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St. Joseph's Health Centre Toronto

St. Joseph’s facilitates in-hospital smudging ceremonies for the first time

Paula Larrondo and Leonard Benoit

As an Oncology Counsellor at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, Paula Larrondo’s job is to understand the impact an illness has on a patient, their family and their care team. She seeks to understand the strengths and barriers of a situation and help everyone navigate a challenging time.

A couple of months ago, she was able to help organize a smudging ceremony for the first time, a traditional ceremony practiced by some Indigenous Peoples that involves burning sacred medicines to purify and cleanse negative energy.

The ceremony was organized with the help of an Indigenous Navigator, a counsellor from the Toronto Regional Cancer Program through the Indigenous Cancer Control Unit. Indigenous Navigators work with Indigenous cancer patients across Toronto and provide emotional support and advocacy for First Nations, Inuit, Métis and urban Indigenous patients and families.

“When I work with Indigenous patients, I try to assess whether or not they identify or have been identified as needing more spiritual care,” Larrondo said. “Ninety per cent of the time — or more — I hear that they want a referral for an Indigenous Navigator.”

In December, Larrondo worked with two Indigenous patients in palliative care at St. Joseph’s and brought Indigenous Navigator Leonard Benoit on board to provide support.

The patients each expressed the desire for a smudging ceremony. Recognizing Indigenous healing practices when requested by patients is one of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Larrondo and Benoit worked together in consultation with Maria Rugg, Clinical Nurse Specialist, and Eleni Geroulis, Patient Care Manager, as well as Fire and Safety staff at St. Joseph’s to prepare for the ceremony – which involves a fire source and smoke.

“It was really beautiful,” said Larrondo. “Everybody had the will to make it happen.”

Benoit was also impressed by the collaboration of St. Joseph’s staff who participated in discussions to facilitate the requests and their respect for the process.

“They all wanted to be a part of this and to help give someone what they wanted as they were passing,” said Benoit.

When Benoit brought an Elder from Anishnawbe Health Toronto to St. Joseph’s to perform the ceremonies, he was shocked by the team’s thorough preparation and the lack of barriers.

“I keep talking about how smooth this experience was,” said Benoit. “I’ve been doing this for a while – of all the places I’ve worked, these were two of the easiest smudging ceremonies. They were conducted without bureaucracy, red tape, or pause. I was so impressed with St. Joe’s.

“Never in my entire career had a fire marshall given me their private number,” he added. Shortly after the two Indigenous smudging ceremonies took place, an Indigenous patient with Colombian heritage requested a similar ceremony traditional to her culture.

Larrondo is pleased that smudging can be provided to patients soon after being requested and that St. Joseph’s can have a meaningful impact on patients who are approaching end of life.

“I’ve always been very inspired by the way Indigenous populations look at dying as part of the life process,” said Larrondo. “A hospital is not traditionally thought of as a place where a ceremony like this would unfold but when it comes to end-of-life care, it’s actually one of the most important places.”

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