POTLOTEK – Eight-year-old Linden Lafford from Potlotek First Nation is an energetic, soft-spoken boy with a shy smile and a playful demeanour.
Just over a week ago, he was having fun bowling with his family at Lanes at Membertou when he took a break to make a solo trip to the washroom.
“When I went to the boys’ washroom there was a man with a boy and they said, ‘Go to the girls’ washroom, you look like a girl’ and they said ‘Your long hair is ugly.’”
Linden says he didn’t respond and left the washroom as quickly as he could. He says the comments made him feel sad.
His mother, Mary Lafford, says she could tell right away that something was wrong by the way Linden was acting but he wouldn’t talk about it at first. They finished bowling and went to visit some friends, where he was still uncharacteristically quiet. Then they went home. That’s when she noticed him go into the washroom and lock the door.
“I saw that he had something in his hands so I asked him to open the door and he put the scissors down so I was like, ‘what are you doing?’…and I kept asking him, ‘what happened today?’ And then he was a mess when he told us about that man and that boy in the washroom.”
Linden says he was thinking about cutting his hair that day before his mother came in.
“I was trying hard not to lose my mind," Mary Lafford said, "because I was like, ‘That’s not right what that man did to him,' and I told (Linden), I said, ‘You should have told us because (Lanes at Membertou staff) would have done something right away and we would have said something.'”
Lafford took to Facebook with a post detailing the incident and a photo of Linden wearing his long black hair loose down past his shoulders. To her surprise, the post received more than 2,000 reactions and most of those people sent them private messages, some including photos of their own long hair.
“We’re getting messages from people in Wisconsin, Texas, California, Missouri, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Ontario, all different tribes and that was really cool. One of the ones that really hit our feelings was an elder that posted on Facebook a picture of his braid and was like, ‘No one picks on a little boy with a braid’ and ‘We stand in solidarity with Linden.' I got teary-eyed and was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
That elder was Stephen Christmas of Eskasoni. He had long hair as a young man but, because of the name calling and bullying he endured, wore it short for much of his life. He’s been growing it long again for four years now, since the young sons of his close friend, Andre Desjardins, were being bullied about their long hair.
Desjardins remembers that time well.
“They’d had long hair since they were babies. We never cut their hair when they were born and they were bullied, they were called girls. It was really bad, it was really intense. They went through so much, it was all the time," he says.
Desjardins, who is originally from Quebec but has lived in Eskasoni for almost 20 years, says he gave his sons the option to cut their hair a few years ago and they both jumped at the chance.
“I remember how sad it was in the car on the way home, thinking about everything that had happened and what we had to do to stop it, to cut their hair and discontinue following tradition, just to appease other people’s sensitivity toward boys with long hair.”
Since then, Desjardin’s youngest son, now 12, has grown his hair long again and Stephen Christmas has a braid that goes halfway down his back.
“I was going to cut it a few weeks ago because it was getting too hard to manage. I couldn’t clean it anymore because I was getting too old,” Christmas says. But then he saw Mary Lafford’s post on Facebook.
“As elders, we need to teach our children not to be shy of who they are so that’s the purpose of why I grew my hair and now, with Linden’s story, I said, ‘I can’t cut my hair, I won’t cut my hair … I have to show that young man that he’s not alone in this anymore. I’m here, I’ll be here beside him.'”
Linden now has new friends from all across Turtle Island. They call and text each other and Facetime to show off their long hair and braids. His mother says he’s learned that long hair is a symbol of strength and a source of pride in First Nations’ cultures.
“It was the coolest thing that I was not even expecting … so now he’s got a big huge support team and we were reading all the cool messages that said, ‘don’t be scared,’ and ‘don’t be sad,’ and ‘you’re a little warrior, a little L’nu boy, be proud of who you are,’ and he’s getting more and more excited with each one.”
Lafford says Lanes at Membertou contacted her soon after she made her original post.
Richard Paul, Membertou’s chief operating officer, issued this comment to the Cape Breton Post:
"We were disheartened last week to learn about the hurtful comments made to Linden Lafford while spending time at our facility. At Lanes at Membertou, we do not condone the attitude or actions of the individual who made these remarks — he was a patron visiting our facility at the time. Lanes at Membertou is continually committed to a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone. We have been in touch with the Lafford family and will be welcoming them back for a fun experience, for Linden and his friends this weekend."
Linden now has words of wisdom for other young Mi’kmaq boys experiencing the same thing he went through.
“I would say, ‘it’s ok, I have long hair and I got bullied too sometimes and they are L’nus and they are beautiful and boys can have long hair and it’s ok,’” he says.
Is he still thinking about cutting his hair?
“No. I might be growing it for like 40 years.”
Ardelle Reynolds, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post