The petitioner failed to establish that the demonstrations of Indigenous culture at her children’s school interfered with her or her children’s ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs. Accordingly there was no infringement of the petitioner’s or her children’s freedom of religion.
As part of an effort to acquaint students with Indigenous culture and to promote a sense of belonging in Indigenous children, a Nuu-chah-nulth Elder visited a Port Alberni elementary school and demonstrated the practice of smudging. A few months later, at an assembly, the students witnessed an Indigenous dance performance and a prayer. The petitioner’s children witnessed the demonstrations. The petitioner is an evangelical Christian. She submitted that both the smudging and the prayer that accompanied the dance interfered with the religious freedoms of herself and her children guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The petitioner sought a declaration to this effect and an order in the nature of prohibition enjoining further events of this nature in the school district.
It was conceded that the petitioner’s beliefs were sincere and that they had a nexus with religion. The petitioner, however, had two paths to fulfill a finding that the School District had interfered with their ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs. First, and principally, the petitioner argued that the School District breached the state’s duty of neutrality. She had to show that (1) the School District professed, adopted, or favoured one belief to the exclusion of all others; and (2) the exclusion resulted in interference with the petitioner’s or her children’s freedom of conscience and religion. The organization of these events reflected a fathering momentum to incorporate the teaching of Indigenous worldview and perspectives. Arranging for students to observe hoop dancing accompanied by an Indigenous prayer, could not reasonably be interpreted as the School District professing, adopting, or promoting religious beliefs. Therefore, the petitioner’s argument failed to clear the first hurdle.
The petitioner’s second argument surrounded the right not to believe in Indigenous spirituality, the ability to refuse to participate in these practices, and the freedom from government coercion to affirm a specific religious belief as protected under s 2(a) of the Charter. She maintained that her children were compelled to participate in Indigenous spiritual practices, or affirm spiritual beliefs associated with those practices and that this constituted non-trivial interference with her and her children’s ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs. Proof on an objective basis required more than the children being in the presence of an Elder demonstrating a custom with spiritual overtones or being in the presence of a dancer who said a brief prayer. This did not interfere with the ability to act in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.
The demonstrations were admirable and admissible efforts to teach, in a memorable way, about Indigenous beliefs. It was proper and advisable in light of the historical circumstances that the School District organize such events. The petitioner had therefore failed to establish that the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging in her children’s classrooms or the prayer said by the hoop dancer at the school assembly interfered with her or her children’s ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs. Accordingly, no infringement of the petitioner’s or her children’s freedom of religion had been proved.