British Columbia

Renter prohibited from practising First Nations ceremony files human rights complaint

A Tsimshian and Haisla renter in B.C. who was prohibited from practising a First Nations cultural ceremony in her home has filed a human rights complaint against her landlord.

Landlord argued the smell made him sick and believed it was actually marijuana

Smudging is a First Nations practice that involves burning sage, sweetgrass or cedar to purify a space. (Martha Troian/CBC)

An Indigenous renter in B.C. who was prohibited from practising a First Nations cultural ceremony in her home has filed a human rights complaint against her landlord. 

Crystal Smith, who is Tsimshian and Haisla, says her former landlord, Parminder Mohan, discriminated against her on the basis of ancestry, race and religion because he forbade her from smudging in her Burnaby suite — a common Indigenous practice that involves burning plants like sage or cedar to cleanse a space and one's mind and body of negative energy. 

Mohan said the smell was "really strong" and made him feel sick, and believed Smith was actually smoking marijuana. He tried to have the complaint dismissed, but the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal recently denied his application, paving the way for the case to go forward. 

"I think it's about time that Indigenous people are respected and our spirituality, our culture, everything should be OK wherever we are, whether we own or rent a house," said Smith, who later moved out of the suite.

"We have every right to practice our culture. It's not illegal anymore."

Smudging more than 13 years

According to the decision, Smith, 27, and her two young children rented the basement suite of a duplex from Mohan beginning in December 2016 for a one-year, fixed-term lease that stipulated the renter not disturb other tenants with "noise or nuisance." 

Smith told the tribunal that she works as an on-call teacher and is completing a master's degree in educational management and leadership, with a specialization in Indigenous leadership. 

Smudging ceremonies often include a feather to spread the smoke from burning sage over a space or a person. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

According to the decision, Smith has been smudging for more than 13 years, and it has become a more regular and important practice for her as she strives to keep her children connected to their Indigenous culture. 

A month into their tenancy, the family were the only tenants in the duplex while Mohan renovated the suite upstairs.

Concerns about fire hazard

One day in March, Mohan was working upstairs when Smith was smudging. She told the tribunal that he sent her text messages saying it smelled like pot, to which she responded saying she doesn't smoke marijuana and the smell was likely sage. 

She says she told him she burns sage often for cultural purposes, although the decision doesn't specify exactly how often. 

The tenant said smudging was an important part of her family's life. (Government of Ontario)

Mohan told the tribunal the smell was very strong and made him feel sick. He was concerned the smell would linger throughout the building, and also cited concerns about the smudging as a fire hazard.

Smith said that, shortly after the incident, Mohan sent her a letter advising her to minimize the smell from smudging. She responded explaining that smudging doesn't have the same damaging effects as cigarette smoke.

She told the tribunal that she has never had any problems with the smell of smudging in any of her other homes. 

3 eviction notices served

By April, Smith and her children were scheduled to move into the upstairs suite, as was set out in their rental agreement. But Smith says Mohan refused to let her move upstairs unless she agreed to stop smudging. She refused. 

Mohan told the tribunal Smith was "very aggressive, called him a racist and threatened not to pay rent." The decision says he claims Smith and her brother came to the building and threatened him. 

That same April, Mohan served Smith with three different eviction notices over the course of the month, including an application to end the tenancy early, a one-month notice to end tenancy for cause, and a two-month notice to end the tenancy for renovations. 

According to the decision, the Residential Tenancy Branch cancelled the one-month notice application. The decision says the RTB outlined that smudging isn't prohibited in either the Residential Tenancy Act or Smith's lease.

The RTB's decision says Mohan failed to prove that he or other occupants were "unreasonably disturbed" by the practice since there were no other tenants in the building at the time. It also says burning sage doesn't pose a significant safety risk. 

By June 1, Mohan refused to accept Smith's rent cheques. She gave him notice that she was moving out on June 15, 2017. 


Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at