National chief says she was 'stunned,' calls for change after headdress taken from her on flight

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak speaks about the federal budget during a news conference on Parliament Hill on April 17. Her headdress was briefly taken from her during an Air Canada flight Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak speaks about the federal budget during a news conference on Parliament Hill on April 17. Her headdress was briefly taken from her during an Air Canada flight Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak says attempts by Air Canada staff to take her headdress from her on Wednesday have created "a pivotal learning moment in history."

Woodhouse Nepinak is calling for change after the sacred item was taken from her on a flight between Montreal and Fredericton, while saluting people who tried to come to her aid in a distressing situation.

"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," she said Friday morning.

"I've always felt apprehensive about taking [the headdress] on with me, and I don't want to feel like that anymore."

Woodhouse Nepinak had travelled before with the headdress, which she received from the Blackfoot Confederacy of the Piikani Nation in Alberta in a ceremony on Jan. 1, without any problems, she told the CBC's Karen Pauls Friday morning in her first interview about what happened.

She got on a plane in Montreal on Wednesday evening with her headdress in a special carrying case. She usually places the case in the overhead compartment, but this time had carry-on luggage that she put overhead, so she stowed the case under the seat in front of her.

'Something just changed'

Everything seemed fine, but then "something just changed," she said.

"It got really bizarre."

Flight staff told Woodhouse Nepinak the case had to go into the cargo hold and took it from her, she said.

"I was kind of stunned," she said.

"Some of our teachings teach us" a headdress is "like your child, like your baby. It's with you. It's part of you" and should be handled with the respect people might give a Bible, holy oil or hijab, she said.

The interaction "got pretty heated," but flight staff insisted on putting the case in what Woodhouse Nepinak described as garbage bags and taking it away to stow with cargo.

Before they did, she removed the headdress from the case and held it on her lap during the flight.

When flight staff did not return the case to her at the end of the flight, the pilot intervened and it was brought to her, she said.

She was seated near the front of the plane and was embarrassed by what had unfolded in front of all the other passengers.

She said she takes her responsibility as national chief seriously and is careful to represent First Nations well, so didn't want to say anything that could create a negative impression.

"But I have to say, 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."

'More work to do'

The kindness and caring of her fellow passengers brings her hope, she said.

"I think they were triggered more than I was, and I think that says something for our country, that we are moving in a right way," she said.

"But at the same time, these things continue to happen, and they remind us that we have more work to do."

Air Canada has issued a statement apologizing for what happened.

The airline is following up on the matter internally and will review its policies after the "regrettable incident," the statement said.

The plane in question was a Dash 8 and the case "was difficult to carry in the cabin due to stowage space limitations," the airline said Friday in response to questions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday the flight crew's actions were 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," he said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he saw the national chief at the Montreal airport after the incident and expressed his support for her call to implement policies that ensure such a thing doesn't happen again.

"In a country like Canada, there are far too many examples where Indigenous people are disrespected in this manner," he said.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs also called for cultural sensitivity training and awareness in the airline industry.

The transfer of a headdress is one of the highest honours within First Nations traditions, Manitoba Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in an emailed statement.

Woodhouse Nepinak said an Air Canada representative reached out to her directly, but it wasn't a person with decision-making authority. She plans to follow up Friday.

She wants Air Canada to commit to having a First Nations person with ties to a home community on the board of directors, a face-to-face meeting between knowledge keepers and Air Canada's board of directors and senior officials, a circle of Indigenous advisers, a protocol for First Nations people, and cross-cultural training for staff, she said.

She's since heard from other chiefs who have gone through similar issues while flying.

Phil Fontaine, who was the AFN's national chief from 1997-2000 and again from 2003-09, told her he had to deal with similar issues in his time.

"We are tired of dealing with the same things," and there needs to be change, said Woodhouse Nepinak.

"Sometimes Creator gives us things to take on, and sometimes they come through unfortunate situations," she said.

"All that I ask is that we move in a better way with each other."