Today it’s a given in Canada that institutional practice of religion in public schools is unacceptable. School prayer, for example, is a nonstarter. The journey to this destination began as a reaction to the practice of Christianity in public schools as Canada became more diverse and secular. A watershed moment occurred nearly three decades ago, when a group of parents in Sudbury won their court case seeking to end the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Ontario’s public schools.

Given this firm commitment to the secular delivery of public education, what is the appropriate response, in 2017, to the introduction of Indigenous spirituality into the classroom? A new lawsuit in British Columbia raises this question.

Candice Servatius is the mother of two students at John Howitt Elementary School on Vancouver Island. She sued because of John Howitt’s decision to incorporate Indigenous spirituality by way of classroom cleansing rituals and the recitation of a prayer at a school assembly. She says her children were required — or at least given the distinct impression that they were required — to participate in these ceremonies.

State institutions — including public schools — must be neutral in religious matters. The Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed this duty when, in 2015, it ruled that a town council meeting could not begin with a Christian prayer. In the ruling, the Court referred to the Sudbury case in the 1980s. The state, in carrying out its functions, cannot favour or hinder a particular religion (or even an explicitly irreligious world view like atheism).

John Howitt Elementary argues that the ceremonies under scrutiny are not religious but cultural (and thus pose no risk to religious neutrality). This argument may fail due to the broad definition that Canadian courts have afforded to “religion” — a definition that probably captures practices that invoke a god or emphasize the links between body, spirit and creation.

The practices at John Howitt bear these features. The assembly prayer allegedly mentioned a “god.” A letter from the school to parents described the classroom cleansing ceremony as inspired by the belief that “everything is one; all is connected” and everything “has a spirit.” The letter also stated the ceremony would “cleanse” the classroom and students of negative energy as they hold a cedar branch while smoke is fanned over their “body and spirit.”

Even if John Howitt breached religious neutrality, some may argue that the practices should continue. These voices may be inspired by initiatives like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which outlined concrete steps toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. In this case, does the gain for reconciliation — if there is any — justify the loss for religious neutrality?

Reconciliation can and should be achieved without compromising the state’s duty of religious neutrality. This neutrality is a precondition for the meaningful exercise of freedom of conscience and religion protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As the Supreme Court stated in the 2015 case, this duty preserves a “neutral public space that is free of discrimination and in which true freedom to believe or not to believe is enjoyed by everyone equally, given that everyone is valued equally.”

We can balance reconciliation and religious neutrality by teaching (rather than practising) the content of Indigenous spirituality — along with other features of Indigenous cultures — in our schools. This knowledge could be added to existing courses or serve as the foundation for new ones. In fact, educational reform of this kind is currently under way. In response to recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadian law schools are modifying their curricula to deepen knowledge of Indigenous legal traditions. The law school at McGill University recently made these modifications in the classroom.

This approach is more conducive to reconciliation than imposing spirituality drawn from Indigenous cultures — even where, as in the case of John Howitt, there is seemingly no intent to indoctrinate. The state’s duty of religious neutrality is concerned with the imposition of religion (or irreligion) by the state, irrespective of such intent.

We must not forget that religious imposition within state-sponsored education is part of the dark history that led to the events explored by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the level of disconnection between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada today. If other schools follow the example of John Howitt, the reconciliation that we seek — that we need — may never be complete.

Photo: Mark Spowart/The Canadian Press

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Brian Bird
Brian Bird is an assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia and is a research fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC.

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