Smudging in public schools: Reconciliation or religious act?

The question of whether smudging - burning a small amount of usually sage, cedar bough or sweetgrass - should be allowed in public schools is one that arose in Canada in 2016, even becoming the subject of a B.C. court case.

Critics call age-old Indigenous practice of smudging a religious act and potential health risk

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

The question of whether smudging should be allowed in public schools is one that arose in Canada in 2016, even becoming the subject of a B.C. court case.

Smudging involves burning a small amount of usually sage, cedar bough or sweetgrass — medicine to Indigenous people — and cleansing oneself with the smoke.

"I think that the most important message of smudging is that it recognizes the power and the life in the earth, and that we're related to that," says Niigaan Sinclair, acting head of the native studies department at the University of Manitoba.

Sinclair says smudging has been taking place since time immemorial and is one way to acknowledge the traditions or law of an Indigenous territory. It's a practice in Indigenous communities in many parts of the country.

Smudging lawsuit

But some say it's a religious act that shouldn't be allowed in public schools.

In November 2016, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) filed a petition on behalf of Port Alberni, B.C., mother Candice Servatius.

Servatius's two children attend John Howitt Elementary School, and according to the family, Servatius' children were forced into a smudging ceremony, a Nuu-chah-nulth practice, in September 2015. Servatius's claims she was given little to no information about the ceremony itself, or the opportunity to opt out her children.

The petition is being led by John Carpay, president of the JCCF, against School District 70, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island. 

Carpay says this goes against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and B.C.'s School Act, which prohibits any religion to be taught in a school. 

Sage, sweetgrass and cedar boughs — medicine to Indigenous people — are used in smudging. (CBC)
"The way the school explained it was that everything has a spirit, the chair, the tables, the furniture, the classroom, the children," says Carpay. "If that's not religious, then I don't know what it is." 

Carpay says if spirits need to be "cleansed," usually it is done with soap and water, and not smoke, such as through a smudge. 

"The very idea of smoke being a cleansing agent is a religious idea because it's not scientific...I'm not saying it's false, I'm just saying that it's not scientific." 

The court action does not seek to ban smudging, says Carpay. Instead, it has a very narrow focus, to uphold the prohibition of religion entering a school system. 

Christian worldview

But Joe Borsato, a recent graduate student from the University of Alberta, thinks Carpay needs to re-evaluate what is deemed "religious." 

"I don't think he quite fleshes out what that means because religion is a really nebulous term that we can sort of throw anything into it and call it religious," says Borsato. 

"I think that our school systems are very structured around a Christian worldview," adds Borsato, pointing to activities and even breaks in public schools because of Christian beliefs like Christmas and Easter. 

But while Carpay negotiates a date with School District 70 for a court hearing — it will be sometime in 2017 — more schools across the country are actually working to encourage smudging. 

Smudging policies

Greg McFarlane, a school trustee in Winnipeg, firmly believes that if students, in particular Indigenous students, want to smudge, then nothing should stop them. 

That's why Winnipeg Seven Oaks School Division trustees recently approved their local school boards to develop their own smudging policy, despite a heated debate about the motion, says McFarlane. 

"We, at Seven Oaks are known to be the pioneers when it come to Aboriginal education, Aboriginal truth and reconciliation, we won awards, we have awesome teachers, and so on, so for us to vote against it, it would be absolutely ridiculous, almost hypocritical," says McFarlane. 

"If these students can have five to 10 minutes to bring themselves back to the Earth," says McFarlane. "If they can have this one small time where they can connect to where they're from, I don't think we, as a division, should get in the way of that." 

The province already has a smudging protocol handbook, developed by the Aboriginal Education Directorate of Manitoba, a branch of the Department of Education that specializes in the needs of Indigenous students. But prior to this, there were no smudging policies at the school board level. 

'Health trumps smudging'

Claudia Sarbit, another school board trustee with Seven Oaks, said she supports smudging, but admits she has a few concerns.   

"I think that there might be some health concerns with kids who have respiratory ailments so we have to deal with it in a manner so that the smoke from the smudging doesn't affect kids' lungs," says Sarbit. 

A smudging ceremony takes place in northern Manitoba. (Donna Carreiro)
Sarbit became a longtime volunteer with the Manitoba Lung Association after her own son struggled with severe asthma.

"The Lung Association's position is that smudging particles can fly into your lungs, and people with bronchial conditions get sick and miss school," says Sarbit. 

"Smudging doesn't trump health; health trumps smudging." 

Sarbit is also concerned about the staff who may feel they are being forced into smudging and have to participate. However, in the end, she wants smudging to be a win-win for everyone.


McFarlane is proud of the work the Seven Oaks School Division is doing, including integrating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action into the education system.

Winnipeg school trustee Greg McFarlane said smudging is part of the Seven Oaks School Division's attempts to infuse Indigenous culture into the system. (Supplied)
This would include infusing an Indigenous perspective and celebrating and teaching Indigenous cultures in schools.

He worries banning smudging may lead to banning Indigenous songs, dance and storytelling in schools — contrary to the calls to action set forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and even a repeat of dark chapters in Canadian history when Indigenous beliefs were suppressed by law,

"This decision goes against the TRC," says McFarlane. "These key principles are obviously at peril due to this situation."


Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige