Air Canada needs ‘protocols for First Peoples’ says AFN national chief after headdress taken

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says Air Canada needs to hire an Indigenous representative to help the airline deal with culturally sensitive issues including one she just went through herself.

In an interview with APTN News on Friday, Cindy Woodhouse-Nepinak said Air Canada’s president reached out to her on Friday to apologize for the incident where airline staff took her headdress and stowed it in the plane’s cargo hold.

“I talked to Air Canada today, I talked to the president just moments ago and I told him that we’re going to be calling for a mandatory board member on Air Canada – the board of directors that should be a First Nations person,” Woodhouse-Nepinak said.

“We’ve asked for protocols for First Nations people and we’ve called for cross cultural training for all of their staff.”

In a Facebook post about the incident, Woodhouse said she was flying on an Air Canada flight Wednesday and was carrying her headdress in a case as a carry-on item as she had done on previous flights since receiving the headdress in January.

The national chief’s headdress was removed from an Air Canada flight by attendants on April 24. Photo: Facebook.

She said she keeps the headdress in its case on her lap, however this time a flight attendant stopped her and told her she must put the headdress in the baggage compartment.

“Pray for me to get home safely tonight. I won’t be letting anyone take away my headdress or case again … 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,” Woodhouse-Nepinak said in her Facebook post.

She said some people on the flight did speak up for Nepinak-Woodhouse to keep her headdress with her and she thanked them for trying to help.

“In a time when our people are always faced with discrimination like this it was nice to see Canadians try to help,” she told APTN host Dennis Ward.

Woodhouse-Nepinak said her headdress has extreme cultural significance and is very sacred to her and should not be touched or handled by others because it’s been blessed by First Nations Elders to support her leadership during her travels and challenges.

“Last night I had hurt feelings and today I still don’t feel happy at Air Canada for what happened yesterday … Air Canada needs a protocol for First Peoples so that we are not harassed for our sacred items. Our headdresses don’t belong in a garbage bags by airlines,” said Woodhouse-Nepinak.

Woodhouse-Nepinak said she received the headdress during a recent New Year’s Day ceremony by the Blackfoot Confederacy of the Piikani Nation in Alberta for her leadership and pushing for a historic Indigenous child welfare settlement.

Apology from Air Canada

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse-Nepinak wearing her headdress outside the United Nations in New York in April. Photo: Angel Moore/APTN.

In a statement to APTN News, an Air Canada spokesperson apologized to Woodhouse-Nepinak for what happened.

“We have reached out directly to speak with National Chief Woodhouse-Nepinak to better understand and apologize for her experience. We have also followed-up on this matter internally. Air Canada understands the importance of accommodating customers with items and symbols of sacred cultural significance.”

Air Canada also explained there was not enough room to have the headdress in cabin but a later decision was made by flight staff to bring the headdress back to Woodhouse-Nepkinak after she complained. Air Canada said it will be reviewing its policies.

“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 headdress itself remained in the cabin with the Chief 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,” said Air Canada.

Reaction to the incident

During a news conference in Bromont, Que., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident a “mistake” for Air Canada.

“Obviously it’s unacceptable. This was a mistake that I know Air Canada is looking into right now but from my perspective it is an unfortunate situation that is going to lead to a bit of learning by not just Air Canada but a lot of different institutions. We all have the job of understanding what reconciliation is and partnership and respect with Indigenous peoples,” said Trudeau.

In statement to APTN News, federal transportation Minster Pablo Rodriquez called the incident “unacceptable” and is reaching out to Woodhouse-Nepinak’s office.

“What happened to National Chief Woodhouse on an Air Canada flight was unacceptable. We’re in touch with her office. We expect Air Canada to treat Indigenous customers with respect and promote better Indigenous cultural sensitivity,” said Rodriquez.

In a statement posted to X, formerly Twitter, Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said he too has reached out to Woodhouse-Nepinak.

“I connected with National Chief Woodhouse to tell her how outraged I am this incident occurred. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time ceremonial items have been treated improperly. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect and I expect Air Canada to make this right.”

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