May 23, 2024

Air Canada has been forced to apologise to an indigenous chief, after cabin crew tried to take her sacred headdress and put it in the cargo hold on a domestic flight last week.

Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak, the newly elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said she was “stunned” when crew members attempted to take the sacred item from her on a flight between Montreal and Fredericton, with the case she was carrying the headdress in being thrown into the hold.

“I was kind of stunned,” she told CBC News on Friday, explaining that her people believe that a headdress is “like your child, like your baby. It’s with you. It’s part of you”.

The leader said she had travelled before without any issue, carrying the headdress in a special case alongside her carry-on luggage, but this time staff took a different view.

She told the outlet that the situation got “pretty heated”, with staff pulling the case from her when she asked to keep it under the seat in front of her.

Woodhouse Nepinak then pulled the sacred item from the case and held it on her lap the entire flight, but crew insisted the case be put in the hold and placed it in “garbage bags”.

Air Canada planes are seen at the gates at Montreal International Airport (AFP via Getty)Air Canada planes are seen at the gates at Montreal International Airport (AFP via Getty)

Air Canada planes are seen at the gates at Montreal International Airport (AFP via Getty)

At the end of the flight, staff did not return the case to her and the pilot reportedly had to intervene, while fellow passengers showed her a huge amount of respect.

“There’s Canadians from all walks of life kind of sitting in the plane that were pretty astounded, and I was glad to see that, because it’s not like people just sat there and were quiet. People were genuinely trying to help,” Woodhouse Nepinak added.

“I want to focus on making sure that First Nations can come through our airport and our airlines, all airlines, Air Canada included, in a safe way, in a respectful way.”

Air Canada received backlash from Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who described the incident as “unacceptable”.

“From my perspective, that 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,” Mr Trudeau told reporters on Friday.

The actions of the Air Canada crew were also condemned by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which called for comprehensive cultural sensitivity training across the airline industry.

“Systemic discrimination reveals itself in situations like this,” AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in a statement.

“When our sacred items are treated as if they’re just objects. What happened to National Chief Woodhouse Nepinak is a shameful demonstration of how misinformed Canadians are about First Nations’ sacred cultural items and traditions.”

Woodhouse Nepinak was given the headdress by other tribal leaders during a “headdress transfer” ceremony in January this year, seen as one of the highest honours within First Nations.

Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak greets supporters during the election of the First Nation National Chief, at the Assembly of First Nations General Assembly in 2023. (AFP via Getty)Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak greets supporters during the election of the First Nation National Chief, at the Assembly of First Nations General Assembly in 2023. (AFP via Getty)

Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak greets supporters during the election of the First Nation National Chief, at the Assembly of First Nations General Assembly in 2023. (AFP via Getty)

AMC said that in 2024, with information readily available online, more people should have an understanding of these traditions and beliefs, with Woodhouse Nepinak agreeing.

“This can… set the motion in place for, you know, the airlines, Air Canada, WestJet, whomever, to have a, you know, an understanding of our way of life, our beliefs, and have that mutual respect,” she told CBC.

On Thursday, Air Canada apologised, saying it was going to speak with the leader to better understand the situation.

“Air Canada understands the importance of accommodating customers with items and symbols of sacred cultural significance, and in the past the chiefs have been able to travel while transporting their headdresses in the cabin,” the airline told CBC News.

Air Canda said it planned to review its policies as a result of the “regrettable incident”.

The Independent has approached Air Canada and the Assembly of First Nations for further comment.

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