Air Canada apologizes for mishandling national chief’s headdress on flight

Air Canada has issued an apology and is reviewing its policies after a headdress belonging to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak was removed from the cabin during a recent flight.

Woodhouse Nepinak, from Manitoba’s Pinaymootang First Nation, said she was on a flight from Montreal to Fredericton when the sacred item — neatly stored in a case –was suddenly considered a problem by Air Canada staff.

It’s something she says she’s never experienced before, despite flying frequently in her role with the AFN.

“It’s always been smooth sailing, so to speak,” Woodhouse Nepinak told Global Winnipeg.

“I put my carry-on luggage up top. And then I put my headdress with me, under the seat in front of me. Standard. And it was fine up until that point. And then the stewardess came and said, ‘You’re not going to leave that there’. Then she took it from me, and we had a little debate. I was stunned at that point.”

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Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak says she’s never had an issue storing her Assembly of First Nations headdress on flights in the past. Submitted / Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak

Woodhouse Nepinak has nothing but praise for the other passengers on the flight who recognized the significance of the headdress and tried to stand up for her, especially when, she said, airline staff attempted to put the item in garbage bags so it could be stored under the plane.

“You can’t make this stuff up. And, you know, Canadians were so kind… (They) did step forward. And they were trying to help. And I really appreciate that, and told them that when we were on the plane.”

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Woodhouse Nepinak says her high-profile experience presents an opportunity for airlines to be reminded that travelers of all backgrounds often fly with sacred or religious items, and should be treated with dignity — as not all of them will have the platform of a national chief.

“Obviously this isn’t a new issue and has happened in the past,” she said. “If I felt that insulted and discriminated against right off the bat, I can’t imagine what other people feel. People use airlines all the time.”

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Woodhouse Nepinak said she’ll be calling for Air Canada to make a number of changes in light of the incident. Namely, she’d like to see First Nations representation on the airline’s board, as well as cross-cultural training for staff. She also wants to have a face-to-face meeting with the board members.

“I think that would be a good start, so that we’re not (still) at this conversation in the next decade.”

In a statement to Global News, an Air Canada spokesperson said the airline has reached out to Woodhouse Nepinak to apologize for her experience, and is also taking internal measures to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

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

“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.

“We will be reviewing our policies as a result of this regrettable incident to ensure special items such as this, whose significance we appreciate, are able to travel in the cabin with the customer consistently.”

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Woodhouse Nepinak’s experience, which she shared on social media, has made headlines across the country, with government officials weighing in as well.

In a social media post Friday, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said he’s “outraged” at what took place.

“Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, and I expect Air Canada to make this right,” Anandasangaree wrote.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also called it an “unacceptable” situation.

“This was a mistake that I know Air Canada is looking into now … an unfortunate situation that will lead to a bit of learning not just for Air Canada but for other institutions.”

In a statement Friday, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said the incident was ‘inexcusable’.

“There are no excuses left. We’re in 2024, where information is at our fingertips—anyone can Google, visit a library, or pick up a book,” Merrick said.

“First Nations are the original people of Turtle Island, and it’s time that Canadians and industry acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating systemic racism and colonial violence.”

Click to play video: 'Phil Fontaine and AFN Chief Cindy Woodhouse honoured at MKO ceremony'

Phil Fontaine and AFN Chief Cindy Woodhouse honoured at MKO ceremony

– With files from Melissa Ridgen


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