B.C. landlord ordered to pay $23K for repeatedly trying to evict tenant over Indigenous smudging

An Indigenous mother of two who was forced to leave her rental suite in Burnaby because her landlord objected to her practising the cultural ceremony of smudging has been awarded more than $23,000 by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

Crystal Smith, a Tsimshian and Haisla woman in her 20s, was the target of racial and religious discrimination by her landlord, Parminder Mohan, the tribunal ruled last week.

Tribunal member Pamela Murray said that Mohan made multiple stereotypical comments about Indigenous people to Smith, then repeatedly tried to evict her for smudging, without making an effort to accommodate the ceremonial burning of sage.

“Ms. Smith was quite simply denied the right to enjoy her home, especially near the end of her tenancy. The discrimination impacted her ability to meet a fundamental need: a home for herself and her family,” Murray wrote in the Feb. 28 decision.

She ordered Mohan to pay Smith $20,000 in compensation for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect, as well as $1,500 for lost wages and $1,800 for expenses.

Smudging is a common Indigenous ceremony that involves burning plants like sage or cedar to cleanse a space and the mind and body of negative energy. 

When Smith and her young children moved into a basement suite owned by Mohan in January 2017, she had recently left her husband and was working as an on-call teacher. She told the tribunal she’d begun smudging more frequently since the breakup because the practice kept her grounded and allowed her to move on with her life.

Smith signed a one-year, fixed-term lease with Mohan that stipulated she would not disturb other tenants with “noise or nuisance,” according to the decision. The tenancy agreement also gave Smith the right to move into the upstairs apartment by April 1, 2017.

Landlord complained of ‘pot smell’

On the day she moved into the apartment, Smith burned sage in an abalone shell, using an eagle feather to fan the smoke. The upstairs neighbours later asked about the smell, and she agreed to let them know when she was smudging so they could close the vents.

Mohan didn’t become aware of the smudging until March 2017, when he texted Smith about “a huge amount of pot smell upstairs,” according to the decision.

She replied to say she doesn’t smoke cannabis, so it must be the sage she had smudged. Smith told her landlord she was doing it for cultural purposes and invited him into her apartment to see what she was doing.

Nonetheless, Mohan asked Smith to promise to stop smudging, and when she refused, he repeatedly tried to evict her. After the Residential Tenancy Branch rejected his application for eviction, Mohan’s efforts became “increasingly outrageous,” the decision says.

That included a text message Mohan sent to Smith on June 1, 2017, that indicated he was moving into the suite upstairs and “will be cooking curry every day now.”

A member of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal said Crystal Smith was ‘denied the right to enjoy her home.’ (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Smith moved out in mid-June, feeling she had no other choice, the decision says.

Mohan argued that the smell made him sick and testified that Smith “did not seem concerned about his health.” But he did not testify about any medical conditions he had or how they might be affected by sage smoke.

Murray pointed out that Mohan’s concerns about the smoke could have been dealt with if he’d allowed Smith to move into the upstairs apartment as he’d promised. She would have had control over the heating system, so she could keep the apartment warm enough to open the windows while she smudged.

But Mohan refused to let Smith move her family upstairs, even after the Residential Tenancy Branch ordered him to do so, according to the decision.

The tribunal also heard that Mohan had made frequent comments about Smith’s ethnicity, including observations about Indigenous people using alcohol and drugs.

On top of the financial orders, Murray said Mohan must stop discriminating against tenants on the basis of race, ancestry, place of origin, and religion.

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