The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) says it is investigating after allegations were made by Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak that security staff at the Ottawa International Airport mishandled sacred objects in his carry-on luggage.
Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said his experience on Monday at the Ottawa International Airport left him feeling deeply uncomfortable.
A female security guard was instructed to open a sacred bundle of ceremonial tobacco and a pipe during the carry-on screening process, Nepinak said.
The package had already been scanned by an X-ray and Nepinak believes staff wanted to examine the bowl of his pipe more closely.
The grand chief intervened and told the female security guard not to touch it.
The ceremonial pipe is understood as extension of the body in indigenous culture, Nepinak said, and he would consider it a violation if it is touched without his consent.
Further to that, it is customary for women to handle other women's pipes, and men to handle men's pipes.
"I told her that she's not allowed to touch my bundle and she became, I think, a little bit upset by that and insisted as a security protocol," said Nepinak.
"It became a bit of a power struggle."
The security guard brought a male staff member over, but Nepinak still felt uncomfortable.
"It was taken apart. The bowl of my pipe was the issue. They were uncertain as to what it was when it passed through the X-ray machine," he said.
CATSA has already launched a formal investigation into Nepinak's complaints, said Mathieu Larocque, the authority's spokesperson. The investigation involves speaking with the employees who screened Nepinak's carry-on and reviewing Monday's security footage.
"When it comes to sacred items, we have specific procedures in place, and the screening officers are aware it's part of their training to be very cautious, be very discreet and respectful," said Larocque.
"If there is a need for a further check of any items that appear to be sacred items, they need to use discretion and treat the items with dignity."
Nepinak said he plans to contact Transport Canada to develop better training when it comes to the items indigenous people may wish to bring on planes.
"There should be a cultural awareness here in Canada, of all places, that indigenous people carry bundles with them when we travel," said Nepinak.