B.C. Supreme Court allows schools to hold mandatory Indigenous smudging ceremonies
The B.C. Supreme Court has handed down a decision that comes as a great disappointment to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (on whose board I sit). The Court ruled that obliging schoolchildren to take part in an Indigenous smudging ceremony whose purpose is to “cleanse” the spirits of participants does not implicate them in a religious ceremony, but rather a “cultural” experience.
The JCCF was acting for plaintiff Candice Servatius, who was informed in Sept 2015 by the principal of John Howitt Elementary School in Port Alberni, B.C. that the school would be sponsoring a “cleansing” of students and their classroom, which would be performed by a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation of Vancouver Island. As described by JCCF president John Carpay in a November column in these pages,
The letter claimed that without cleansing, the classroom and even the furniture would harbour negative “energy” and would not be safe until the “energy” was “released.” Smoke from sage was fanned over the bodies of children, including Mrs. Servatius’ daughter, who was required to participate in this ritual against her will. Several months later, an aboriginal prayer was offered to a “god” at a school assembly that children were required to attend.
The Servatius family’s suit was not vexatious or motivated by antipathy to Indigenous rituals per se. They had no objection to their children learning about the smudging ceremony via texts, video or a visitor’s explanation. They objected to their children being compelled to take part in a spiritual ceremony.
Students can, after all, learn about Yom Kippur without fasting for 24 hours; they can learn about Catholic repentance without smudging ash on their forehead; girls can learn about the principle of sexual modesty without wearing the hijab (a quasi-religious cultural custom that has generated numerous controversies in law). Why should students have to engage in an actual ceremony to learn the aboriginal concept of “energy” and spiritual cleansing?
Everyone is aware that Canadian law has established that religious freedom does not include the right to impose one’s faith or affirmations of faith on children. Nor should children be forced to single themselves out by making use of an exemption, which necessarily requires an expression of non-belief.
Ah, but according to this judgment, if the ceremony is definitively cultural and not religious in nature, well then, there is no problem. That at least is the gist of what the Court has ruled. From which I infer the thinking was: How could anyone possibly object to taking part in a benign cultural ceremony that does no harm and is educational to boot (and who knows, may even cleanse the school of bad juju)?
The question is: Where does religion end and culture begin? Culture is downstream from religious belief. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, an Intervenor in the case, declared that aboriginal spirituality is not religion, and that First Nations’ languages have no word meaning “religion.” But as Carpay points out here, that won’t wash, because the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled, in the case of Ktunaxa Nation v. British Columbia (2016), that aboriginal spiritual beliefs qualify as “religion” for the purposes of being protected by the Charter’s section 2(a).
I am troubled by this judgment, and it took me a while to work out why. What follows is inference and interpretation on my part. I do not accuse the judges of any conscious wish to patronize or condescend to First Nations in their judgment. Any conjectures as to what is going on below the level of consciousness are mine alone.
The plaintiffs then, it seems to me, are treating Indigenous spirituality as they would treat any other form of spirituality or religion that does not accord with their own or their children’s beliefs. That is to say, they are treating the Nuu-Chah-Nuulth First Nation as civic peers, as Canadians with the same rights they are entitled to and the same limitations they are constrained by. In objecting to their children’s participation in Indigenous spiritual rituals, they are therefore demonstrating respect for the spiritual beliefs of the Nuu-Chah-Nuulth as equivalent in stature and potential influence to their own beliefs.
The Court, it seems to me, sees the Nuu-Chah-Nuulth as children, their beliefs fairy tales and their rituals as charming aesthetic gestures. The burning and smudging are nothing more than cultural theatre, like a Japanese tea ceremony. So parents should not worry that they rise to the same significance as Christian prayers and practices which, naturally, may not be imposed on other students, because they might offend or be perceived as proselytism. That is, Christian beliefs and rituals aren’t theatre; they are real; they have potential influence.
To me, this judgment bespeaks the same kind of virtue-signalling embodied in the now-prescriptive land-acknowledgement mantras that begin meetings and talks all over the nation. They are spoken and received with deep piety of voice and expression, but they are not taken seriously, because they are purely ornamental. Nobody who parrots them is afraid the land will actually be taken back by the original owners. It’s theatre.
Likewise with the smudging ceremony.
The culture and the beliefs of Indigenous people are not accorded real respect. They are vehicles for the performance of “reconciliation”—feel-good gestures without any real meaning attached to them. This case should be reviewed at a higher level. If we are content to let it stand, then we are assenting to the principle that with regard to compelled participation in spiritual rituals, some Canadians are more equal than others. I have too much respect for Indigenous peoples to infantilize them, and so should the courts.
As the anti-pipeline protests continue to shut down crucial parts of Canada’s infrastructure, the CostalGas Link pipeline and there is much confusion when it comes to the Wet’suwet’en people’s stance on it.
The Premier of BC John Horgan told the CBC that it’s a fight within the nation between the equal actors of hereditary chiefs, who defend the land, and the band chiefs, who want to see their people become financially secure.
