Nearly 40 Brandon residents gathered over the noon hour yesterday for an outdoor smudging demonstration in front of Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School.
Brandon Police Service helped block off a portion of First Street in front of the high school for what demonstrators called a "peaceful protest."
Demonstrators formed a smudging circle in support of Grade 11 Crocus Plains student Stephen Bunn, who school administrators asked to stop smudging before school because it violates the Brandon School Division’s scent and fragrance-free policy.
BSD released a statement to media on Monday in regard to Bunn’s smudging practices before school.
"The Brandon School Division is very concerned that our staff and administrators are being unfarily and unjustly branded as racist," the statement reads, in response to Bunn’s earlier claims he felt "singled out" by school staff and administrators. "The staff and administrators involved have been highly sensitive to the culture and wishes of the student and will continue to work with those involved to reach an understanding.
"It was explained to the parent that the strong smudging scent draws unwanted attention to the student. After the student met with the administrator, he continued to attend his classes."
BSD’s policy recognizes that certain scents can cause allergic reactions and aggravate health conditions for students and staff. Although trustees voted unanimously in favour of the policy in September 2013, Supt. Donna Michaels admits they have yet to iron out all of the details.
"It’s harder than we thought," Michaels said. "There are so many, many, many different scents associated with people’s own personal bodily care, with their religious practices, with their environmental practices, with their food practices, so we’re working on that."
This issue has also reinforced the need for conditions surrounding the new policy to be made clearer to staff and students, Michaels said.
"As with any new policy, it will be refined through practice," the statement reads. "The policy originated over concerns with respect to the use of perfumes, colognes and body sprays. Cultural or religious practices which may result in the practitioner carrying a scent were not contemplated."
Michaels added the school division plans to revisit the scope of the policy and determine whether it properly deals with "scents resulting from cultural or religious practices."
"It’s a real learning process for us," she said, adding the division plans to discuss the policy further with staff and students. Michaels said BSD plans to develop the policy’s outlines before presenting it to the school board for approval sometime in May.
Bunn previously told the Sun smudging before school has become part of his morning routine. He said the traditional aboriginal practice of burning sage helps him prepare for the day ahead. It also helps him feel closer to his younger brother, who was 15 when he took his own life in June.
But after smudging before school last November, he 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.
Not knowing how to approach the situation, Bunn said his aunt encouraged him to make a YouTube video sharing his story. The nearly 16-minute "unable to smudge in school" video was posted last week. As of Monday afternoon, the video had been viewed 9,192 times.
Supporters in front of Crocus Plains on Monday waved brightly coloured signs displaying "keep calm smudge on," "educate yourself," and "know the difference" messages written on them.
Among the supporters was Brandon resident Viola Fleury, who said she was there to support and encourage local aboriginal youth "to speak up like Stephen did."
"We want our youth to know that we are behind them," she said.
Debbie Huntinghawk said she chose to brave Monday’s cold winter weather to support and help Bunn "through his healing journey."
"We’re not here to bully or pick on the school division. We just want to show you that what we’re doing is a good thing."
Bunn, who joined his supporters outside, said he was happy with the amount of attention his story has received.
Crocus Plains administrators have now given Bunn the go-ahead to start another aboriginal awareness group at the school. So far, nearly 25 students have shown interest in joining after the group participated in a smudging demonstration at the school last Friday, Bunn said.
"I’m really happy that everything worked out," Bunn said. "We have other aboriginal groups at our school, but not one like this."
Bunn said he’s still smudging every morning before school and hasn’t had any issues with school administrators.
"We want him to feel welcome and we want him to attend classes," Michaels said.
She added the division hopes to speak with Bunn and his mother in the near future about an acceptable process moving forward. But in the meantime, administrators have asked Bunn to inform staff when he smudges before school so that he can still attend classes.