to another.”
Servatius’ court costs were funded by a special interest group, Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a registered charity that is supported by public donations. She was ordered to pay SD70’s court costs in the recent B.C. Court of Appeal ruling.
“NTC seeks to teach about our culture within schools with the agreement of the School District so our children feel more comfortable in their schools and that non-Nuu-chah-nulth have a better understanding of our culture and way of life,” Sayers stated.