Smudging for Policy
Smudging involves burning a small amount of tobacco, sage, cedar or sweetgrass and symbolically cleansing oneself with the smoke. (Photo: Shutterstock)

For thousands of years, Indigenous traditional medicines such as sage, sweetgrass, and cedar have been considered as sacred, cleansing and protective plants.

Sacred smoke created from burning medicinal plants is a practice common to Indigenous peoples and is called smudging.

A new policy, which outlines the procedure for accommodating smudging and spiritual observances indoors at UHN, has been developed with the support of Fire and Life Safety, Occupational Health, Spiritual Care, Facilities, and the Indigenous Council at UHN.

"We're really happy about the implementation of a UHN smudging policy," says Martha Wyatt, Director, Regional Cancer Program. "It helps us to improve understanding and recognition of the diverse needs of our patients and doing what we can to support a holistic approach to patient care."

Patients can speak to their care team about smudging and the clinical team can then connect with UHN's Spiritual Care Department, who will assist with facilitating the request.

Cultural awareness of Indigenous healing practices is one of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The commission was part of a comprehensive response to the abuse inflicted on Indigenous peoples through the Indian residential school system, and the harmful legacy of those institutions.

One of the Calls to Action asks for recognition of the value of Aboriginal healing practices, such as smudging, and for healthcare practitioners and leaders to collaborate with Indigenous patients and families who request the use of these practices in their care.

Making accommodations for smudging is also in line with the province's Smoke-Free Ontario Act, which acknowledges the traditional use of tobacco as part of Aboriginal culture and spirituality.

"The introduction of a UHN smudging policy is one step towards addressing the many structural barriers that Indigenous patients face along their care journey," says Bernice Downey, Regional Aboriginal Cancer Lead for the Toronto Central Region.

Smudging – a traditional ceremony

Smudging involves burning a small amount of tobacco, sage, cedar or sweetgrass and symbolically cleansing oneself with the smoke.

There are four elements involved in a smudge:

  • The container, traditionally a shell representing water, is the first element
  • The four sacred plants (cedar, sage, sweetgrass, tobacco), represent the second element
  • The fire produced from lighting the sacred plants represents the third element
  • The smoke produced from the fire represents air, the fourth element

During a smudge, plant leaves or stems are placed in a container and ignited. The flames are then gently blown out and the smoke, which heals the mind, heart and body, is wafted over the person.

The Princess Margaret Cancer Centre recently celebrated the launch of the policy with various information sessions and hosted a smudging ceremony for staff and visitors.

Inuit Elder Naulaq LeDrew shared information about the Inuit Kudlik/Qulliq lamp and Muskego Cree Elder Andrew Wesley led a smudging ceremony, with many staff on hand lining up to take part in the customary process of wafting the smoke over themselves.​

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