The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island says it is disappointed that a complaint over a traditional spiritual ceremony held in a Port Alberni, B.C., elementary school has ended up in court.

A mother in the Vancouver Island community has taken School District 70 to court, alleging her children were forced to participate in a Nuu-chah-nulth ceremony that she considers religious in nature and inappropriate for the classroom.

The case has sparked a debate over whether First Nations ceremonies should be considered religious or cultural. But a leader of the First Nations involved says there should be no debate.

"Our way of life isn't a religion. It's our way of life. It's our culture. It's who we are," said Ken Watts, vice-president for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

Smudging ceremony

Candice 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 smudging ceremony performed by a Nuu-chah-nulth member.

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 Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has filed a petition on Servatius's behalf in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo.

It seeks a declaration that the actions of School District 70 violated the right to religious freedom for Servatius's children.

The school district is not commenting further now that the matter is before the courts, but in a letter from its lawyer included in the court documents for the case, it did provide a detailed response to the complaint.

The letter 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.

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.

Learning opportunity

The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation is disappointed the school board and the parent could not resolve the issue without going to court, Watts said.

"What we are trying to do here in Port Alberni, and with the school district and other areas, is to bridge that gap and actually help people better understand who we are and where we come from," he said.

B.C. schools do have a mandate to integrate Aboriginal content into the curriculum as the province works towards reconciliation with First Nations.

Watts said no one should be forced to participate in cultural practices, but the Nuu-chah-nulth will keep working to ensure their language and culture are taught in Port Alberni schools.

He said he hopes the disagreement over the smudging ceremony will provide an opportunity for people to learn more about Aboriginal culture, rather than put a chill on sharing Nuu-chah-nulth culture in schools.