Airport security staff dressed in authentic North African robes for Halloween have sparked a national investigation by Transport Canada.
“There are sensitivities within the airport surrounding events that have happened within the last 10 years,” said Highways and Public Works spokesperson Jennifer Magnuson, referencing the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
“I think there were assumptions made by the people who complained,” she said.
One of the employees was wearing traditional Mauritanian garb. The other was dressed as a Tuareg.
The outfits were brought back from North Africa by one of the employees.
“They considered this an opportunity to share the attire with their coworkers,” said Magnuson.
“There was no underlying intent to denigrate any particular culture.”
But nobody was complaining the employees had denigrated North Africa’s Mauritanian and Tuareg cultures.
“I don’t think that was the issue,” said Magnuson.
So what was the issue?
“By wearing a costumes they weren’t breaking any rules,” she said, noting these administrative employees don’t usually wear uniforms.
And, when they were on the Tarmac the employees were properly displaying their security passes and had undergone the required retina scans.
“So no security had been breached,” said Magnuson.
And Halloween costumes are allowed.
“Many office employees celebrate Halloween and dress up,” she said.
So what was the problem?
“There are sensitivities,” said Magnuson.
Sensitivities because they looked like terrorists?
“I’m not saying that,” said Magnuson.
“I’m just saying those sensitivities exist.”
The idea that terrorists fit a certain profile shows a need for greater education, said Canadian Council of American-Islamic Relations executive director Ihsaan Gardee on Wednesday.
“There’s this misconceived idea that terrorists have a certain look,” he said.
“But terrorists are not stupid enough to send someone in who fits a particular profile.”
And there’s no evidence racial profiling works, he said. “Those that promote it do so in the absence of evidence.”
It’s unfortunate this incident at the Whitehorse airport troubled travellers, said Gardee.
“People read into it and were concerned based on their own stereotypes,” he said.
“And the only way to really address stereotypes is through education.
“It speaks to a need for greater outreach.”
Racial profiling “reinforces this idea that there are two classes of citizenship,” he added.
“The communities who are targeted feel discriminated against, and this results in a loss of trust that’s difficult to rebuild.
“And chances are the communities that are targeted will have a sort of jaundiced view of security and be less likely to co-operate, which makes gathering actual intelligence more difficult, which in the end makes all of us less safe.”
Transport Canada is involved in the Whitehorse airport incident, although Magnuson is not sure how it became involved.
Highways never actually received a complaint, she said.
“All we have is information from one of the local media outlets and we’ve just moved forward based on that,” she said.
“Transport Canada is following up to verify that airport security was not compromised as a result of this incident,” wrote its spokesperson, Glyniss Hutchings in an e-mail.
If a breach of security did occur, “the department will take appropriate enforcement action.”
Senior Highways officials discussed the incident with the employees involved “and they have been made aware of the sensitivities surrounding their choice of outfits,” said Magnuson.
“We’re not going to say what they wore is wrong. We’re not going to say what they wore is OK.
“Transport Canada is working with our airport management staff about disciplinary action.”
Transport Canada “has verified that the individuals hold valid restricted area identity cards,” wrote Hutchings.
And the employees were “not breaking any rules,” added Magnuson.
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