Airport Border Staff Get Sensitivity Training

Airport border staff get sensitivity training

Allan Woods
Ottawa Bureau
The Toronto Star
Jul 31, 2008 04:30 AM

OTTAWAThe federal government is putting border officials at Pearson airport through sensitivity training so they can more appropriately deal with Arab and Muslim passengers.

The Canada Border Services Agency is contracting out training sessions for up to 500 of its border services officers, stressing the need for those who screen passengers to “effectively perform their enforcement responsibilities in a respectful manner” at Canada's busiest hub.

Groups representing Canadian Arabs and Muslims are welcoming the sensitivity courses, which will be carried out between September and March 31, 2009, as necessary and overdue.

“After 9/11 we became all potential terrorists without doubt, and we still have some examples of people being picked up from the line because they wear long beards or the hijab,” said Mohamed Boudjenane, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation. “It still happens on a regular basis.”

He said his organization has held meetings with several government departments, including the federal border agency, to raise complaints of profiling and discrimination, and even delivered training kits to the CBSA last fall.

“That sort of proactive act, or measure, didn't come out of the blue. We had to lobby very hard with them to realize that you cannot (target certain groups) because you have preconceived perceptions or because there are all sorts of clichs out there.”

Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said training courses are an “excellent idea” that are in line with the seminars and speeches that he has delivered to federal employees, including with the Canadian Air Transportation Safety Authority, over the last two years.

But he still hears complaints of Muslim and Arab passengers returning from certain Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Syria being subjected to greater scrutiny than Muslims and Arabs returning from European countries.

Those travellers are also more likely to have their luggage searched, to be questioned about their activities and purchases abroad and to have their passport information taken down, Elmasry said.

“We feel that this is a type of profiling, which must cease.”

Patrizia Giolti, a spokesperson with the CBSA, said in an email that the sensitivity training courses are provided to make sure visitors to Canada and Canadians returning from abroad are treated fairly.

“The CBSA constantly takes steps including outreach and training to ensure our services are not discriminatory or perceived to be discriminatory.”

But a union official that represents federal border guards in Ontario derided the idea that workers need sensitivity training and said that any new directives won't go over well with officers who are already overworked and disgruntled.

Marie-Claire Coupal, Ontario vice-president of the national Customs Excise Union, said workers have scoffed at similar courses offered at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, where she is stationed, because they felt they were being asked to accommodate foreign and religious customs rather than having travellers “act like a Canadian.”

Looking a person straight in the eye is standard procedure for a border guard on the hunt for suspicious behaviour, but in some cases, it can be considered disrespectful to make eye contact with a Muslim woman, she said.

“A thing like this is good information to have, but I don't think that we should and this is very delicate because I don't want to say that I don't welcome these people either but I do think that once they become a Canadian and they live among us, that they should pick up our ways and not have us picking up their ways,” she said in an interview.

She added that border officials at Pearson airport are more concerned about working conditions than sensitivity training, noting that they have been in a dispute for two years over scheduling problems.

“Giving them any kind of this training is just going to put salt in the wounds,” she said. “They're ready to explode. … I think they're going to laugh at (management) and say that they're too tired to even think about this.”