A former Canadian soldier is taking on Air Canada over a travel policy that excludes service animals that offer emotional support to people with mental illness.

"It's not acceptable at all. It's discrimination," Kate Skywalker told Go Public.

Skywalker was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for more than 10 years. She was recently given a medical discharge after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety related to her time in the military.

In October, she was travelling with Air Canada from London, Ont., to her hometown of Halifax for the Thanksgiving weekend and, as always, planned to travel with her emotional support animal — a cat. 

"She calms me down … sometimes when I travel or even when I'm in crowds, I have severe anxiety, so having her with me comforts me," she said. 

Skywalker thought she had followed all the rules. She called ahead to let the airline know she was bringing the animal.

She had the right documentation, the animal was registered, harnessed and Skywalker had a letter from her psychiatrist outlining the medical reasons she needs to travel with the animal. 

But Air Canada refused to recognize her cat as a support animal.

"I was adamant. I said look, I have the proper documentation, I have a legitimate mental illness … she wouldn't hear of it," Skywalker said.

Kate Skywalker

Kate Skywalker was recently given a medical discharge after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety related to her time in the military. (Kate Skywalker)

According to Air Canada's website, "Certified, professionally trained service animals which are assisting customers with disabilities are carried, free of charge, in the passenger cabin at the customer's feet. The animal must be harnessed and certified as having been trained to assist a person with a disability by a professional service animal institution."

Canada's other major airline, WestJet, accepts emotional support animals free of charge according to its online policy. Animals used for emotional support don't always require professional training. 

In the U.S., the law requires airlines to accept emotional support animals at no additional cost, as long as the owner can provide a letter from a licensed mental-health professional saying the animal is necessary.

After she refused to take no for an answer, Skywalker said an Air Canada employee told her she could take her cat into the cabin as a pet if she paid a fee. Skywalker refused, and eventually the employee agreed to waive the $50 fee and Skywalker and her cat boarded the flight.

But Skywalker believes the issue won't be resolved until Air Canada changes what she calls its "discriminatory" policy. She said the airline's policy is too narrow, because it only recognizes support animals for people with physical disabilities.

"That's how change occurs — we take a stand. We say this isn't right, this a violation, it is discrimination," she said.

Air Canada stands by policy

Go Public asked Air Canada if it should take another look at its policy. The airline declined to answer, instead responding to questions with a brief statement that said, "We do not accept emotional support animals on domestic or international flights." 

The airline said it will accommodate emotional support animals on flights between Canada and the U.S. where it is required by the U.S. government. 

When asked to clarify its policy, particularly how the airline defines disability and specifically what kind of training it is referring to, Air Canada declined to answer.

Policy bucks official guidelines

The Canadian Transportation Agency recognizes the need for support animals for people with mental-health disabilities, including those that offer emotional support for travel.

"While assistance animals most commonly guide persons who are blind or partially sighted, these animals can perform many other tasks to help persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental health disabilities," the agency says on its website. 

However, the official guidelines say airlines are only required to carry support animals if they have been professionally trained by a service animal institution.

According to the National Defence and Canadian Forces ombudsman, the number of Canadian Armed Forces members diagnosed with operational stress injuries is on the rise, as is the use of psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals by these members.

Airlines should expect a greater number of assistance animals travelling with their owners, according to the military ombudsman's website. 

National rules lacking

Airlines fall under federal jurisdiction and there are no federal laws on emotional support animals. The Canadian Human Rights Act does not specifically address the issue, but a representative from the department said there is a section of the act that does address disability accommodation and can be applied. 

But the Ontario division of the Canadian Mental Health Association believes Canada needs a national policy, like the one in Ontario's Human Rights code

"From our perspective, if someone with a mental health disability is not entitled to the same disability accommodation as someone with a physical disability, it is certainly discriminatory and definitely a human rights issue," said Sheela Subramanian, a policy analyst with the branch.

Sheela Subramanian

Sheela Subramanian, a policy analyst with the Ontario branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, says mental health disabilities have to be treated the same as physical disabilities. (CBC)

Subramanian said the animals provide essential disability-related support, including reminding someone to take medication or waking them up. Other animals provide support by helping to manage symptoms of anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder by giving companionship and support, like in Skywalker's case.  

Kate Skywalker

Kate Skywalker's cat Saphira offers support for her owner's anxiety disorder and depression. Skywalker spent more than a decade in the Canadian military. (CBC)

"There is often this perception when it comes to service animals for mental health that they are just well-loved pets. In reality, a mental-health service animal is no different than a guide dog for someone that has a visual impairment. They are essential support for someone who has a disability," she said.

The CMHA has offered to help Skywalker in her battle to get Air Canada to change its policy. 

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