May 26th, 2024

‘Unacceptable’: Trudeau reacts after AFN chief says headdress taken from plane cabin

By Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press on April 26, 2024.

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak places her papers on the podium at the start of a news conference on Parliament Hill, Wednesday, April 17, 2024 in Ottawa. The minister of Crown-Indigenous relations is calling on Air Canada to "make things right" with the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations whose headdress was removed from a flight's cabin. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – After the Assembly of First Nations’ national chief said her headdress was taken from an airplane cabin this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident “unacceptable” and a “mistake” on the part of Air Canada.

Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak, who leads the advocacy organization, said in a social-media post Thursday her headdress and its case were taken away and put in a garbage bag.

She said the incident left her with hurt feelings, and Air Canada needs a protocol for First Nations peoples so they are not “harassed” when carrying sacred items.

“If I get kicked off the flight today, then I will because I won’t be letting them take my headdress or case away from me again,” she wrote.

“Thank you to the kind Canadians on the plane who stuck up for me and tried to help.”

Trudeau said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action are not just about the federal government, but for industry and Canadians to be responsible partners who have a sense of understanding about the cultural importance of items like this.

“This was a mistake that I know Air Canada is looking into right now,” Trudeau said.

“It is an unfortunate situation that I hope is going to lead to a bit of learning – not just by Air Canada, but a lot of different institutions.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree is also calling on the airline to do right by the national chief, saying in a social-media post Friday he is “outraged.”

He noted it isn’t the first time ceremonial items have been “treated improperly.”

“Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, and I expectAir Canada to make this right,” he said.

The airline said in a statement that it reached out directly to Woodhouse Nepinak to apologize and “better understand” her experience. It added it is also following up on the matter internally.

“Air Canada understands the importance of accommodating customers with items and symbols of sacred cultural significance,” the statement says.

“In the past the chiefs have been able to travel while transporting their headdress in their cases in the cabin, but this time the case was difficult to carry in the cabin due to stowage space limitations on the Dash-8 aircraft.”

The airline said the headdress itself remained with Woodhouse Nepinak.

The company also said it will be reviewing its policies as a result of this “regrettable incident” to ensure “special items such as this” can consistently remain in the cabin with travellers.

Speaking to reporters Friday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he met with Woodhouse Nepinak by chance at an airport in Montreal shortly after the incident, and she shared with him how she felt “disrespected.”

He said he supports calls from the national chief for a policy to ensure a situation like this never happens again, and added there are “far too many” examples of Indigenous Peoples being disrespected.

NDP MP Leah Gazan said it’s important for airline workers to have cultural competency and ensure proper protocols for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“Canada is rich with diversity and the airline needs to reflect that, and respect that, through action.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2024.

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