Teacher turns costume shopping trip into teachable moment about cultural stereotypes

A Toronto teacher is turning a disappointing Halloween shopping trip into a teachable moment for his students, after finding costumes that promote cultural stereotypes of Indigenous people.

Teacher offended by First Nations costumes while shopping at Party City

Teacher Denis Bell says the classroom is a great place to start a conversation about ending cultural stereotypes. (CBC News)

A Toronto teacher is turning a disappointing Halloween shopping trip into a teachable moment for his students, after finding costumes that promote cultural stereotypes of Indigenous people.

Denis Bell, a Grade 6 French immersion teacher at Davisville Junior Public School, wrote about his experience in a Facebook post. He had gone to Party City to buy some supplies he needs to make his son's Halloween costume.

While there, he found the so-called "Western" section, which had numerous costumes, wigs and accessories that build on stereotypical Indigenous themes.

Grade six students express their feelings on Indigenous themed costumes

7 years ago
Duration 0:57
A group of grade six students express what they think about Indigenous themed costumes.

In his Facebook post, Bell noted that as a boy in Sudbury, he once dressed in such a costume for Halloween.

"I had no idea my pan-Indian representation was at the very least unethical and hurtful," he wrote. "In the 80s, First Nations kids were also in residential schools, living through a national genocide, and I had no idea what it was, what was happening, or what [it] meant to this continent."

Thirty years later, he went on, "people still think it might [be] fun to play 'Indian' on Halloween. Tonight at Party City, I realized they too would like some money in exchange for our amusement."

Some of the costumes for sale at Party City's website.

Bell very quickly decided to turn his shopping experience into a lesson for his students. On Wednesday, he included a discussion about the costumes, what they mean and what solutions could address their negative connotations in the day's lesson plan.

"It's more than embarrassing. It's shameful," Bell told CBC News. "I want students at this level to start thinking critically about our country for all the positives we do, and take a really hard look at where we are locally, nationally and at an international level in terms of our shortcomings."

In class Wednesday, Bell showed pictures of the costumes to students and asked how they felt about them.

"I don't think it's good because I think dressing up as a culture, I feel like you might be getting it wrong and you might do something wrong and it could be very offensive to that culture," said Lauren Millar, 11.

Lauren Millar suggested a petition may get costumes that use Indigenous themes off store shelves. (CBC News)

Student Jack Bakshi, also 11, said the costume packages looked like a fashion shoot.

"I can see the poses that they are putting on," he said. "It just looks like they're trying to make it like a fashion show and I really just don't appreciate it."

Jack Bakshi said the images that advertise the costumes look like a fashion show "and I really just don't appreciate it." (CBC News)

Bell then asked his students for ideas to help the company and consumers understand how insensitive the costumes may be.

Lauren Millar suggested starting a petition, which would help raise awareness about the issue.

Student Anusha Asim, 10, said consumers could use the power of the pocketbook.

Anusha Asim says if consumers stopped buying the offensive costumes, stores would pull them off shelves. (CBC News)

"The best thing to do is to stop buying these things," she said. "When stuff doesn't sell they just pull it from shelves when it's not making money for them."

Party City had not responded to a request for comment from CBC Toronto by Wednesday evening. However, the company responded to a Facebook post by an Edmonton woman with similar concerns about costumes sold at a location in that city earlier this week.

"As a leader in Halloween, Party City supplies a broad assortment of costumes to satisfy all styles, tastes, and budgets and is always evaluating how to make shopping in our stores and online a fun, welcoming experience," read the message.

"Nothing we carry is meant to be offensive."

Bell told his students they would be continuing the conversation as the school year goes on.

"I think that the classroom ultimately is an amazing spot to share messages like this," Bell said. "And I think that through education we're able to begin to turn the tide and we're able to build an allied culture toward positive solutions to our national crises."

With files from Chris Glover