CARPAY: Imposing spirituality on kids is not culture

John CarpayWestern Standard

Candice Servatius sued John Howitt Elementary School in Port Alberni, BC because the school had not obtained her consent to having her two children participate in aboriginal smudging ceremonies that were held in the classrooms. The stated purpose of fanning smoke from burning sage over the entire classroom was to “cleanse the energy” in the classroom and to “cleanse the spirits” of her children. Whether one calls this “religion” or “spirituality,” the school imposed a supernatural ceremony on children without parental knowledge or consent. But the BC Court of Appeal ruled on December 12, 2022, that imposing a spiritual ritual on children is merely “cultural” and does not engage freedom of religion as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In Servatius v. Alberni School District No. 70 , the BC Court of Appeal asserts in the opening summary of its judgment that Ms. Servatius “sought relief prohibiting the School District from allowing Indigenous cultural events in schools.” The Court’s assertion is inaccurate, as shown by the court’s own judgment at paragraph 118: “Mr. and Ms. Servatius stated [in their letter to the School District] that they supported their children learning about other cultures and traditions, but they did not agree with ‘the forced participation in spiritual/religious practices without parents’ written consent.” At paragraph 151 the Court asserts: “Ms. Servatius says that she does not object to her children learning about others’ beliefs, including Indigenous beliefs, so long as they do not participate in an actual religious or spiritual ceremony.” At paragraph 152, the Court takes note of Ms. Servatius’ opinion that “mere education about another’s beliefs does not interfere with her religious freedom.”

For the Court to suggest, as it has in the opening summary of its judgment, that Ms. Servatius wanted to ban “Indigenous cultural events in schools” is a gross mischaracterization of the facts. Worse, the Court’s assertion will be interpreted by uninformed members of the public as a suggestion that Ms. Servatius might be an anti-aboriginal bigot. The Court’s inaccurate claim also makes it much easier for government-funded media to promote a politically correct narrative rather than report on facts.

In 2015, Nuu-chah-nulth Education Worker Sherri Cook proposed holding a “cleansing” at John Howitt Elementary School, referring to smudging as a spiritual practice used “as a way of cleaning” one’s “thoughts,” “spirits” and “places” of “negative energies.” In court proceedings, Ms. Cook testified under oath that these “cleansings” were actual supernatural events performed for the express purpose of interacting with the unseen world. Ms. Cook explained that she herself smudges because it is “a safe way for [her] to communicate with spirits and ancestors and the creator of things.”

Ms. Cook drafted a letter to parents for school principal Stacey Manson to sign:

A great welcome to 2015/2016 opportunity has been offered to our class. It is a Traditional Nuu-chah-nulth Classroom/Student Cleansing. We will have a guest Nuu-chah-nulth Member, along with our Nuu-chah-nulth Education Worker, Sherri Cook, in our classroom to teach us about Nuu-chah-nulth Culture and History. Nuu-chah-nulth People believe strongly that “Hii-Shuukish-Tsawalk” (everything is one; all is connected.) Everything has a spirit and energy exists beyond the end of school one year and into the next. This will be our opportunity to learn about Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions and experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom, previous energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us. All participants will hold on to cedar branches (each student will feel the bristles of each branch to remind them that they are alive and well to embrace life and all that it offers) and/or “Smudged” (smoke from Sage will be fanned over the body and spirit.) Classroom and furniture will also be cleansed to allow any previous energy from: falls, bad energy, bullying, accidents, sad circumstances, etc. to be released and ensure the room is safe for all and only good things will happen.”

Before this letter reached Ms. Servatius, the school had already imposed this ritual on the children. The cleansing ceremony took place much as had been described in the letter to parents. An aboriginal elder lit the sage in a shell and walked around the perimeter of the room, waving the smoke with a feather over the doors and along the walls and doorways.

A few weeks later, John Howitt Elementary School held a mandatory school assembly, with all the students present, where a First Nations hoop dancer said a prayer to an unseen god. If a Catholic priest or Protestant pastor had uttered a prayer at a school assembly, this would have triggered outrage from predictable quarters demanding the separation of church and state.

Yet we are asked to believe that when indigenous spirituality is practiced in public schools, this is merely “cultural” and children do not have any religion imposed on them. Would the BC Court of Appeal say the same thing about a Catholic priest walking the perimeter of a public school classroom, waving incense on the walls and doors, claiming the space of the classroom for the Blessed Virgin Mary? How would the public feel about a Pentecostal pastor asking for the presence of the Holy Spirit to fill the room and cleanse each one of the students? Would these judges (and members of the public) accept the disingenuous claim that the children did not participate in these activities while being forced to be present for them?

The evidence before the BC Supreme Court (and the BC Court of Appeal) makes it clear that a religious ritual or spiritual ceremony took place in the classroom, in which all children were effectively required to be present. Everyone could smell the smoke. Everyone could hear the invocations of the elder as she cleansed the classroom. Even if children were not required to hold cedar branches, and even if the smoke was not waved individually over each child, this does not change the religious or spiritual nature of the ceremony that necessarily involved everyone in the classroom. This is the evidence which the courts have side-stepped. And, predictably, government-funded media are happy to propagate the court’s inaccurate message that Candice Servatius opposes indigenous cultural events in schools.