'Part of my culture': Cree woman refused service at Sask. bar for traditional face tattoo

Sara Carriere-Burns says she was at the Prince Albert Brewing Company on March 25, when one of the owners refused her service because of her cultural face tattoo.

Prince Albert pub owner stands by policy banning anyone with visible face tattoos

A Cree woman with a chin tattoo is dressed in traditional regalia while standing outside on a snowy day.
Sara Carriere-Burns received her cultural tattoo in 2022. She says the design on her chin, which stems from her Treaty 6 ancestors, represents her children. (Sara Carriere-Burns/Facebook)

A Cree woman says she was kicked out of a Prince Albert bar because of the cultural tattoo on her chin. 

Sara Carriere-Burns is from James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and lives in Prince Albert. On March 25, she joined family members at the Prince Albert Brewing Company (PABCO) tavern. 

Carriere-Burns said a server took her order of a diet coke and water, but did not return with the beverages. Instead, a man — who later identified himself as the manager — came to the table.

"He was like, 'I'm sorry, I don't want to be the one to have to tell you this, but you need to leave our establishment'," Carriere-Burns recalled on Tuesday. 

"When I asked what the issue was, he said, 'We don't allow facial tattoos'."

Carriere-Burns said she mentioned it was a cultural tattoo and then asked to speak with someone higher up. When the man went to get an owner, she asked her Goddaughter to record the follow-up interaction on her phone.

LISTEN | Sara Carriere-Burns shares her experience of being denied service at a Prince Albert pub due to her face tattoo:

"I don't care what your culture is." That's what Sara Carriere-Burns was told when she was asked to leave a pub in Prince Albert because of her cultural tattoo. She tells us about the meaning of her chin tattoo.

In that video, shared later on Facebook, the camera is pointed towards the family member while Carriere-Burns says the voice of owner Robert McLeod is heard speaking to her.

"The number one rule in our dress code is no facial tattoos," McLeod said after being asked about the policy.

Carriere-Burns responded that the traditional tattoo is "part of my culture," at which point McLeod doubled down.

"I don't care," he replied. "Put makeup on and cover it up. It's not allowed in our bar. I don't care what your culture is, if you look at our dress code, the number one rule is no facial tattoos." 

The owner is heard telling Carriere-Burns she is welcome to return once she has covered the tattoo with makeup. 

"I just don't want to see it," he is heard saying, before adding he sees people with "shit written all over their faces" every day. Carriere-Burns says she left the establishment shortly after. 

WATCH| Cree woman says she may file a human rights complaint after being kicked out of a Saskatchewan bar:

Cree woman kicked out of Prince Albert, Sask. pub because of face tattoo

2 months ago
Duration 2:12
A Cree woman says she may file a human rights complaint after being kicked out of a Saskatchewan bar. Sara Carriere-Burns says an owner of Prince Albert Brewing Company told her face tattoos are not allowed. Her chin tattoo is a cultural marking. Indigenous academic leader Savage Bear says traditional tattoos are being reclaimed around the world.

'Really in shock'

Carriere-Burns told CBC while she has dealt with discrimination and racism before, this situation involved someone using power and authority to silence her. 

It was also the first time her cultural tattoo received negative feedback. 

"I was really in shock. Like I couldn't believe the way he was speaking to me and I couldn't understand why he was so angry," she said. 

"I've never been in a place before where I couldn't say what I needed to say ... he just didn't want any part of it."

A selfie of a Cree woman showing her full face and a cultural tattoo design on her chin.
Sara Carriere-Burns says she had only heard positive feedback about her cultural tattoo, which she received last year, up until the incident at Prince Albert Brewing Company. (Sara Carriere-Burns/Submitted)

CBC News spoke briefly with the PABCO tavern owner by phone on Tuesday afternoon.

McLeod said he hadn't seen the video because he is not on Facebook and added that Carriere-Burns was offered a chance to cover up her tattoo. 

"The number one rule of our dress code is no facial tattoos," he reiterated. 

McLeod ended the call when asked whether he had considered the difference between traditional tattoos and other face tattoos. 

