Smudging ban at inquest 'deeply troubling' for Indigenous families, lawyers say
Infrastructure Ontario says it 'regrets the error', smudging to be allowed in all provincial buildings
The government agency that manages public buildings in Ontario says it regrets an error that forced a grieving mother and some of her disabled family members outside to smudge last week because of a ban on the spiritual practice inside a provincial building where a coroner's inquest is being held in Thunder Bay, Ont.
That situation was "deeply troubling" for lawyers representing the family and other Indigenous groups at the inquest into the death of Lena Anderson.
Anderson, 23, died by suicide in the back of a police vehicle in Kasabonika Lake First Nation in 2013.
The building, at 189 Red River Road, where her inquest is being held is frequently used for coroner's inquests in the city. It was unclear to people in attendance why smudging — a cleansing ceremony where traditional plant medicines are burned — was prohibited inside the building.
"An error was made and we regret the error," said Ian McConachie, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Ontario. "Our service provider had an abundance of caution. They denied that request and it should not have been denied. Our policy is to accommodate smudging requests when we receive them."
The private real estate company CBRE is contracted as the facilities manager at the provincial building on Red River Road and has been reminded of the government policy and is expected to allow smudging as of Monday and in the future, McConachie said.
The response came after lawyers at the inquest sent a letter to Ontario's Minister of Indigenous Relations and Ontario's Chief Coroner.
"Given the demographics of Thunder Bay, this unjustifiable failure to offer culturally sensitive services in a modern Government of Ontario building is embarrassing," lawyers Christa Big Canoe and Julian Falconer wrote on November 2.
Big Canoe represents Anderson's mother at the inquest. Falconer represents Nishnawbe Aski Police Service.
"Smudging is not a dangerous activity and facilities officials denying it based on their unfounded fears and a lack of understanding is arguably a breach of the human rights code," said the letter.
Ontario's Chief Coroner said he is making inquiries to find out why the ban on smudging is in place.
Chief coroner seeks community input
"If the facility isn't able to do it [accommodate smudging], there may be other places to hold inquests," Dr. Dirk Huyer told CBC News. "I'm interested to hear from other people in the community where there might be more appropriate areas or locations that do allow smudging."
It is also a "serious" matter for Ontario's Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.
"We will continue to work in collaboration with Indigenous partners and appropriate ministries to support a culturally relevant and responsive justice system and reconciliation province-wide," David Zimmer said in a statement.
The inquest into Lena Anderson's death is expected to wrap up on Wednesday. Another inquest into the death of an Indigenous man is scheduled to take place at the same building in December.
Huyer said he was working to have the issue resolved by then.
Emily Hill hopes that's the case. Along with Big Canoe, she represents Anderson's family and the family of the man whose inquest will be held in December.
"Inquests deal with the loss of a family member. They are always very difficult for families," Hill said.
"Families need to have access to all the supports that they have; the supports of their family and the supports of their cultural and spiritual traditions," she said. "Smudging is an important and an essential part of that tradition and needs to be available to families in these difficult times."