Thunder Bay mom wants answers after teacher's aide chops off son's hair
CBC has agreed to the mother's request to remain anonymous.
The seven-year-old boy had chin-length hair before the incident last month. His mother said staff at McKellar Park Central Public School were aware her son was letting his hair grow so that he could take part in traditional First Nations dancing.
The mother told CBC News she was stunned when her son told her it was a teacher's assistant who lopped off 10 centimetres of his hair.
"I said, 'Why did she do this? Did she say anything?'" said the mother. "And he said, 'No, and after she cut my hair, she took me by the shoulders and forced me to stand in front of the mirror. She made me stand there and said look at you now.'"
Nishnawbe Aski Nation is calling for a review of the decision not to lay charges in the cutting of a seven-year-old First Nation student’s hair.
By Rick Garrick
“What we have now is confusion as the Thunder Bay Police say the responsibility for charges rests with the Crown and the Ministry of the Attorney General saying the responsibility rests with the Thunder Bay Police. First they claimed it wasn’t in the public interest, and now for the first time, without ever having consulted with the child’s parents, they say it’s ‘to avoid revictimizing the child.’”
By Isha Thompson
The fallout from the haircut became a lesson in cultural awareness, and the message sent was clear: Tampering with the sacred and the traditional beliefs of the first peoples in Ontario will not be tolerated.
"When you've chopped off someone's hair you have taken away their pride," said traditional healing coordinator Teresa Magiskan. She works with the the Anishnawbe Mushkiki Health Centre in Thunder Bay.
"The worst thing to do to someone, historically, is to take their hair," she explained. Magiskan was reminded of past centuries where men were shamed by their enemies in battles by having their hair taken from them.
Magiskan, who has been involved with the cultural teachings program at the centre for the past five years, said even the length of hair and the way it is styled can be incredibly symbolic in Aboriginal culture. She said some traditionalists believe that the cutting of hair represents a time of mourning the loss of a loved one.
The boy's mother--who asked not to be named--was quoted in the Globe and Mail comparing the importance of hair to Aboriginal culture as the Kippot or yarmulke is to Jewish tradition. Hebrew men wear the caps on their heads as a sign of respect to their religion.
"You have to respect that," she said. "It's the same thing."
The reality is, however, most people are not aware of the symbolic nature hair has in Aboriginal culture. That was apparent in the reaction to the event after the hair cutting incident was reported to the public. A diverse range of opinions were voiced when it was reported that the teaching assistant would not face charges, but would be suspended from her job for choosing to cut another parent's child's hair without permission.
Social networking sites and comment boards were the perfect places for people to vent. More than 12,000 people joined a Facebook group that requested members sign a petition demanding "justice" and serious consequences to be faced by the teaching assistant and school board.
Many posted comments on sites that said the boy was a victim of discrimination and called for the teacher's aide to be charged criminally.
"This is outrageous! If anyone cut my child's hair without permission, I would be demanding the police to charge them. I hope that this parent does take this T.A. to court and wins," read a comment on the CBC Web site on May 26.
Others couldn't understand why there was so much anger towards a teacher, who some argued, was attempting to help the boy remove hair from his eyes.
"Some hair was cut. Big deal. Unfortunate, but it grows back," read a comment on another site.
Also, the articles don't say whether the aide cut the boy's hair solely across his forehead, to help him see better, or all around his head. Again, big difference. Clearing his eyes doesn't change the overall length of his hair, or its symbolic value, presumably.
The articles imply that the aide cut more than just the hair off his forehead. First, few children have four inches of hair hanging over their faces. Second, the initial article states that "the seven-year-old boy had chin-length hair before the incident." Again, cutting only the hair off the forehead wouldn't change the overall length. So the aide gave the boy a two- to four-inch trim around his head.
It seems pretty obvious she was making some sort of statement about the "inappropriateness" of the boy's long hair. Otherwise, why stand him in front of a mirror? If you're just trimming the bangs off his forehead, that doesn't require a visual inspection.
Hair-cutting = assault?
Was this an assault? Yes, I'd say it was a mild form of assault. It was akin to slapping the boy, painting a scarlet letter on his forehead, or taking off his pants to search for contraband. It had to be hugely embarrassing even if it caused no permanent physical harm.
Of course, some schools still allow corporal punishment. Naturally, I oppose this. I say keep your hands off the kids unless they're in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.
But would I prosecute the aide for the assault? No, probably not. The ignorant twit undoubtedly thought she was doing the right thing. She may not have violated an existing rule--although there should be one to cover this situation. Putting her on trial would mean delving into the subjective area of whether she harmed the boy or not. Some jurors probably would say no, making the trial a waste of time and money.
Seems to me a suspension was the correct penalty. Put a note in her file saying she violated the boy's religious or cultural rights. She shamed the boy, but she also shamed herself. From now on, locals will know her as the dummy who wrongly cut a boy's hair. Unless she goes on to greater things, this will be the lead sentence in her obituary.
Why this case matters
The stereotype here is that non-Native values are better than Native values. I.e., that short hair is better than long hair. That the child has no legitimate reason to grow his hair long, so he must be an undisciplined "wild" child who needs care. That long hair is a sign of defiance, a threat to the established order, that government agents must nip in the bud.
Well, it is a sign of defiance in terms of asserting that Native values are different but equally good. It does pose a threat to the established order in terms of noting its inflexibility and irrationality. That kind of defiance and "disorder" is what we call freedom--the freedom to be different from the white Christian norms of the US and Canada.
For more on a related case, see School Needs to Regulate Hair?