A Vancouver Island student told B.C. Supreme Court on Monday that she was forced to remain in her elementary school classroom during an Indigenous smudging ceremony, despite her wishes to leave.
The student gave evidence in a Nanaimo courtroom as part of a lawsuit filed by Candice Servatius against Alberni School District 70.
According to court documents, Servatius claims the school district breached its duty of neutrality and that her daughter’s rights to religious freedom were infringed on when she was forced to participate in a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony at John Howitt Elementary School in September 2015. The mother, who is described by her legal counsel as an evangelical Christian, claims her daughter experienced “anxiety, shame and confusion as a result” of the ceremony and that it conflicted with her own religious convictions. She is seeking a court-ordered ban on the cultural practice in schools across British Columbia.
Servatius’s daughter cannot be named due to a publication ban.
According to an affidavit from the girl who spoke in court Monday, the school provided students with a letter informing them that a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation would be visiting to talk with students about their culture and history. A day later, the ceremony took place. In her affidavit, the girl claims she was confused, uncomfortable, and wanted to talk to her parents before the ceremony took place, but couldn’t.
On Nov. 18, the student was cross-examined by the school district’s legal counsel, Keith Mitchell of Harris and Company.
“I was forced to be in that classroom,” the girl told the courtroom.
The student told the court about the smudging ceremony, explaining how smoke fanned onto students’ backpacks and that it filled the classroom.
“It got too smoky inside the classroom. It was getting harder to breathe,” she said, later adding that there was “a lot of coughing.”
The girl also said the elder performing the ceremony told the students that the “classroom was dirty.” She said she asked to leave the classroom because she was uncomfortable with what was happening but that her teacher wouldn’t let her.
“I wasn’t allowed to leave the classroom,” she said.
However, Mitchell informed her that her teacher, who has yet to be cross-examined, disputes her account of what happened during the smudging ceremony and that despite her claims, she never asked to leave the classroom.
“She is going to say that you didn’t ask and she is going to say that other students did, in fact, leave the classroom,” Mitchell said.
Asked by Mitchell whether the ceremony made it “more difficult” for her to be a Christian, she responded by saying it did not.
The girl’s lawyers attempted to have her explain why she “had an issue with” the smudging ceremony but were denied by Justice Douglas Thompson, who said the affidavit explains her reasons for being upset with the ceremony.
The school district disputes the claims made by Servatius. The case is scheduled to continue at the Nanaimo Courthouse Tuesday, Nov. 19.