The Toronto Star reports this morning that the government is putting up to 500 customs officials at Pearson International Airport through “sensitivity training” so that they can “more appropriately deal with Arab and Muslim passengers.”
Normally, this kind of story would probably raise howls of outrage from the usual suspects, or at least that would most certainly have been the case had the Liberals been in office. As they’re not however and seeing as the story doesn’t afford any easy opportunities to lay blame with the previous government, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the issue to be mentioned by any of our so-called “conservative” bloggers.
But never mind that. This initiative does raise concerns on a couple of fronts, the first being whether this kind of supposed “outreach” is appropriate in the case of our border enforcement agency. Should frontline customs officers really be adapting their inspection and interrogation techniques to accommodate the cultural and faith-based “sensitivities” of foreign travellers and returning residents just so they’re not “perceived to be discriminatory”? Personally, I’m inclined to think they shouldn’t, if indeed this is what the program entails.
Apparently, customs officers have “derided the idea that workers need sensitivity training and said that any new directives won’t go over well with officers who are already overworked and disgruntled.”
Marie-Claire Coupal, Ontario vice-president of the national Customs Excise Union, said workers have scoffed at similar courses offered at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, where she is stationed, because they felt they were being asked to accommodate foreign and religious customs rather than having travellers “act like a Canadian.”
Looking a person straight in the eye is standard procedure for a border guard on the hunt for suspicious behaviour, but in some cases, it can be considered disrespectful to make eye contact with a Muslim woman, she said.
“A thing like this is good information to have, but I don’t think that we should – and this is very delicate because I don’t want to say that I don’t welcome these people either – but I do think that once they become a Canadian and they live among us, that they should pick up our ways and not have us picking up their ways,” she said in an interview.
She added that border officials at Pearson airport are more concerned about working conditions than sensitivity training, noting that they have been in a dispute for two years over scheduling problems.
“Giving them any kind of this training is just going to put salt in the wounds,” she said. “They’re ready to explode. … I think they’re going to laugh at (management) and say that they’re too tired to even think about this.”
Of course it would be easy to misconstrue the expression about having travellers “act like a Canadian” but that would be to get sidetracked from the point regarding whether the methodologies normally employed by customs inspectors should be somehow inhibited or curtailed by heightened concerns about “sensitivity” and “perceived discrimination.”
Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said training courses are an “excellent idea” that are in line with the seminars and speeches that he has delivered to federal employees, including with the Canadian Air Transportation Safety Authority, over the last two years.
But he still hears complaints of Muslim and Arab passengers returning from certain Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Syria being subjected to greater scrutiny than Muslims and Arabs returning from European countries.
Those travellers are also more likely to have their luggage searched, to be questioned about their activities and purchases abroad and to have their passport information taken down, Elmasry said.
“We feel that this is a type of profiling, which must cease.”
Oh really? Well, sorry if this sounds “politically incorrect” but I don’t see anything at all wrong with this sort of “profiling” and can think of no defensible reason whatsoever why it should cease. Surely, it makes perfect sense that passengers returning from Iran and Syria should be subject to increased security checks (as should those from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, I might add — perhaps even more so). Of course, it’s an unfortunate hassle for the affected individuals, but hardly an imprudent or unexpected measure by Customs under the circumstances given the obvious connection between the countries in question and international terrorism.
Another concern is whether this kind of initiative effectively creates two different standards by which travellers are adjudged, thereby perversely setting up a situation of “reverse discrimination” against those not falling into the “Arab and Muslim” demographic? In this regard, it’s pertinent to note the impressions of a disgruntled traveler who recently wrote to the Vancouver Sun complaining about the “bad treatment” of routine visitors to Canada:
I just completed a two-year stint at a firm in the United States and had to cross the border many times. Into the U.S., I was almost invariably greeted with “welcome home, sir” (I am a Canadian citizen and green card holder). Only once in two years was there a friendly welcome to Canada and it was a breath of fresh air to be greeted by a friendly person.
The usual treatment is a series of pointless questions and wordless dismissal. When I once politely asked the purpose of being confronted with these same questions every time, I had my card stamped and spent an hour with a latex-gloved customs official examining my small carry-on bag with an alarming lack of alacrity.
I get similar feedback from visiting friends far too often and it makes me cringe. When I am confronted with the standard grim Vancouver airport immigration officer, complete with flak jacket, I wonder if there is not some devious plot to stock their ranks with the city’s misanthropes. Or does our minister of immigration think that this prisoner interrogation atmosphere actually increases our security?
Your actual mileage may vary of course, but it serves to illustrate the point that passing through Customs is rarely (and increasingly less so in these days of escalated security) an altogether pleasant or welcoming experience for anybody.
Finally, one has to wonder about the judgment of the Public Safety Minister at implementing a questionable (and presumably rather expensive) program of this nature at a time when relations between the department and the Customs & Excise Union are at low ebb — to the point where “slowdowns” have already been threatened at critical border crossings.
In addition to the two year old scheduling dispute mentioned in the article, the union has also been without a contract for almost a year, with the two sides still far apart in negotiations on salary issues and work conditions. The union has been seeking a 29% salary hike over three years (that would put them on par with police and correctional officers) but the latest offer from the CBSA was for less than 2% annually over four years.
Maybe Stockwell Day would be better advised to get his own house in order and address some of the chronic problems impeding the front line operations of CBSA at our critical commercial gateways rather than wasting time and money on possibly well-intentioned, but fundamentally boneheaded, and thoroughly counterproductive initiatives such as this.
Update: Just one “Blogging Tory” posted on this matter. The BTs are nothing if not entirely predictable. What a useless bunch of cheerleaders.