Nanaimo Courthouse (News Bulletin file)

Teacher says student was ‘happy’ to watch smudging ceremony at Port Alberni school

B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo hearing case over indigenous cultural practice in classroom

The teacher accused of forcing one of her students to participate in an indigenous smudging ceremony told B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo that the allegation is a lie.

Candice Servatius, an evangelical Christian, is claiming her daughter’s rights to religious freedom were infringed on when she was forced to participate in a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony at Port Alberni’s John Howitt Elementary School in September 2015.

Servatius alleges that her daughter expressed a desire to leave the room but was told by her teacher that it would “be rude” to opt out, according to court documents.

RELATED: Student tells Nanaimo courtroom she wasn’t allowed to leave indigenous smudging ceremony

On Nov. 20, Jelena Dyer, who was the teacher when the ceremony took place, was cross-examined by Servatius’s lawyer, Jay Campbell of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

“I take great offence to being accused of coercing a child and being accused of violating a child’s rights. That hurts me to the core,” Dyer said.

She told the court that on the day in question, there were between 29 and 30 students in her class and that when the smudging ceremony occurred, the Nuu-chah-nulth elder explained what was happening and how it was important to her and her people.

“She was actually quite skilled at explaining, I took particular note of that, how she was able to explain every single time, this is what her people believe, ‘our understanding, our knowledge, this is what we believe,’” she said, later adding that it was clearly communicated to everyone in the room that there was no intent to “impress” Nuu-chah-nulth’s beliefs upon the students or adults present.

Dyer said that the closest any of the students would have been to the burning sage was about a metre and that there was “barely” any smoke.

“At no point was there excessive smoke in the room,” she said. “I understand the fire code, we were actually quite concerned that any actual sort of smoke coming from the sage would set off the fire alarm, so we took great care to ensure that there was very, very little smoke coming out.”

During the ceremony, Dyer said Servatius’s daughter didn’t express any concerns, either orally or physically.

“I remember she was sitting in the front row very happy to watch the entire demonstration, enthusiastically,” Dyer said.

Dyer said students were given the opportunity to leave the room during ceremony and that some did, but Servatius’s daughter wasn’t one of them.

“She did not request to leave the room, she was a very quiet student,” Dyer said. “She sat, observed, didn’t say a word. Didn’t say she was upset with me, didn’t communicate [using] body language that she was upset at any time.”

RELATED: ‘Our culture is not a religion,’ indigenous educator tells Nanaimo court in case of smudging at school

Dyer also said she never heard from Servatius’s daughter about the ceremony at all.

“At no point did she get up out of her desk. At no point before, during, or after did she speak to me about the cleansing,” Dyer said.

Servatius is seeking a court-ordered ban on smudging at B.C. public schools. The case has been taking place all week in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo.







nicholas.pescod@nanaimobulletin.com 
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