Canada Border Services Agency managers at Toronto's Pearson airport allowed a small group of Hindu priests to avoid screening by female border guards to comply with their religious beliefs, CBC News has learned.
A CBSA officer, outraged that such a request would be considered, spoke exclusively to CBC News about what happened at Pearson's Terminal 3 on the evening of Monday, July 28. Fearing she could be disciplined for speaking out, the officer spoke on the condition that her name and identity be withheld.
The officer said she and her colleagues — whose job involves screening passengers for entry into Canada after they arrive on international flights — were told before their shift not to switch work stations with other officers without first asking a supervisor.
"The reason given was that there were five individuals coming in who had requested only to be served by male officers," said the CBSA officer in an exclusive interview with CBC's Nil Koksal.
The five male travellers who made the request to CBSA are Hindu priests, called sadhus. Sadhus follow a strict lifestyle that requires them to avoid any contact with women.
When CBSA officers on shift that night asked their managers why the group's request was being accommodated, they were told the men were not allowed to have contact with women for religious reasons.
The CBSA officer told CBC News that managers took steps to ensure the sadhus were processed separately and were only interviewed by male officers.
'Everybody is upset' CBSA officer says
The officer said she and her colleagues are outraged such a request would be considered by CBSA management.
"Everybody is upset that this request was even entertained by the CBSA," she said. "People are saying 'What is next? If white supremacists come through, do we move all non-white officers from the line?'"
The officer said granting such a request could undermine border guards' efforts to prevent criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants from entering the country.
"The nature of the request is offensive to me as a woman," she said. "You are a guest in my country. What do you mean you don't want to deal with me because I'm a woman? We are considered law enforcement officers. I can't imagine any police force entertaining something like that."
Customs worker and local union president Mark Weber said he's received complaints from members across the country about the incident at Pearson.
"This has turned into a big issue for a lot of people," he said. Weber also said he was personally involved in an almost identical incident four years ago.
Weber said his union is considering making a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission and wants a meeting with CBSA managers to clarify the policy regarding such requests.
CBC News put questions about the incident to federal Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, whose office is responsible for CBSA.
A spokesman for Blaney said "we expect the CBSA to apply the same rules to all persons seeking entry to Canada." The spokesman also said the minister "has asked the CBSA to investigate these allegations and act accordingly."
The spokesman added that CBSA does not comment on how individual passengers are processed.
The CBSA officer speaking out said many of her colleagues — both male and female — are angry about the incident but afraid to speak out. She said CBSA's code of conduct forbids officers from speaking to the media without approval from management.
"People are very, very scared for their jobs," she said. "I had to think long and hard before I [came forward] because I hope to have a long career in front of me with many more years to go. I will not have one if they find out who I am."