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Sorry, Strother, a communications breakdown

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As Strother (no relation) Martin once said to Paul Newman, "What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate."

I happened to be in the car recently listening to CBC’s Radio Noon when Marilyn Maki was interviewing Helen Robinson-Settee, director of the province’s aboriginal education directorate, about the growing practice of smudging in public schools.

I perked up when I was sure that I had heard Robinson-Settee say that while no one was required to take part in smudging, that anyone not taking part would have to leave the room. That’s what I was sure I had heard.

Maki then pressed Robinson-Settee on a number of points. Maki asked about students with allergies, and I was sure I had heard Robinson-Settee say that they would also have to leave the room. Parents would be notified ahead of time, in case of allergies.

Maki also raised the issue of the provincial policy on conducting religious exercises in classrooms in public schools. Robinson-Settee said that smudging is a cultural practice, and since it has been practised "since time immemorial", it takes precedence.

I was left with several questions from what I heard, or what I thought I heard.

Fortunately, just as you can look up past newspaper stories online, so too can you listen to previous Radio Noon segments online. So I listened, and what Robinson-Settee said was, "Nobody is ever forced to participate. Smudging is always voluntary. Those that don’t want to, they can step outside for a few minutes while the smudging is taking place."

Robinson-Settee allowed that, yes, there could be health issues, and that’s why parents get a heads-up.

And she said on CBC, "You have a choice, it’s not imposed on anyone. You have a choice, it’s voluntary, you can leave the room."

I’ve written several times about controversies over prayers and religious exercises in public schools. Supposedly, it is those taking part who have to do so outside the classroom, before classes start, and provincial policy is that children not taking part are not required to leave their classroom.

This isn’t about the worthiness of smudging — I could think of no circumstance in which children not taking part in what is happening in a public school classroom are required to leave, nor could I think of any circumstance in which a child with health problems would be required to leave a classroom — just the opposite, as far as I’m aware, it’s the activity taking place within a public school that would give ground, not the allergic child.

I’ve also been present when smudges were conducted at large-scale events, in Thunderbird House, post-secondary campuses, and public schools, and have never seen anyone required to leave.

It took a couple of days before Education Minister Nancy Allan’s staff made Robinson-Settee available for an interview.

Turns out that Robinson-Settee assured me I hadn’t heard what I thought I’d heard.

"At no time ever is anyone asked to leave. No, absolutely not," said Robinson-Settee. "When there’s a smudge in the classroom, if the parents don’t want the child to participate, it’s their choice (whether) to leave. At no time ever is anyone asked to leave.

"Nobody is ever asked to leave, ever."

Robinson-Settee said that she has severe asthma, and takes part in smudges. In all her years of teaching, she recalls only one student who was allergic to the smoke.

"That’s part of why we communicate with the parents," she said. "They can make arrangements for them to be in the library."

As for provincial policies, "Smudging is not a religious exercise, it’s a cultural practice," Robinson-Settee said.

I also received a note from the ubiquitous aide to the minister: "Smudging is a long-standing First Nations cultural practice that is intended to remind participants to think good thoughts, hear good things in the lives of others, speak kind words, and value the good inherent in all the participants.

"I don’t believe there are any other circumstances in which children are required to leave their classrooms for health or cultural reasons," said the aide.

I talked to Winnipeg School Division, which includes smudging in the curriculum and at one time or another performs smudges in all its schools, said communications officer Dale Burgos. WSD designates a room vented to the outside to conduct smudges, and kids taking part go to that room, said Burgos. If there is no room with proper ventilation, smudging takes place outside, he said. But participants go to the smudge, the smudge doesn’t come to them, Burgos said, so that no one not taking part for health or any other reason has to leave the classroom.

Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson was surprised to hear that there are any circumstances in which a child would have to leave a public school classroom for health reasons.

Olson said that he highly respects and likes smudging, but he’s also aware that staff and students can be highly sensitive. He won’t smudge if he has any meetings scheduled later that day that would bring him into close contact with anyone who might be sensitive to smoke.

MTS has set aside a room at its building in St. James, that has fans and is ventilated directly to the outside, in which smudges occur without introducing any smoke to the rest of the building. "It’s a big hit — we’re quite happy with it," said Olson.

So, I apparently didn’t hear what I thought I’d heard on Radio Noon, and apparently the fault for misunderstanding what was said is all mine. Maybe there’d be less confusion if provincial officials explained the policy clearly in terms of the way in which the practice is conducted in public schools, which avoids any child feeling excluded.

But what we have established, from the statement by the minister’s ubiquitous aide, is that there is one situation in which the provincial department of education is OK with a child being required to leave a classroom.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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