Inuk woman blocked from online group after calling out 'offensive' costume kit

An Inuk woman is calling out the people behind an Ottawa "Buy Nothing" Facebook group over their initial response to her complaint about a costume kit she found offensive.

Maggie Buttrum spotted the "First Americans" sewing patterns July 5 on the Carlington/Civic Hospital Buy Nothing group, an online platform where neighbours can give away items they no longer need or want.

We are your neighbours. We are not walking around in sack dresses, and we don't live in igloos. - Maggie Buttrum

The sewing kit featured a photo of a family dressed as Indigenous people, complete with feathered headbands. It was being offered for free along with two plastic tomahawks.

"I was surprised to see the item," Buttrum told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "This sort of item wouldn't necessarily be something you would want to sew and wear as a family on Halloween in our neighbourhood."

The kit was quickly claimed by another neighbour, so Buttrum posted a message asking that person not to make the costumes.

Comments disabled

Neither the person who posted the item nor the person who claimed it responded to Buttrum, but her comment sparked a heated debate among other members of the Facebook group. Buttrum said she became frustrated with neighbours who defended the item as harmless.

"I do know that feeling of being stereotyped and having people assume that your culture is one way," she said. "We are your neighbours. We are not walking around in sack dresses, and we don't live in igloos."

Deborah MacAskill/CBC

Eventually, one of the Buy Nothing group's administrators disabled further comments on the item, Buttrum said.

The debate soon moved to another neighbourhood Facebook group, and Buttrum said soon after, she and some others were blocked from both groups for being "uncivil" and "abusive."

"Online communities can get really messy, especially when there are geographic proximity to these people," she said. 

"On the other hand, online communities also can be handled with a gentle hand in a way that encourages dialogue between neighbours. And I don't think turning off comments and deleting threads and booting people out of groups is a way to really foster any of that communication."

Co-founder weighs in

One of the Buy Nothing group's administrators, Diane Ritchie, said the post also sparked disagreement among the four people who run it.

Ritchie, who is also Buttrum's neighbour, said the post was initially deleted, then put back up.

"We're still trying to get this damn post removed because it is very offensive," Ritchie said.

Ritchie said members who were blocked, including Buttrum, have been unblocked, and the administrator who blocked them has been removed.

Buy Nothing Project co-founder Rebecca Rockefeller also weighed in, telling members of the local group the costume kit is a "legal item" that didn't break any rules.

Rockefeller suggested anyone offended by the post either "scroll past it," or request the item to use "as an educational tool or enjoy destroying it.

"Many of us look at this item and see much more than a sewing pattern, we see generations of genocide and cultural appropriation," Rockefeller wrote to the group. "All of our rage at this item won't change any of that history, but we can donate items like this to people who use them to create art or museum collections, made and curated by the people these items seek to dehumanize."