Saskatchewan

'Where should I go?': Resident upset by Sask. Housing policy not allowing smudging in homes

A North Battleford resident says she had a rude shock when she opened her mail this week to find a letter telling her she could not smudge inside her home.

To use ceremonial smoke outside of designated smoking areas, people must apply for permission

A child holds a bowl with burning sage — called smudging — it's an act that has become the subject of debate in Canada. (Martha Troian/CBC)

A North Battleford resident says she had a rude shock when she opened her mail this week to find a letter telling her she could not smudge inside her home.

"I never thought that there could be an infringement on my spiritual beliefs and practices in my own home," said Michelle Sanderson.

She found a letter from Battlefords Housing Authority amidst her mail on Wednesday. The letter reminds tenants of no-smoking policy on units, which includes smoke from cannabis, e-cigarettes and ceremonial smoke.

Michelle Sanderson said she was surprised to receive a letter from Battlefords Housing Authority informing her that ceremonial smoke is included as part of Saskatchewan Housing Corporation's no smoking policy. (Submitted by Michelle Sanderson)

To Sanderson, the reference to "ceremonial smoke" seemed like it was targeting First Nations, whom she said smudge as a way to centre themselves and pray.

"You're asking for a Creator to come in and help you with that, and so it's a really big part of a day."

The Battlefords Housing Authority pointed to the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation's no smoking policy, which came into effect in August 2018.

This letter from the Battlefords Housing Authority was received by a tenant this week, informing her of a no smoking policy. (Submitted by Michelle Sanderson)

According to the policy, tenants can use ceremonial smoke outside their homes, or in designated smoking areas.

"To use ceremonial smoke in areas other than the designated smoking area, tenants must receive special permission from the housing authority," states a Q&A about the policy.

Sanderson said in her past experience working with a school division, some had concerns about possible health impacts from smudging in schools.

But she said she has never been able to find any research about chemicals or toxins from burning sage or sweetgrass.

Lawyer underscores charter, human rights

Benedict Feist, a lawyer in North Battleford, has given some input to at least one person affected by the policy.

"It's an important part of people's lives," he said of smudging.

While other cases have involved private landlords restricting ceremonial smoke, in this case, the government of Saskatchewan is acting in the place of a landlord, he noted.

The government needs to be mindful it is subject to the charter and ensure "they are thinking about people's rights and ability to practice culture in their homes as they see fit," he said.

If this is not going to be allowed, and I'm not allowed to express my own belief system within the four walls of my own home, then where should I go?- Michelle Sanderson, tenant

People need to be aware of their options, including the fact they can seek permission to use ceremonial smoke inside these units, a point he said was missing in the letter from the Battlefords Housing Authority.

If housing authorities take a heavy hand toward smudging, people may also consider lodging a complaint through the Office of Residential Tenancies or a human rights tribunal, he said.

Sanderson said she can't imagine going outside of her building and praying in front of the people driving by. She's now considering what her next move must be.

"If this is not going to be allowed, and I'm not allowed to express my own belief system within the four walls of my own home, then where should I go?"

In an emailed statement to CBC, the provincial government said the no-smoking policy is in place "as smoke negatively affects indoor air quality and is particularly harmful to people living with respiratory illness, heart disease, cancer and other medical conditions."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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