The Brandon School Division has garnered a lot of unwanted news coverage the last several days after Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School student Stephen Bunn went public with a complaint that he was told to stop smudging before school.
This aboriginal spiritual practice, which Bunn says has become a daily ritual for him, apparently violated the Brandon School Division’s scent and fragrance-free policy. As a result, teachers and administrators at his school asked him to respect the no-scent policy, as the smell of burning sage may irritate other students and staff in the building.
We have criticized the school administration for being a little heavy-handed with their interpretation of that policy, and rightfully so in our view. However, the school administrators and the division have admitted fault, and have reached out to Bunn and his family to try to find a workable solution.
So why does this story still have legs? Because the injured parties have decided to make an example of the school and the division — we think unfairly so.
On Monday, nearly 40 Brandon residents gathered over the noon hour for an outdoor smudging demonstration in front of Crocus Plains. As the Sun reported, supporters waved brightly coloured signs displaying messages such as “keep calm smudge on,” “educate yourself” and “know the difference” — the last one referencing Bunn’s story that one of his teachers mistook the smell of burning sage for marijuana last November.
“We’re not here to bully or pick on the school division,” supporter Debbie Huntinghawk said. “We just want to show you that what we’re doing is a good thing.”
If it had been left at that, perhaps we could understand. But on Monday evening, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network reported that Bunn intends to file a human rights complaint against the school.
This is a disproportionate response to the actions of his teachers and the division. Filing such a complaint over a situation that could be better addressed by sitting down and talking with school administrators or the BSD — an organization that has already extended an olive branch — is more about escalating a fight than trying to end it.
Yes, the school division must respect students’ spiritual and cultural practices, something the BSD has publicly stated it has attempted to do, and is continuing to do. Unfortunately, the school’s recently implemented scent-free policy apparently overlooked religious smells.
“As with any new policy, it will be refined through practice,” reads a statement issued by the division earlier this week. “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.”
While we are glad to see that the division intends to revisit the scope of the no-scent policy, the First Nations community in Brandon must understand that the policy as it exists was not designed to single out any one student or race of people. This is not comparable to the residential school system, which certainly was a race-driven program designed to forcefully assimilate First Nations children.
We urge Bunn and his supporters to tone it down a bit. The fact is, it’s not only Bunn’s rights that are at issue here, but those of his classmates, and his educators as well.
All parties must be respected if there is to be a fair compromise.