British Columbia

B.C. mother takes school district to court over Aboriginal spiritual ceremony

A mother in Port Alberni, B.C., is taking the school district to court after she alleges her children were forced to participate in an Aboriginal spirituality ceremony that she considers religious in nature.

Parent says traditional smudging ceremony a religious rather than cultural activity

Candice Servatius says her children were forced to participate in a traditional smudging ceremony, similar to the one shown here, that violated their right to religious freedom. (Government of Ontario)

A mother in Port Alberni, B.C., is taking the school district to court, alleging her children were forced to participate in an Aboriginal spirituality ceremony that she considers religious in nature.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has filed a petition on her behalf in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo, B.C.

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

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 traditional Aboriginal smudging ceremony.

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 school board also noted the ceremony would be an opportunity for students to learn more about the Nuu-chah-nulth traditions.

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Servatius went to the school to learn more, but discovered that the ceremony had already taken place, and that all students were required to participate, said John Carpay, president of the JCCF.

"This is contrary to the School Act which expressly prohibits religion in the classroom, religious practices, and it is also contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," Carpay said.

The petition also seeks a court order to prevent School District 70 from engaging in similar actions in the future.

"The distinction here that the school board is not honouring is a difference between teaching about religion and actually practising religion by forcing kids to go through a religious ceremony," Carpay said.

Servatius also took issue with a January 2016 activity at the school involving an Aboriginal hoop dance performer who started by reciting a prayer.

School district disagrees

The school district said it is aware of the court petition but is not commenting further until it reviews the matter with its lawyers.

"Our only comment is that our schools operate on a secular, inclusive and non-discriminatory basis, but there is teaching and learning about different cultures and traditions, and that is an important part of learning," said Greg Smyth, the superintendent for School District 70.

The district did provide a more detailed response to Servatius's complaint through a letter last month from its lawyer. That letter is included in the court documents for the case.

It 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.

"The actions of the School do not constitute it professing, adopting or favouring one belief to the exclusion of all others," the letter said.

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.

"The School District does not agree that either of the activities were impermissible, but does agree, with respect to the cleansing, that it could have been made clearer to students and parents the voluntary nature of participation and that students were free to opt out."

The letter notes the school principal has apologized to the Servatius children for the lack of clarity around this and is reviewing its policies.

The letter also said school districts in B.C. have a mandate to integrate "authentic Aboriginal content into the curriculum, including through the participation of Aboriginal Elders and other knowledgeable community members as guest speakers and presenters."


Megan Thomas


Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.