Media’s reporting incredibly biased on B.C. Indigenous rituals in public schools case
A trial underway in a Nanaimo B.C. courtroom this week is attracting controversy and strong opinions on both sides of the issue, as it forces school officials, the media and the public to reluctantly confront the question of what constitutes “religion” in the public sphere. The case of Candice Servatius v. School District No. 70 (Alberni) is about whether a public school can require children to participate in a spiritual ceremony, or in a ritual that appeals to the supernatural realm.
In September of 2015, Candice Servatius received a letter from the principal of John Howitt Elementary School (JHES) in Port Alberni, B.C., stating that JHES would be hosting a Student/Classroom “Cleansing” performed by a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth, a term used to describe fifteen related First Nation tribes who live on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. The school’s letter described in detail how the cleansing ritual would “cleanse” the classroom of “energy” and cleanse the “spirits” of the students. 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.
Skye Ryan, a reporter with CBC affiliate CHEK news, writes that the practice of Nuu-chah-nulth spirituality is “on trial” and implies that Mrs. Servatius is opposed to aboriginal spirituality. Ms. Ryan’s story largely ignores the court documents, which make it abundantly clear that the only issue on trial is whether public schools can impose spiritual rituals on children in the classroom.
If Mrs. Servatius is successful in her court action, the Nuu-chah-nulth will not lose any freedom to practice their spirituality, ceremonies and rituals, nor will public schools cease to teach about aboriginal history, culture and practices, including aboriginal beliefs. If the court rules in favour of Mrs. Servatius, the only difference will be that children are no longer compelled by the state to be present and participate in spiritual ceremonies, prayers or rituals. This is the only just result in a pluralistic society that includes a wide variety of spiritual beliefs and practices, including the complete absence of such beliefs.
In her story, Ms. Ryan quotes Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council President Judith Sayers complaining about smudging being banned from schools. But Ms. Sayers herself has given evidence that in Nuu-chah-nulth practice, smudging is always entered into by consent. Neither Mrs. Servatius nor her daughter consented to this young girl participating in the ritual in the classroom.
Another aboriginal leader, Harry Cadwallader, testified that learning about smudging is different than being smudged. Mr. Cadwallader agrees that children can learn about smudging in a number of different ways: “You can be shown a demonstration. You can be shown a video. You can be read a description.” Mr. Cadwallader has testified that “the infusion of aboriginal culture, content, language, history, of understanding, as a methodology to improve the success of aboriginal students and raise awareness of all students about aboriginal people” can be accomplished without compelling children to be smudged against their will. This evidence was entirely absent from Ms. Ryan’s story, although it was publicly available in filed court documents.
Ms. Ryan further reports that the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is a “right-wing” organization, perhaps hoping this might somehow make Ms. Servatius’ claim worth dismissing out of hand. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not a “right-wing” document, and the Justice Centre works to uphold the Charter freedoms of all Canadians, regardless of where on the political spectrum they might reside.
If Ms. Ryan believes that defending freedom of religion (which includes the right not to be compelled to participate in spiritual practices) is “right-wing”, she is fully entitled to express that opinion. But Ms. Ryan should do so by way of an opinion editorial, and not insert her personal beliefs into what is supposed to be a straight news story. As the Canadian Association of Journalists Ethics Guidelines puts it: “We clearly identify news and opinion so that the audience knows which is which”.
The two Justice Centre lawyers in court in Nanaimo this week, Jay Cameron and James Kitchen, were not available to be interviewed for Ms. Ryan’s story, and they referred Ms. Ryan to me, also a lawyer. Ms. Ryan did not contact me, yet claims in her story that “Neither Servatius or her lawyers would be interviewed.” I was, and remain, available to be interviewed, but as of this writing Ms. Ryan has declined to contact me for comment.
Court cases, by definition, involve two competing “sides.” It behooves an objective media to remember that.
Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF.ca), which represents Mrs. Servatius in her court action against School District 70.
Canadian trans activist Jessica Yaniv has been threatened with legal action after telling her Twitter followers that The Post Millennial‘s Amy Eileen Hamm sexually assaulted her. So to avoid this, Yaniv must issue a full public apology and retract her statement immediately.
The original incident occurred on January 15th, in which Yaniv accused Hamm on twitter of sexually assaulting her in the courthouse. Yaniv described the incident as “vicious,” stating that she had to seek out a rape crisis centre.
The legal letter that was sent to Yaniv after this incident, stated that “Ms. Hamm intends to commence legal action against you. Your lies have publicly damaged her. She has suffered embarrassment and humiliation … you are much larger and more psychically imposing, dwarfing her psychically.”
The letter went on to say, “We hereby demand a public apology and immediate retraction of your defamation … further harassment of Ms. Hamm will be met with immediate legal action.”
This letter will come as a blow to Yaniv who is currently facing other legal troubles. Yesterday, the trans activist was arrested and charged with assault after lashing out and smacking a Rebel Media commentator on camera.
Yaniv’s alleged assault of the Rebel Media commentator was outside a courthouse where she appeared in court on weapons charges, after revealing she owned a taser on Blaire White’s Youtube Channel.
After causing many delays, protestors have left the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, located north of Victoria, B.C. They were blocking the terminal and denying people access on Monday.
The protestors claim to be working alongside Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in attempting to cancel a liquified natural gas pipeline being implemented by Coastal GasLink. The pipeline is being built in north central B.C.
NEWS 1130 reported that the group was protesting on Highway 17 and were even in the water in kayaks too.
An online statement released by the protestors says, “In response to the recent call from the Wet’suwet’en for solidarity actions that ‘shut down rail lines, ports, and industrial infrastructure’ this action has targeted BC Ferries because of the corporation’s deepening integration with the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) industry,”
“BC Ferries has proposed ‘upgrades’ to two of its ferries that will make them reliant on the very product that Coastal GasLink (CGL) threatens to bring through Wet’suwet’en territory.”
Dozens of protestors took part in the event and used their banners to cover signs at the terminal.
Since being proposed, the pipeline has even caused violent encounters between protestors and police.
After coming to agreements with 20 First Nation councils, Coastal GasLink is attempting to build the pipeline from northeastern B.C. all the way to Kitimat, B.C. The pipeline will reportedly stretch 670 kilometers.
According to the hereditary clan chiefs, the project can not continue without their permission.
On Monday, Deborah Marshall from BC Ferries noted, “We fully respect the rights of individuals to protest decisions that they don’t agree with, but our concern is allowing our customers to have safe and unimpeded access to our terminal.”
“At our Swartz Bay terminal right now, the lanes are blocked. The lanes leading into the terminal, so no customers are able to access the terminal at this point, so it’s affecting all of our routes sailing in and out of Swartz Bay right now.”
A wealthy businessman who was well-connected to Asian organized crime was permitted to buy a stake in a British Columbian Lottery Group casino, according to Global News.
The government official who allowed the transaction to occur was later hired by the casino in question.
Asian organized crime has been reported to have dipped their tentacles into British Columbian casinos. This was made starkly apparent through a 2009 RCMP report. Asian women with gambling debts, for instance, were being trafficked to B.C. and forced into sex work.
As a result of this, the RCMP report robustly concluded that the police should be targeting B.C. casinos as a way of combatting money laundering.
Despite this, the British Columbian government decided to defund and then disband the illegal gaming unit, provoking outcry amongst those who wanted to see a more transparent gambling industry in the province.
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.