Brandon School Division threatens to suspend student for smudging
Published Thursday, February 6, 2014 6:24PM CST
Last Updated Thursday, February 6, 2014 6:46PM CST
A form of prayer is stirring up controversy in Brandon. A student has been told to stop performing smudge ceremonies before class or face suspension because the school says it violates their scent policy.
Stephen Bunn says he didn't mean to spark a controversy. “Smudging is a healing process,” said the Crocus Plains High School student.
People who practice their First Nations culture this way, burn dried sage leaves, considered a traditional medicine, and cup it over their bodies as they pray.
Those who smudge regularly know the smell. Those who don't may confuse it with marijuana.
"It's more of a good smell, and with weed it smells more like skunk," Bunn said.
Bunn says he was told three separate times that he'd be suspended if he returned to school smelling of sage but he refuses to stop smudging.
The Brandon School Division says it's enforcing its scent and fragrance-free policy that discourages all students from a having “strong scents,” although the policy does not mention smoke specifically as an offensive smell.
In at least one Winnipeg school, smudging is strongly encouraged."It helps to calm you, because it settles you down,” saidCara Widrick of Children of the Earth High School.
While some may agree or not, one lawyer says preventing any student from smudging, even outside of a school, is an infringement of a basic human right.
“In my opinion, policy cannot trump the individual right to religious freedom,” said Norm Boudreau.
Boudreau says the school in Brandon actually has to fulfill a duty to accommodate Bunn and anyone else who wishes to practice their faith.
Bunn's entire family smudges as often as they can to cope with the loss of his younger brother, Devon, who committed suicide last June.
"It actually helps me feel more confident about my day,” Bunn said. “It just gives me an idea that my brother is around and he's taking care of me from up there."
Bunn and his brother created a 15-minute video about his experience and posted it on YouTube two days ago as an encouragement for others. The video has now been viewed more than 5,000.
Bunn says he's happy he's been able to bring attention to this issue, but on a personal level he says smudging has kept him motivated to go to school.
The Brandon School Division says it's now working with a First Nations elder to see if they can find a way to accommodate students who smudge.
- With a report by Sheila North Wilson