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2020

  • January 2020: Servatius v. Alberni School District

The city of Port Alberni, British Columbia is located on traditional Nuu-chah-nulth territory. During the 2015-2016 school year, a Nuu-chah-nulth Elder visited an elementary school in the Alberni School District to demonstrate a smudging ceremony in three different classrooms. The Elder first explained the smudging ceremony to students, which included an abalone shell, sage and an eagle feather, as well as its associated beliefs. Students also later watched a hoop dance at an assembly during which a prayer was said by the dancer. Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian with a daughter and son at the school, expressed concern that her children were forced to participate in these Indigenous practices. She argued that the smudging ceremony and prayer infringed upon their right to religious freedom under Section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In its decision for Servatius v. Alberni School District (2020), the British Columbia Supreme Court concluded that students were not compelled to participate in the demonstrations, nor did these interfere with the school’s duty of religious neutrality. The Court stated: “When arrangements are made for Indigenous events in its schools, even events with elements of spirituality, the School District is not professing or favouring Indigenous beliefs. Educators are holding these events to teach about Indigenous culture, and to introduce students to Indigenous perspectives and worldviews” (Alberni at para. 85). Accordingly, the students’ freedom of religion, which includes freedom from religion, was not infringed upon by the smudging ceremony nor the hoop dancer’s prayer. Students were not participating in the practices, but witnessing them as part of a curriculum that integrates local Indigenous culture and history.

In its decision the Court recognized the colonial context of the events that led to this case. It referenced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) findings about church-led residential schools, which Indigenous children were forced to attend as part of a coherent government policy of assimilation. The Court also referred to the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, a party to the case that “advocates for cultural inclusiveness in schools as a crucial part of changing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians on the basis that ‘people cannot honour difference if they cannot understand it’” (Alberni at para. 25). Overall, the Alberni case reflects the ongoing impacts of colonialism in Canada and efforts to advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. As the TRC notes in its final report, education plays a key role in this process.

Full citation: Servatius v. Alberni School District No. 70, 2020 BCSC 15.

D 13 July 2021    ALauren Strumos

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