B.C. mom takes school district to court over smudging practice

First Nation Chief Duke Peltier holds smoking sage branches during a smudging ceremony, Friday, April 26, 2019, in Detroit. Smudging can help combat negativity, clear the energy in your field, and help you start anew. It is an ancient ceremony in which you burn sacred plants, such as sage, to allow the smoke to clear and bless a space. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

A mother in British Columbia is taking a school district to court for subjecting her children to smudging, a traditional Indigenous practice. She is also looking to order a ban on future religious practices, such as “cleansings” and prayers during mandatory school hours. 

The petition was filed by Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom, against School District 70 in Port Alberni. 

The Nuu-chah-nulth tribal council, who is an intervener in the case, say such a ban would deprive students from learning about Indigenous culture. 

In legal submissions, Candice Servatius from Port Alberni says that in September 2015, she received a letter that was sent home from her son’s Grade 3 class, informing parents that a Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council education worker would be hosting a traditional “Nuu-chah-nulth classroom/student cleansing” in the classroom. It didn’t specify a date. 

The cleansing ritual would involve students holding onto cedar branches, while smoke from sage was fanned over them. The letter claims the custom would “cleanse” the classroom of “energy” and cleanse the students’ spirits.

Servatius states that she was concerned about the “explicit religious nature” of the practice. 

When she went to speak to the school about it the next day, she was shocked to learn the smudging ritual had already taken place in her son’s class. Servatius was further stunned to learn another cleansing demonstration had also taken place in her daughter’s Grade 5 classroom, despite there being no notice to parents. Servatius’s daughter expressed to her that she was coerced into the experience by a teacher, who told her it would be “rude” not to and that students were required to participate. It left her feeling anxious, confused and shameful. 

Servatius is asking the courts to declare that this was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribal council, tells Yahoo Canada that what happened at the school wasn’t a ceremony but a demonstration of how they smudge. As part of an agreement with the Alberni school district, the tribal council has opportunities to teach students about their culture. She also claims that the smudging demonstration that’s at the center of the case was done on a chair, and not on students.

“If this gets banned in the school, it bans our opportunity to educate all children,” she says. Sayers refers to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which commits to integrating knowledge of Indigenous people into schools, as well as the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights, which talks about teaching Indigenous values and beliefs in schools.

She adds that one of the reasons for Indigenous educator school visits is to address the lower success and graduation rates of Indigenous students. Sayers says it’s proving to have positive effects, as it helps students feel safe and comfortable at school.  

“What (Servatius) is arguing goes contrary to everything,” Sayers says. “This is our spirituality, our culture, our way of life, it has nothing to do with religion. And nobody should be able to define that for us. This shouldn’t impose a definition of religion on us.”

Yahoo Canada reached out to the Alberni school district for comment, but had not heard back at time of publishing.

The trial is set to begin on Monday in Nanaimo.