Indigenous

Elder says medicine pouch 'desecrated' by Halifax airport security despite asking for X-ray scan

A Nakawe elder says her traditional medicine pouch was handled and opened during a routine security screening at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, despite asking twice for it to be X-rayed instead.

Nakawe elder says she asked twice for pouch to be X-rayed instead of being handled by security

'I was near tears,' said Geri Musqua-Leblanc, a residential school survivor from Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

A Nakawe elder says her traditional medicines were "desecrated" during a routine security screening in February at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport.

Geri Musqua-Leblanc, a residential school survivor from Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, said a Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) supervisor denied her request to have her golf ball-sized medicine pouch, worn around her neck and filled with plants considered to be sacred, put through an X-ray machine instead of being opened and handled.

"I was near tears," said Musqua-Leblanc. 

"I was shocked that the security people at the airport in 2019 are still behaving like they are. She didn't give me any opportunity to explain anything at all."

Musqua-Leblanc is the co-ordinator of the Elders in Residence Program at Dalhousie University and regularly shares her knowledge about traditional medicines with students and the community in Halifax.

Traditional Nakawe teachings

According to traditional Nakawe teachings, Musqua-Leblanc said that once collected, blessed with her prayers and bound, the medicines, which include cedar, sweet grass, sage and tobacco, should not to be touched by another person whose "spiritual energy could affect their purity." 

"It's tough to describe that significance," Musqua-Leblanc said.

"Traditionally, these medicines would be used in pipe ceremonies. Whoever was filling the pipe wouldn't want their medicines to be handled by another person. And I put my faith in them, so I always want my medicines to stay clean and pure."

Musqua-Leblanc says the incident at the Halifax airport in February is the first time she's ever been forced to open her sacred medicine pouch. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

In the security line, Musqua-Leblanc said she was anticipating setting off the metal detector since she's had a knee and hip replacement, but that she'd forgotten she was wearing her deer-hide pouch. When the alarm sounded, a CATSA screening officer asked to hold the pouch while she was scanned with a metal-detecting wand. 

"I said 'Don't touch the medicine pouch' … and handed him the string. He was just holding it in the air," she said. 

"When I suggested to put it through the X-ray machine the male security guard said, 'I don't know what to do with it — I'm going to have to call my supervisor.'" 

X-raying denied by supervisor

A CATSA spokesperson told CBC News in an emailed statement that the authority's policy is that "all items must be scanned," and that there are specific procedures in place for sacred items. 

"The training CATSA offers on religious or culturally significant items is applicable to items from different faiths and beliefs, and is not specific to Indigenous cultures," the statement said.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority says screen officers are trained to deal with items of religious and cultural significance, and that all passenger items are subject to screening. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A section of CATSA's screening policies labelled Religious and Cultural Items and Clothing states that if a traveller informs officers that they're carrying an item of religious or cultural significance such as a "staff, mask, sacred bundle or medicine bundle" CATSA officers will provide travellers with "screening options for the item based on the nature of the item and your preference." 

Musqua-Leblanc said her partner passed the checkpoint behind her, wearing a similar pouch.

She said that despite requesting twice that the item be X-rayed instead of handled by officers, the supervisor told her to open the pouch or she would be escorted out of the airport.

She said that she began feeling anxious, as other travellers were looking and listening to the exchange.

Those medicines are now desecrated.- Geri Musqua-Leblanc,  co-ordinator of Dalhousie University's Elders in Residence Program 

"I was embarrassed at this point because people are going through and they're [trying] to figure out what's going on. I said, 'Well I have no choice. I have to open up this medicine pouch at this point,'" said Musqua-Leblanc. 

Musqua-Leblanc said she held the pouch in front of the female supervisor to show her that the contents were soft and small, but the supervisor took the pouch to physically examine the contents herself. Musqua-Leblanc said she was also asked to untie the deer hide strap, and the cotton fabric tie inside so the officer could see the medicines.

"Those medicines are now desecrated," said Musqua-Leblanc.

"They mean absolutely nothing to me. They're not protecting me. They're not doing anything." 

Musqua-Leblanc said her distress could have been avoided if the supervisor had allowed the pouch to be X-rayed instead.

CATSA's spokesperson said officers typically wouldn't deny such a request, "unless [the item] is a live animal or an oversized item too big to go through the X-ray," but wasn't able to comment on the Halifax supervisor's decision.

In an emailed statement Monday, CATSA said Musqua-Leblanc had not shared the details of the incident with them before speaking with CBC. 

"We have now investigated this incident, including viewing CCTV footage, and found that screening protocol was followed and the sacred medicine pouch was never touched by a screening officer," said the statement.

CATSA said it takes the screening of sacred items seriously and that it fully appreciates the sensitivities involved. It said that if Musqua-Leblanc wants to discuss her screening experience further she can contact CATSA or file a formal complaint.

Musqua-Leblanc said that as per traditional Nakawe medicine teachings, cedar provides protection, sage brings positive feelings, sweet grass brings strength and tobacco provides gratitude. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

​Spiritual and physical protection

As a regular traveller, Musqua-Leblanc said she appreciates and relies on the work of CATSA screening officers and their focus on the physical protection of passengers. But she said she believes cultural competency training should be deeper, to allow and respect the idea of "spiritual protection."

"I'm glad they're there but my medicines give me a different sense of safety, and it's important," she said.

"I think it's very difficult for non-Indigenous people to understand the difference. A lot of us are residential school survivors so we're still dealing with finding our voices.… I hope it doesn't happen again. We need to be more advanced than that."

She said she hasn't filed a formal complaint with CATSA, but that the organization had requested more information about the incident from her.  

Upon arriving at her vacation destination in the Dominican Republic, Musqua-Leblanc said she offered the medicines to the ocean in ceremony, since she could no longer use them. She said that while in that country she was admitted to an intensive care unit and diagnosed with heart problems. 

"I'm not saying it's connected [to the airport incident]," she said. 

"But I put my faith in my medicines, and I didn't have them. You never know." 

About the Author

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a Wolastoqew video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at nic.meloney@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.