A recent Facebook post that has been shared almost 5,000 times in its first day talks about the personal relationship that Terri Tilijoe has had with the Hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwe’ten people.
Terri is caucasian although she is a member of the Westbank First Nation and has been since she was 16, through her marriage with Larry Tilijoe, who is Unistoten. She believes that the vast majority of Wet’suwet’en people are in favour of the pipeline, estimating it’s about 85 percent.
The post began with Tiljoe stating, “I see all these posts supporting a few OW Hereditary Chiefs but what I don’t see is the Wetsuweten people speaking up about how this office operates. I get it though, I live on Westbank First Nation, I see exactly how opportunities are disbursed based on whether you are ‘one of them’ or ‘one of us’.”
Tiljoe described her experience with the OW Chiefs and how “In 1993, we started a silviculture business, Nadina Mountain Contracting, located within the Morice Forest District. Our goal was to become a sustainable First Nation contractor who harvested, replanted and rejuvenated the areas we harvested.”
“The OW, situated an hour east of Houston, took over ALL the forest related activities earmarked as First Nations. We were forced to work under the OW for contracts within our own forests; the OW took a portion of the contract value for the ‘service’. The OW’s lack of knowledge in forest health and neglect in their financial responsibilities continually caused our business to suffer hardship which rippled to our banker, our employees, and our suppliers.”
“I personally question the integrity of some of the chiefs, and I wonder if it’s the same case with CGL; that the OW wants to control ALL the negotiations, ALL the monies, ALL the contracts and ALL benefits and administer it back to the Bands in the territory? As it stands the individual bands will receive the monies and benefits and not the OW. If the OW can’t have it ALL then NO one will have anything.”
The protests continue while the Trudeau government continues to dither twelve days in, while various road and rail blockades cripples the transport of goods and people.
Jesse Winter, a photojournalist who has worked with Vice, The Guardian, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, was blocked from trying to cover anti-pipeline protestors in Coquitlam, BC.
“Sgt Waters with the CN police just threatened to arrest me for attempting to cover the #wetsuweten supporters rail blockade in Port Coquitlam,” Winter tweeted.
“If you are a protestor, then you are protesting, right? But if you’re just the media, that’s different. You’re not allowed on private property,” the officer said.
In a follow-up tweet, Winter said, “Specifically Waters said multiple times that if I was a protester I could stay, but that if I was independent from them I was being asked to leave. If I did not, I would be subject to arrest because it is private property. #freepress.”
Winter stood his ground, and the officer did not forcibly remove him from the scene.
The protests and blockades across Canada are a response to the raid of an anti-pipeline camp in Northern British Columbia that was opposed to the building of a pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory.
The Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council supports the pipeline project.
The internet has dubbed him “Speedo-man” after a video posted shows a man skiing down residential streets being pulled by a pick-up truck. Zak Mousseau is the fashionable athlete who claims he was “just bored” that day.
Fernie, a ski-town in the mountainous East Kootenays had a power outage on Feb. 1 and it was Mousseai and his friends who decided to make the most of a rainy day according to Vernon Info News.
The video shows Mousseau donning only a speedo and a pair of skis, gliding through the slushy streets.
“The streets were filled with water and I just wanted to go for a rip,” he said. “I was just thinking to myself ‘what would Vin Diesel do?’ So I just channelled my inner Vin Diesel and obviously the Speedo was the (right) move.”
Mousseau used his friend’s vehicle to propel him down the town streets which were flooded due to recent high temperatures. Neighbours seemed to enjoy his antics and one of them filmed the scene.
“It was mostly my idea,” Mousseau said. “It was only one stretch of maybe like a block that you could pond skim and we lapped it. We probably did like six laps,” he said. “The whole street was outside because they were all on the same program. The power was out and they (weren’t doing anything).”
Mousseau was surprised to learn that the video went viral having been shared almost 9,000 times on Facebook and picked up by multiple news outlets.
“That’s my stunt Speedo,” Mousseau said, adding he’d be happy to do it again. He seems to be enjoying his newfound viral fame, changing his Instagram handle to “man_in_speedo”.
Criminals are using the latest technology to innovate their unlawful ways. A bag of crystal meth was discovered inside the prison walls of Abbotsford’s Pacific Institution on Jan. 9 around 11 am.
The bag of narcotics was attached to a carbon-fibre sporting arrow which was used to launch the package over prison walls according to the Campbell River Mirror.
The package contained nine grams of drugs with a total institutional value (what it’s worth inside the prison) of $7,200 according to Correctional Service Canada. The B.C. prison has since tightened up their security and an investigation is underway with local police.
There has been a recent spike in criminal innovation when it comes to smuggling things into prisons, mostly due to the use of drones. In the Fraser Valley region alone last year, more than $86,000 in contraband was seized from Agassiz’s Kent Institution. One such item seized was a drone used for such activity.