01/24/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 03/25/2014 05:59 EDT

First Nations Woman Denied Housing Because Of Cultural Practice

Ferntree, of Duncan, British Columbia, a member of the Cowichan Tribes, holds her hand up as she partakes in a smudging ceremony as smoke from a smoldering bundle of dried sweetgrass is directed toward her during a Native American protest against Columbus Day, Monday, Oct. 10, 2011, in Seattle. The fourth annual protest by the Oldgrowth Alliance included leaders and youth from Native American and Alaska Native communities speaking out against the annual holiday honoring Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas. Protest organizers say that Columbus could not have ?discovered? a western hemisphere already inhabited by about 100 million people. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Briana Ireland, a member of Skatin' First Nation in British Columbia, had her references cleared and was about to rent a new home. But when she disclosed her spiritual practice of smudging, her rental application was scrapped.

Finding affordable housing in Prince George, B.C., can be challenging. There are low vacancy rates and a shortage of quality homes.

More barriers can add to the stress, especially for a single mother of two young children.

When the property manager asked Ireland if she was Indian, her response was that she was a First Nations person who, along with her children, were into their culture.

She explained that her family practises hand drumming, singing, and smudging as a traditional way of praying and meditating.

Smudge wrongly characterized as a mind-altering drug

“From there I was denied the apartment because the property manager said that smudging is problematic, that it's drugs, and she wouldn't be allowing that kind of activity in her apartment building," said Ireland.

Smudging is the traditional practice of burning of sacred medicines to cleanse oneself from negative feelings.

Ireland said her application was ripped to pieces in front of her by the landlord.

"She had said things like if I was to move in there and people — the other tenants — had smelled the smudge, that because it's drugs that they would get a phone call and … there would be an eviction, and she didn't want to go through that process." 

The rejection was “heart-breaking” for Ireland, who said she was “excited” to find a new home to settle in so she could focus on school and raising her children.

Culture as a barrier to finding housing 

Having her daughter present when hearing the manager's reasons for refusal was especially difficult, she said.

“Once you get to a point in your life where you feel you're accepting of who you are and your culture, and you apply those good things in your life … I didn't think that would hinder a place to live. I wouldn't put myself and my children in a worse position," said Ireland, who never thought her own culture would be a barrier to finding a home.

After her bad experience with the rental management, Ireland sought advice from Lindsay Antosko, a property manager with the Prince George Métis Housing Society.

"So she [Ireland] had actually sent me a text message asking a residential tenancy question about cultural smudging," said Antosko, "and if there was anything in the act saying that that was illegal or not allowed, and could a landlord discredit you for the cultural practices and smudging included. And I said absolutely not."

CBC News contacted the property manager for an interview, but their only response was, "I will not answer to anything."

Ireland has not filed complaints, but she hopes others can learn from her experience.

She has shared her experience with classmates at the College of New Caledonia, and she said she has heard similar experiences with this kind of discrimination.

"My hope is just that people become more aware about and sensitive to other cultures, that First Nations are denied housing or anything else just because of their culture," said Ireland.

The good news for Ireland is that her family has found a place to rent for mid-February and is keeping an open eye for any available housing in the meantime.

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