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Toronto Indigenous consultant resigns, files human rights complaint over smudging

Consultant Lindsay Kretschmer says walked away from her job in July after progress on Indigenous files appeared stalled and her superiors refused her request for what she considered an appropriate place to smudge, which involves burning sweetgrass, sage or tobacco.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Toronto's Indigenous affairs consultant has left her post at City Hall and filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal alleging she was unfairly denied the right to engage in the Indigenous practice of smudging while at work.

Consultant Lindsay Kretschmer was hired in March to work for the city's bureaucracy on Indigenous issues, including plans to hire more Indigenous people. But she says walked away from her job in July after progress on Indigenous files appeared stalled and her superiors refused her request for what she considered an appropriate place to smudge, which involves burning sweetgrass, sage or tobacco.

In an e-mail, city spokeswoman Wynna Brown said the city disputes Ms. Kretschmer's version of events, but would not elaborate: "The City takes issue with her allegations and looks forward to the opportunity to present its case through the Tribunal process."

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In an interview, Ms. Kretschmer, a Wolf Clan Mohawk, pointed out that staff of other religions at City Hall have access to a special prayer and meditation room – but that no such place is set aside for smudging.

"People of other denominations and faiths have the ability to go in there and practise their faith at any time throughout the day. And as it stands, Indigenous staff cannot. If they want to light a smudge, they cannot," Ms. Kretschmer said. "And to me, that's not good enough in 2017."

She does say she was offered her manager's office in which to smudge, but found it unacceptable, as it was someone else's "personal space" and was not a place others could use. She also said she once performed a smudging ceremony in a city councillor's office, but would not say which one.

Ms. Kretschmer said the practice is exempted from Ontario's anti-smoking legislation, colleges and universities have implemented smudging policies and that she has done it in hotel rooms without incident.

She previously worked as a program manager for the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres and as the manager of youth services for Native Child and Family Services of Toronto. Ms. Kretschmer says she has now moved on to a non-governmental agency, which she would not name, that allows her to smudge in her office. Her LinkedIn profile says she is an independent consultant.

According to a report on the Ontario Human Rights Commission's website, employers or other institutions are required to accommodate the need for Indigenous spiritual practices such as smudging unless doing so requires "undue hardship."

Some Indigenous people seek to smudge at "at unpredictable times – for example, at a time of death in a hospital, or a moment of crisis during the school or work day," the OHRC report says, praising the installation of a special smudging room at the Toronto offices of the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs: "Where smudging accommodation needs are known to potentially exist, organizations should take pro-active steps to facilitate the practice in a dignified and timely way."

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Don Peat, a spokesman for Mayor John Tory, declined to speak in detail about what he said was a personnel matter. "Mayor Tory is committed to continuing to build positive relationships with Toronto's Indigenous communities. He recognizes there is still much work to be done," he said.

Ms. Kretschmer's post with the city was not a new job. Her predecessor had retired last year. Ms. Kretschmer said she was requested to smudge on her second day on the job. But in this and other aspects of her work, she said she was not met with the "level of support" she had hoped for.

As the dispute dragged on, Ms. Kretschmer hired a lawyer. She said she considered what was happening to her constructive dismissal and told her superiors she wanted to leave. But she said she walked away from a settlement offered by the city.

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