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Transport Canada investigates 'racist' song shared in no-fly list office - 10 years after the fact

It took Transport Canada a decade to launch an investigation into claims that a song parody with "racist" and "violent" lyrics about turban-wearing travellers was shared within the department that oversees Canada's no-fly list.

Parody's lyrics include threats of violence against turban-wearing travellers

Transport Canada will not release the results of an investigation into an offending email, citing privacy concerns, but said discriminatory behaviours are not tolerated. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

It took Transport Canada a decade to launch an investigation into a claim that a song parody with "racist" and "violent" lyrics about turban-wearing travellers was shared via email within the department that oversees Canada's no-fly list.

According to a March briefing note released to CBC News under access to information law, a Transport Canada official last year looked into whether the email from 2008 undermined the integrity of Transport Canada's involvement in the no-fly list program, which is meant to stop identified terrorist threats from boarding flights.

The government says it will not publicly release the results of the investigation, citing its legal obligations under the Privacy Act.

Meanwhile, the woman who first brought the incident to Transport Canada's attention a decade ago told CBC News she watched her 17-year career as a federal public servant fall apart as the coworker who shared the song was promoted.

It's demoralizing. It's depressing and in the end I couldn't stay.- Renee Soeterik, former Transport Canada employee

"I'm absolutely disgusted," Renée Soeterik told CBC News. "The email contained an extremely racist, vitriolic and hate-filled ... satirical rendition.

"The individual who sent this email and the individuals who covered it up, have responsibilities dealing with the public directly. And dealing stakeholders in an airport environment and in a security environment."

Soeterik said she complained about the email to senior management for years — but Transport Canada only launched an investigation after Amnesty International Canada became interested in the case last year.

"It's astounding and deeply troubling to me, to think that no one would have taken action at the time," said Amnesty's secretary general Alex Neve. "This should have happened 10 years ago. It should have not taken a decade."

Transport Canada said it's committed to promoting a highly ethical public service where discriminatory behaviour is not tolerated.

Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada called the lyrics "brutal, crude, hate-filled racism." (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

'I will grab a baseball bat, and that will be that'

CBC News has viewed a copy of the email in question, which states that it was sent by Mark Haynes on Sept. 3, 2008. According to Soeterik and a LinkedIn profile under the name Mark Haynes, he was a superintendent at Transport Canada's aviation security office in Toronto.

CBC reached Mark Haynes by email. In his reply, he refers to "'the alleged email' from 2008, which has previously been reported to Transport Canada by others." But he declined CBC's repeated requests for an interview and did not confirm or deny authoring the email.

One of Haynes' responsibilities at Transport Canada would have been to make sure that airlines and airport authorities comply with the no-fly list.

The email linked to a parody version of the ballad "Strangers in the Night," titled "Strangers on my Flight." Soeterik said the email was sent to at least six coworkers, including two managers in the department.

"THIS IS GREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!" the email reads. "They should play this nonstop at all airports."

"Strangers on my flight, turbans they're packin'," read the lyrics, which were included in the email. "Wondering if they might, plan a hijacking … What's that in their hands? Looks like box cutters ... Two smelly people, and they're not talking right, and in a moment I will grab a baseball bat, and that will be that ... And if they pick a fight and try to screw us, I'll punch out their lights just like Joe Louis ... Send those bastards to the moon."

Soeterik said she confronted Haynes after receiving the "disgusting" email.

'Your life is made a living hell'

Soeterik said that when she took the email to Haynes' manager, the response was troubling.

"That individual called out the fact that I was a union shop steward and asked if I was going to 'stab a union brother in the back,'" she said.

Soeterik said from that day forward, her life at work became more difficult. She said she spent years bringing the email to senior management's attention at staff meetings and retreats. In return, Soeterik said, she was labelled a troublemaker, ostracized and sexually harassed on the job. 

"Your life is made a living hell in that context," she said. "You will be labelled as the difficult one. You will be labelled as the loudmouth. And eventually they'll make it so toxic for you that you have to leave. That's exactly what happened to me ... It's demoralizing. It's depressing and in the end I couldn't stay."

Renee Soeterik said she wants people to know what it's like to "dedicate my life to the public service and to be shoved out." (Michael Cole/CBC News)

Cultural problem, says lawyer

Toronto lawyer John Phillips worked with Soeterik to help her leave Transport Canada in 2017. Phillips also represented former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr, who was given a $10.5 million settlement payment by the Trudeau government in 2017.

Phillips said the "very racist diatribe" sent to Transport Canada employees horrified him. Any organization can have bad actors in its ranks, he said, but the fact the email was sent out to multiple people — including managers — without blowback suggests a problem with the department's culture.

Phillips said he's bothered most by the fact that none of the other email recipients spoke up.

"It would be out of place in a bar in some backwoods state ... [and[ it was circulated among personnel at Transport Canada who were charged with some parts of Canadian security and border control," he said.

"The fact that this was sent around in that context really raises a concern about who's being targeted unfairly by that no-fly list. The sensitivity inside Transport Canada needs desperately to be addressed."

Transport Canada told CBC News its inspectors, superintendents and regional managers do not have influence over who is added to or removed from Canada's no-fly list. The minister of public safety makes that decision.

Lawyer John Phillips said 'offensive' email from Transport Canada employee portrays culture problem in workplace 0:29

'It should have not taken a decade'

Phillips got Amnesty International Canada involved because the organization has long been concerned about how no-fly lists are administered, and how they affect travellers in Canada and abroad. The government has been criticized for being too secretive about the list. The program has seen toddlers mistakenly flagged as aviation security risks and many have struggled to get their names removed from the list.

Neve said there's a real risk of discrimination and racism becoming embedded in the administration of no-fly lists. He calls the emailed song "brutal, crude and hate-filled racism."

"You can't help but wonder when you see something like this that gives us a little peek behind the scenes as to some of the attitudes of officials in the department ... how much of that points to why it's been so slow and difficult to get some basic reforms in place?" said Neve.

Neve said a Transport Canada official told him in January that the email was inappropriate and it would be taking disciplinary measures against the employee who sent it.

Haynes himself confirmed that never happened. 

"I have not received any disciplinary action measures ..." he wrote in an email to CBC News.

'Discriminatory behaviours are not tolerated,' officials say

Transport Canada also declined an interview. In a statement, the department said it took action after investigating last year when the email was brought to management's attention.

"For privacy reasons, the department cannot comment on specific actions taken or the results of any investigations," wrote Transport Canada.

"Rest assured, however, that discriminatory behaviours are not tolerated in Transport Canada or any part of the federal public service.

"The Government of Canada, including Transport Canada, is committed to having a highly ethical public service that provides services to Canadians in a manner that is honest, fair and impartial."

Haynes now employed with Global Affairs Canada

Until 2018, Haynes was the Transport Canada manager at the Ottawa Airport. He's currently working with Global Affairs Canada as a senior liaison officer in Zambia, that department confirms. He's on a secondment to improve women's participation in international police peacekeeping operations, according to his LinkedIn profile.

"It's beyond belief," said Soeterik about Haynes' new job. "The government would rather move these individuals around like pieces on a chessboard than deal with systemic sexism and racism in the government.

"The individuals who covered that up, they've all since been promoted and I'm out here in the cold. I'm fending for myself and making my way. These individuals are still padding their pensions."

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca