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Language and Culture (13-17)

Air Canada has new policy on sacred items in the cabin after incident with national chief’s headdress

July 5, 2024

Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak says she hopes all companies learn from this 

A woman wearing a headress
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 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

CBC News: The Assembly of First Nations National Chief is glad Air Canada has a new policy on bringing sacred and ceremonial items on board its aircraft, after airline staff tried to have her headdress put in the cargo hold on a flight earlier this year.

“We wholeheartedly support Air Canada’s new protocols recognizing traditional and ceremonial items,” said Woodhouse Nepinak.

In April, the National Chief said staff on an Air Canada flight wanted to put her headdress in cargo storage because there was no room in the cabin. When staff started pulling on it, she took the headdress out of its case and held it on her lap during the flight, while staff put the case in a plastic bag and stowed it with cargo. 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.

Now, Woodhouse Nepinak said she would like to see more First Nations representatives on the Air Canada board of directors to ensure proper representation. She would also like to see First Nations elders included to discuss strategies for cultural competency. She said she hoped all companies would learn from the incident.

A spokesperson for Air Canada said in an email to CBC Indigenous that the new policy comes into effect July 10.

Under the policy people can reserve space for sacred items through the company’s call centre at least 24 hours in advance. Items can also be registered at the airport, but with no guarantee they can be accommodated if space wasn’t reserved in advance.

National Chief's son carries her headdress through the airport
Woodhouse Nepinak’s son carries her headdress in its case through an airport. (Submitted by Cindy Woodhouse-Nepinak)

According to Air Canada, “if a customer with a mobility device is travelling unexpectedly, the mobility device would take precedence should there be insufficient storage space in the cabin.”

If there is no space in the cabin, the airline says the item can be stored in cargo or the customer can rebook their flight with no cost to them.

Kenneth Deer transported sacred items with the airline last year in his role as a Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee member. He said he was not a consultant on the new policy but he did do a land acknowledgment for the company in the past.

Deer called the policy “a heartfelt gesture.”

“I don’t think all airlines are doing this,” he said.

“I think you have to practise it first before you can say and see if it works.”


Janell Henry

Janell Henry is a proud member of the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation. Before coming to CBC in September 2022, she worked in the arts sector at Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery. She studied writing at University of Winnipeg and audio in media at the Mid-Ocean School of Media Arts. You can reach her at