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Student told not to smudge before school

Stephen Bunn, 17, holds a pot with burning sage used for traditional smudging in his home in Brandon.


Stephen Bunn, 17, holds a pot with burning sage used for traditional smudging in his home in Brandon.

BRANDON -- 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 helps him feel closer to his brother, who was 15 when he took his own life last June.

"I do it to help my family carry on," said Bunn, 17. "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 whether 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 smudging before school because it violates the district's scent- and fragrance-free policy.

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. I felt really ashamed and really embarrassed."

Bunn said his aunt encouraged him to make a YouTube video sharing his story with others online. Bunn posted his nearly 16-minute video called "Unable to smudge in school" on Tuesday. As of Thursday night, the video had more than 6,300 views.

Bunn said he wasn't expecting that level of interest but hopes his story will encourage other aboriginal youth to "smudge on."

The Brandon School District declined interview requests Thursday and instead sent an emailed statement. It states although the 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?"

-- Brandon Sun


Updated on Friday, February 7, 2014 at 6:31 AM CST:
Replaces photo

Updated on Friday, February 7, 2014 at 9:15 AM CST:
corrects typo

Updated on Friday, February 7, 2014 at 9:19 AM CST:
Video added.

Updated on Friday, February 7, 2014 at 1:25 PM CST:
Corrects typo

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Stop this unconscious racism. Smudging with sage is a traditional practice among Native peoples. This young man is Native. His ancestors were here long before the Europeans. He has every right to honour his own traditions. This attitude of the teacher is a manifestation of abysmal ignorance and arrogance.

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