03/13/2017 03:14 EDT | Updated 03/13/2017 03:15 EDT

Why Would A Teacher Cut Your Child's Hair?

Jose Chavarria / EyeEm via Getty Images

What is it about hair that ruffles so many feathers? Last week, despite having been told not to do so, an Ottawa teacher chopped the hair off a child, ostensibly because the child was chewing on it.

That this child is a boy who is trying to work out his gender identity, and also has autism, are not unimportant facts in this story. The teacher appears to have believed that somehow, he was acting in the child's best interests. Had he decided the child's identity for him? Had he decided that a child with a disability cannot make his own choices as to his appearance?

Even if these were not his conscious thoughts, the child's family might wonder what this teacher could have been thinking when he picked up the scissors, particularly since the mother had already explained to him that the she did not want the child's hair cut.

In Thunder Bay in 2009, a teaching assistant cut the hair of a child because she said it fell into his eyes. The child was growing his hair in order to take part in First Nation's dancing. Were the child's identity and culture less important than the annoyance of seeing him with his hair in his eyes? Had she never heard of using an elastic band or ribbon to tie back hair?

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Article 8, children have the right to an identity. Article 12 gives the child a right to form and express his or her own views and Article 13 provides for freedom of expression. Article 19 requires children to be protected from physical attacks. This Convention came into effect in 1990.

When I was in school, a few decades before the UNCRC was signed by Canada and the other signatory states, it was routine for boys to be sent home from school when their hair fell below their collars. They were ordered to have their hair cut before they could return to class. Why? Their hair did not interfere with learning, nor did it cause harm to anyone.

The reason for the enforced haircut was "decency." It was considered indecent, or not masculine, for a boy to wear his hair long. Because of this, long hair became a political statement. Young men grew their hair as a symbol of resistance to the military, to authority, and to institutionalization. And then later, long hair became a fashion statement - "the new look."

Since Samson and Delilah, we have known that hair is not just hair. Yes, it can grow back. Yes, we can change hairstyles and colours. But each of us, no matter how young or old, knows that a part of our identity comes from the tops of our heads.

A five-year-old in Kentucky asked his mother for a very close haircut so that he and his best friend could become identical. He wanted to fool their teacher. He did not think that the teacher would know which one was which if they had the same haircut. The boy who wanted the haircut is white, his friend is Black. The only difference they could see was their hair.

Whether we choose to shave it all off or grow it to our knees, what we do with our hair is an important way in which we identify and express ourselves. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of expression, and the UNCRC protects this right particularly for children. In democracies, we understand that protecting rights is about human dignity. Even the youngest amongst us deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. An unwanted haircut is a cut to a person's very dignity.

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