Friday, February 7, 2014

Shamed for Being?

From the CBC article here.
Today, I came across a news article from Brandon, Manitoba regarding a young man who has been told not to return to school until he abandons his religious practice.

To be fair that is a rather dramatic way of summarizing the situation, but ultimately that's the result.  I’ll summarize here, but for full details you should really read the article.

Essentially, grade 11 student Stephen Bunn practices a type of spiritual practice common among Canadian First Nations[2] called smudging.  Smudging involves burning a bundle of “medicine”[1] and wafting the resulting smoke across the face, head, body and limbs as part of a process of ritual cleansing that normally accompanies prayer or meditation. (details vary by region and practice of course). Apparently, the lingering scent of the smudge was noticed, and after being mistaken for possible drug use (sage and marijuana can be confused by people not familiar with either one) he was ultimately informed that because the school has a scent free policy [3] he would have to refrain from smudging before coming to school.

Stephen initially stopped smudging, but after a discussion with family members decided to start again and doesn’t seem to have had any trouble.

From all accounts[4], the school is trying to work out how to handle the situation fairly so hopefully things will work out well for him, but one has to wonder how the situation reached this point at all.

Granted, the school has a scent free policy - and having experienced the smudge ceremony a number of times in the past [5] I know that the scent does cling, and although I personally like the smell it might be unpleasant to some. A strict reading of the scent policy would seem to obviously mean that Stephen shouldn’t come to school smelling of smudge smoke.

But it’s not that simple.

Stephen’s reasons for taking up the smudge ceremony as part of his daily spiritual practice aren’t really relevant, though they are given in the article. What’s relevant is that this is a standard practice of the spiritual tradition he subscribes to. Regardless of what one thinks of religion generally, the fact is that in Canada people are free to practice their religious and spiritual traditions, and one could argue that the philosophical dimension of a high school student going to the effort to learn about and practice his family’s traditions has educational value. Moreover, apart from the original questions about drugs it doesn’t appear that anyone at the school has complained of the scent of smudge smoke – surely that has to be a factor in determining whether a given scent violates such a policy or not?

And in any case, the whole issue of scent-free spaces is fraught with controversy, and the general opinion of the medical profession at least seems to be that scent-free policies are of questionable value anyway.[6]

On top of this, Stephen isn’t the only person to have had trouble because of smudging – Briana Ireland of British Columbia had her tenancy application refused by a landlord as a result of her smudging practice, according to this report by the CBC.

Looking at this issue even-handedly, it’s true that unlike prayer, or hanging a religious icon, or taking days off to celebrate holy days, smudging has lingering physical effects that can be sensed by others, so the opinions of others are certainly relevant at some point: Stephen shouldn’t try to smudge in the school locker room for example, and Briana would obviously not be permitted to smudge in the hallway of the apartment building.

But insofar as these practices do not have an impact on other people anything that they do as part of their spiritual practice is really none of anyone else’s business.[7] Singling either one of them out for punishment on the basis of their spiritual practice smacks of discrimination.

In both cases, I doubt that there was any conscious intent to specifically single out First Nations people for discrimination – but that was the ultimate result.  The issue is partly ignorance – a simple lack of understanding of what smudging is, and what’s involved – but the fact that in both cases there was a leap to the assumption that there were drugs involved is telling.

Some people routinely assume that First Nations people are drunks or drug addicts.  While it’s certainly true that some First Nations people have substance abuse problems, not only is this not a universal trait but even among those who do have a problem with drugs their drug use is entirely unconnected to any spiritual practice.

I don’t think that First Nations spiritual practices should automatically be granted a bye for any legitimate concern that we might have – there are much more common religious and spiritual practices that can easily be twisted to serve the egos of religious leaders, and there’s no reason to suppose that First Nations practices are immune to this.

But we must find some way to eliminate the ignorance and the prejudice that is holding urban First Nations people down.

It’s time to make a change.


1 Medicine isn’t really a good translation, but it’s the best we’ve been able to do in English to reflect the spiritual powers discussed by most North American aboriginal religious practice.  As a necessarily simplified explanation, medicine can refer to spiritual force, to symbolic representations of spiritual force (which can then serve to invoke or direct it), or to material objects that are imbued with spiritual force.  In this case, the medicine is composed of dry medicine herbs – one or more of sage, sweetgrass, cedar or tobacco. From my understanding of the traditions of the Brandon area, I expect Stephen was using a smudge bundle comprised mainly of sage and cedar, possibly with sweetgrass as well as tobacco isn’t often used in daily ritual. For a brief but useful outline of Great Lakes/Eastern Plains First Nations tradition see here. For an explanation of the meaning and use of the Four Medicines from a Manitoba perspective, see here.

2 The term First Nations is used to refer to the various peoples who have lived in Canada since before colonization by Europe. From the article, and from context, Stephen appears to identify as Dakota Ojibway. But the term used in the article is just “Dakota” so he could also be Dakota Sioux.

3 Many schools in Canada now have scent free policies in order to handle allergies, asthma, and the general unpleasantness of having someone wearing a strong scent. As it happens, the Brandon School Board has a scent free policy, though I’m not clear on how it would apply here since it seems to be aimed at scented personal care products.

4 Well, implied by statements in the article.

5 Both in the context of First Nations ceremonies led by Elders and in another tradition that also uses “medicine” (not called that) for purification purposes.

6 The Canadian Medical Association published an opinion piece in 2011 that noted that the allergy/illness dimension was questionable, leaving only the issue of dislike which seems a bit of a slender reed to support a ban on scents. Senger, E. (2011) Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(6) pE315-6

7 The spiritual practice of Rastafarianism and other religions that make use of drugs that are specifically forbidden by law is a complicated issue of course: on the one hand, these are illegal drugs, but on the other hand the matter is a spiritual one, not a legal one – it’s not as though they’re trading in the drug for profit. Until more rational drug control policies are in place, I suspect that we will need to continue with the practice of having the courts decide on a case by case basis whether a given practitioner gets a bye.

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