A Halifax man has filed a human rights complaint against Air Canada, saying he’s endured repeated interrogation by frontline staff because he is Muslim.
Air Canada maintains that it hasn’t discriminated against Mohamed Yaffa and was only following airline security regulations in Canada and the U.S.
Yaffa says he used to travel a lot for his job as Capital Health's diversity and inclusion co-ordinator. The health authority oversees hospitals in the Halifax area.
According to the complaint, Air Canada allegedly subjected Yaffa to enhanced security screening six times between March and June 2010.
Yaffa says he started getting asked questions about his travel and asked to produce additional identification. He claims Air Canada would then mark his boarding pass, signalling to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority that he needed an enhanced security check. He was always allowed to board following the secondary checks.
“I started asking questions about why that was happening and the only answer I would get [was] it was because of my name. Which was quite a sufficient answer because since the terrible incidents of Sept. 11 in the United States profiling is very, very common with institutions like Air Canada. We’ve heard it over and over. It became apparent it wasn’t random,” he said.
“The only times I’ve been in court is either to interpret or challenge a parking ticket.”
Yaffa said he continued to ask the frontline workers questions, without much help. He hasn’t had the same experience while flying with WestJet
“After going through it several times, over and over, I decided if I’m not going to get an answer, maybe the best thing for me to do is put it through due process,” he said.
Yaffa lodged a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which has since moved the case to a tribunal.
“What would any Canadian seek? It’s dignity and assurance of respect. I don’t want my children to go through this. I don’t want any Canadian to go through this. I understand the threat of security all over the world today but I think this is not some dictatorship, this is a democracy there should be respect for human rights,” he said.
Air Canada asked to hand over files
“There should be balance between what we want to achieve with security and what we want to achieve from human rights. I don’t think one would dismiss the other.”
He says he hasn’t been interrogated since he lodged his complaint.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal asked the airline to hand over files on similar complaints against it. It's also asked the airline to disclose whether staff are trained in how to handle customer complaints about enhanced security questioning.
Air Canada says it’s limited in what it can say because the issue is before the courts.
'What happens when you’re not told what your crime is but you're presumed to be criminal and then you have to find a way to make yourself look innocent? How do you explain that to your children? How do you explain that to your co-workers?' - Mohamed Yaffa
“We are obligated by the government of Canada to enforce the Canadian government’s no-fly list...For flights to and from the U.S., we are obligated by law to enforce the U.S. no-fly list,” wrote spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur in an email to CBC.
“We also screen our customers for a variety of reasons. This could include such things as past misbehaviour on a flight, or something like credit card fraud. By way of comparison, I am sure your advertising department keeps track of advertisers who do not pay their bills.”
Air Canada says sometimes people who are identified for additional screening are not the person on the no-fly list but share a common name.
“It is important to remember we carry 35 million people a year, the equivalent of the entire population of the country. So we are dealing with very large numbers of people, many will share the same or similar names.”
The tribunal has asked Yaffa to provide his health and work records, something he says he has no problem handing over.
“What happens if in front of everyone you’re singled out? What happens when you’re travelling and you’re the last person to show up on a plane when people had seen your arguing with the person at the front? What happens when you’re not told what your crime is but you're presumed to be criminal and then you have to find a way to make yourself look innocent? How do you explain that to your children? How do you explain that to your co-workers,” asked Yaffa.
He says he hopes there's eventually a hearing and Air Canada changes its security methods.