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AFN chief says Air Canada offered a 15% discount after her headdress was mishandled

OTTAWA –

After the Assembly of First Nations’ national chief complained to Air Canada about how staffers treated her and her ceremonial headdress on a flight this week, she says the airline responded by offering a 15 per cent discount on her next flight.

“It must have been a generic response,” Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said in an interview, calling the entire experience “humiliating” and “unbelievable.”

Woodhouse Nepinak said in a social-media post Thursday her headdress and its case were taken away and put in a garbage bag.

 

She clarified Friday the case was removed from the flight, but she was able to hold her headdress throughout the trip after pleading with staff.

Air Canada said in a statement Friday morning that it reached out directly to Woodhouse Nepinak to apologize and “better understand” her experience. It added it is also following up on the matter internally and reviewing its policies.

During the flight from Fredericton to Montreal on Wednesday, the national chief said an Air Canada staff member approached her and said: “You can’t have that in here.”

Woodhouse Nepinak said she told them she wouldn’t part with her headdress.

Still, the crew took it and its case and put garbage bags around them, she said, before she managed to convince them that her headdress should be taken back out.

Photos Woodhouse Nepinak posted online show the case covered in a clear plastic bag, with staff members hauling it on the tarmac to be loaded under the plane.

“I was kind of stunned at that moment,” she recounted.

“There was lots of Canadians trying to help me in that moment and realizing they shouldn’t be handling my items like that.”

“This was a mistake that I know Air Canada is looking into right now,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said about the incident during an unrelated news conference Friday in Bromont, Que.

“It 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.”

Trudeau said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action should prompt industry and Canadians to be responsible partners who have a sense of understanding about the cultural importance of items such as this.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters in Toronto that he met with Woodhouse Nepinak by chance at an airport in Montreal shortly after the incident, and she shared with him how she felt “disrespected.”

He said he supports calls from the national chief for a policy to ensure a situation like this never happens again, and added there are “far too many” examples of Indigenous Peoples being disrespected.

Air Canada said it is looking to learn from the “regrettable incident” and ensure “special items such as this” can consistently remain in the cabin with travellers.

“Air Canada understands the importance of accommodating customers with items and symbols of sacred cultural significance,” the statement says.

“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.”

Woodhouse Nepinak called her headdress one of the highest honours First Nations peoples can receive, noting it’s not something that can just be purchased in a store.

“When I wear it, I’m representing and speaking for our people,” she said.

“Taking it out there (on the plane) and having all these different people handling it — that’s not the way we handle our items. ΓǪ It’s a respect thing.”

Asked why she decided to speak publicly about the incident, Woodhouse Nepinak said this situation isn’t one she wants to be in, but “Creator put it on my lap to go through, and I’m walking through it hoping that we come out of this better.”

She said she spoke with the president and CEO of the airline on Friday morning and told him they need to do better, including by appointing a First Nations person to their board.

She also wants them to have cross-cultural training for staff.

Woodhouse Nepinak said she expects to meet with Air Canada again about the saga and is inviting the person who made the headdress for her to come along.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2024.

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