Does this violate the human rights code?

Carriere-Burns, who received the traditional ink less than a year ago, said she is considering filing a human rights complaint against McLeod.

Under section 12 of The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, 2018, businesses and service providers cannot discriminate against an individual on the basis of creed, ancestry, religion, disability, age, place of origin or any other prohibited ground.

Steve Seiferling works with Seiferling Law in Saskatoon, which covers human rights, labour and employment law. He is not representing Carriere-Burns, but spoke with CBC News Thursday for context on whether there is grounds for a human rights complaint.

"It would be an interesting case for it to move forward, because that's where the whole argument would lie: Is this a protected or prohibited ground?" he said.

"For somebody to have a valid complaint, they would have to equate their face tattoo with something of cultural origin or their religion or their creed or nationality."

Seiferling noted that a business's rationale for its policy is "not that important," as it can create rules for any reason, as long as it does not violate law — in this instance, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.

Tattoo 'stems from our people'

Carriere-Burns shared the significance of her chin tattoo with CBC News.

"This tattoo stems from our people (in Treaty 6) way back in the day. It's a part of my identity, it's a part of my culture. It's not just a tattoo," she said. 

"Women believed these markings would keep them safe from ailments. Kind of like medicine."

Carriere-Burns said after she embarked on her sober journey nearly 10 years ago, she began reconnecting to her culture, which included learning about facial markings. She chose to have the tattoo represent her children, who give her strength. 

"The two outer lines represent my two sons we lost during pregnancy, and my two inner lines are my biological daughters who are here with me now. I'm also a foster parent," she said. 

"So these dots in the middle represent all my children who are not my children biologically."

Stacey Fayant, wearing pink glasses at the Newo Yotina Friendship Centre
Stacey Fayant says she learned traditional tattoo knowledge as a way of preserving her own Indigenous culture while healing. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Stacey Fayant is Métis, Cree, Saulteux and French, and exclusively tattoos Indigenous cultural markings at her studio in Regina. 

She said the practice is a way to reclaim identity and culture, as traditional tattooing was once banned in order to force Indigenous assimilation.

"Taking these things back really means that Indigenous people are going to be able to heal from colonialism," she said. 

"To see (cultural tattoos) on a daily basis is healing us and bringing us back to our culture. So it really is disheartening that a business would do something like this."

Fayant noted the issue isn't about dress codes, as face tattoos are permanent markings. She said businesses should reflect on the reasoning behind policies banning all facial ink.

"It makes me think, who are you trying to root out in terms of your customers? What are you trying to exclude from who's coming into your business, and why?" she said.

Cultural tattoos a 'rebirth' for Indigenous people

Savage Bear is the director for McMaster Indigenous Research Institute, a professor within the Indigenous studies department, and the national director for Walls to Bridges, a prison education program. 

Bear, who has cultural tattoo of three vertical stripes on her chin, said the practice is being revitalized by Indigenous people all over the world and is often accompanied by ceremonial song and dance. 

"It's a huge deal for many of us because we're coming back. It's a revitalization, it's a rebirth of all these things that were taken away from us," Bear said.

A smiling woman with long hair and a tattoo of three stripes on her chin stands in front of greenery.
Savage Bear says her cultural tattoo has generated many positive interactions. Bear is a Nehiyawiskwew (Cree woman) and member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan. (McMaster University)

"So when you kick someone out because you have this stupid, random, policy it's really ... a recolonization in some aspects."

Bear said while reactions to her own tattoos are mostly positive, some people feel entitled to stare, ask personal questions or make remarks. 

Still, she noted, more Indigenous people are reclaiming their traditional tattoos, and encouraged those on the journey to remember they are not alone. 

"You need to think about the 10,000 ancestors that are standing behind you and they are so proud of you. They are waiting for this moment," Bear said. 

"People are going to be looking at you in years to come when having these sacred tattoos is normalized."


Daniella Ponticelli is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She has worked in print, broadcast and digital journalism in Manitoba and Saskatchewan since 2012. Get in touch with Daniella at or on Twitter @dponticelliTV.

With files from Alex Soloducha