John Arendt is the editor of our sister publication, the Summerland Review. (File Photo)

John Arendt is the editor of our sister publication, the Summerland Review. (File Photo)

Editorial: Uncomfortable questions about religion, spirituality and culture

A court case on Vancouver Island has centred on an Indigenous smudging ceremony

A civil trial on Vancouver Island, about an Indigenous smudging ceremony in a Grade 5 classroom raises — or should raise — uncomfortable questions about the place of religion, spirituality and culture in school.

The incident dates back to the beginning of the school year in 2015 when a letter was sent to parents, informing them a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation would be visiting a Port Alberni school to talk to students about their culture and history and lead a smudging ceremony, an Indigenous spiritual practice in which herbs such as sage, sweetgrass and cedar are burned so the smoke can cleanse an area.

Students would be asked to hold cedar branches and participate in the smudging ceremony.

But Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian parent, said when she went to the school to voice her concern about the smudging ceremony, she found it had already taken place.

Servatius filed the petition against the Port Alberni school district. Her lawyer has argued that the children were forced to participate in the Indigenous ceremony at the school.

She has argued that participating in the smudging ceremony goes against her religious beliefs. Religious freedom in Canada also includes the freedom not to participate in religious activity. But a representative from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms told the court that First Nations culture is not a religion but rather a way of life.

It should be noted that in the past, Indigenous children were placed in residential schools in an attempt to integrate them into the Canadian society and to convert them.

Over the years, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools. The last of these schools closed in 1996. A formal apology was issued in 2008.

Today, the schools are seen as an attempt to separate Indigenous children from their culture and beliefs. This part of Canada’s past must be addressed, as uncomfortable as it may be. Indigenous history and culture deserve to be taught, but the resulting questions about the elements of religion or spirituality will be uncomfortable at best.

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.