Smudging before school has become an important part of Stephen Bunn’s morning routine.
Not only does the traditional aboriginal practice of burning sage prepare him for the day ahead, it also helps him feel closer to his brother who was 15 when he took his own life in June.
"I do it to help my family carry on," Bunn said. "It takes lots of stress and negative energy off our shoulders and we feel like we can do more things in a better way."
But after smudging before school last November, the Grade 11 Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School student was stopped by a teacher and asked if he had been smoking drugs. Bunn said he tried to explain the smell was from burning sage and not an illegal substance.
Since then, smudging before school has landed Bunn in the principal’s office twice. Bunn said school administrators let him off with a warning but asked him to stop smudgeing before school because it violates their scent and fragrance-free policy.
Brandon School Division’s scent policy recognizes that certain scents can cause allergic reactions and aggravate health conditions for staff and students. The policy refers to products such as colognes, perfumes, aftershave products, lotions, powders, deodorants, hair products, cleaning products and other scented personal products, as outlined on BSD’s website.
Trustees voted unanimously in favour of the policy in September of last year.
Having to go to the principal’s office in front of his classmates, made him feel "singled out," Bunn said.
"It felt really rude for them to do that to me," he said. "I felt really ashamed and really embarrassed."
Not knowing how to approach the situation, Bunn said his aunt encouraged him to make a YouTube video sharing his story with others online. Bunn posted his nearly 16-minute "unable to smudge in school" video on Tuesday. As of Thursday afternoon, the video had well over 5,000 views.
Bunn said he wasn’t expecting this kind of reaction but hopes his story will encourage other aboriginal youth to "smudge on."
Brandon University student Justine Chartrand said she has been smudging since she was 13 and couldn’t imagine being told to stop because of the smell.
"I usually do it in the morning before the sun rises," Chartrand said. "I love the smell ... it calms me and it just gets me through the day."
BU’s Indigenous Peoples’ Centre has had a designated smudging room for just over a year, IPC director Rhonda McCorriston said.
The room’s ventilation system directs smoke outdoors and was funded and facilitated by the university, she said.
"Brandon University never blinked an eye when we said we need to smudge where we are and where we’re studying," McCorriston said. "It would be great if every school in Brandon had one."
BSD declined interview requests Thursday and instead sent the Sun an emailed statement. It stated that although its scent-free policy is in place, "procedures around implementation of that policy are still being developed. Cultural observances will inform the development of the procedures so as to ensure that the rights of all are respected."
BSD also stated it is working alongside an aboriginal elder "with respect to the specific needs and cultural practices of its aboriginal students and their families."
"In the case of smudging, the Brandon School Division has engaged our Elder to work with staff, students and families who observe the practice to ensure that the practice is carried out in such a way as to minimize any discomfort for students and staff within its schools."
After taking some time off, Bunn said this week he’s gone back to smudging before school. So far he hasn’t had any run-ins with school administration.
"They seemed to make it a bigger issue than it was," he said. "Now I feel like I can do it and not have a problem."
Bunn’s mother Sandy said she hopes school administrators consider installing a smudge room for students.
"In our culture, this is specifically known to cleanse and bring clarity," she said. "It’s all positive."
Sandy said a school administrator told her to phone ahead if her son was going to smudge before school so he could be "excused for the day."
"That was even more insulting," she said. "If he does it every day, is their next step going to be home schooling?"
Bunn said he plans to keep smudging daily before school and hopes to make a follow up YouTube video featuring other aboriginal students.
"I’m asking around as to what I can do next to help this grow."