Border Security v. “Sensitivity Training”

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.

16 Replies to “Border Security v. “Sensitivity Training””

  1. 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

    That’s just it. Everyone should learn nowadays to expect the absolute worst when crossing a border…even the Canadian/US border. That way, most of the time, they won’t have high expectations and will be relieved that it was more pleasant than they had imagined.

    I think the next time I cross the border, I’ll get a high colonic beforehand to make sure any potential cavity searches don’t become an unnecessary trauma for some hapless border worker.

    I don’t know where some people get the impression that they are going to be given a gracious welcome when they enter or return. That never happens…anywhere. Once in a while, when it’s not busy, you get a more relaxed, chatty customs/immigration officer but most the time, it’s abrupt and impersonal.

    Expect it (or stay home). If you have nothing to hide, chances are nothing will happen.

  2. I’m not sure that it’s so bone-headed. I recall when they introduced sensitivity training in the military there were many howls against it, mostly it seemed, by the people who needed it most. Granted, the video they used was silly but the message was clear – misogynistic, racist, or homophobic behaviour and attitudes were no longer tolerable.

    I also don’t see that it may create two different standards. I see nothing in sensitivity training that suggests this. If it’s done right, it may be that developing an awareness of different cultural practices might be beneficial to the CBSA officer. If they become aware of the basic social behavioural norms of of a given culture, it could well allow them to better identify when someone is acting oddly, or communicate so that they are better understood. This could save unnecessary searches and delays due to misunderstandings. I’m sure most would agree police in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods could benefit from a bit of cultural sensitivity training, so I see no reason why customs officers wouldn’t as well.

    Furthermore, there are likely some customs officers who are quite biased when it comes to certain cultural groups. e.g. Following Ms. Coupal’s thought line, the various cultural groups in Canada should adopt an Anglo-European bearing because it would make life easier for customs officers.

    A dose of de-othering is never a bad thing.

  3. Boris — What you say might be true, but in an environment where the customs officers are (or claim to be) overworked and aggravated by unresolved contract issues, it’s hard to see them experiencing much benefit from this kind of instruction — to the contrary, they may just resent it all the more.

  4. Let me just add to that as well that it’s kind of a three-part problem — one of them being the notion that this “sensitivity training” will somehow do away with the “profiling” of certain travellers — a practice that I would argue is entirely justifiable in this particular kind of circumstance.

  5. I have an adopted son of “East”-Indian heritage.I myself am as white as the driven snow. He was born in Canada. I was born in Scotland.
    Last time we went through the border together he got asked the tough questions then the official looked at me.”And who are YOU ?”
    “I’m his father”.
    He waved us through.
    A week later I went through with my wife.She’s Korean. The US official was married… to a Korean. We had a great time..It was actually fun.
    People are people.

  6. Customs officers are allowed to carry guns now, and are having a problem passing the test. Sending them out for sensitivity training at this time does not seem to be a well thought out plan. I live in a border community (where the bust was last week) and it is very different going through a small border than the big border. Here, if you don’t live in the community, they want to know why you are using this particular border. I think their time would be better spent on actual security.

  7. The brilliant idea of arming them is part of the reason they’re now asking for a pay rise that would put them on parity with police officers.

  8. “they may just resent it all the more.”

    why make this assumption? people who work in security tend to receive all manner of training. your border security have likely already received some form of sensitivity training.

    at best, sensitivity training could help to mitigate confrontations, and the subsequent further scrutiny, which might arise from cultural ignorance. the benefit to both officers (their time better spent in general observation rather than wild goose chases up poop chutes) and tax payers is obvious, i think. at worst…. well, there’s the deeper resentment you’ve mentioned; a suggestion which – and i find myself stunned to be saying this to you, rt – strikes me as rather specious.

    KEvron

  9. The brilliant idea of arming them is part of the reason they’re now asking for a pay rise that would put them on parity with police officers.
    And they used the excuse that they wanted to feel safer….
    This is another Connie mess.

  10. KEv — It could be a mistaken assumption on my part, but from the comments made by the CEU representative would seem to indicate there’s already a degree of resistance to the concept for whatever reason and it seems reasonable therefore to think this would only exacerbated by their outstanding labour grievances.

    Perhaps “sensitivity training” can be beneficial for the reasons you stated, but I’m not sure why anybody’s religious or cultural sensibilities should be accommodated in a situation like this. Personally, I expect the experience to be miserable, highly annoying and in the worst case, possibly even humiliating. It’s delightful when that turns out not to be the case, of course, but it seems a bit far-fetched expect otherwise.

  11. “the comments made by the CEU representative would seem to indicate there’s already a degree of resistance to the concept for whatever reason and it seems reasonable therefore to think this would only exacerbated by their outstanding labour grievances.”

    maybe it’s a matter of leverage, although coupal’s comments about accomodation read a bit like code to me (i admit, however, to having become overly sensitive in the course of the decade).

    KEvron

  12. To whoever kidnapped the moonbats : If you are looking for some kind of ransom , forget it . I refuse to believe the takeover of this blog is complete until the bloody wing of a bat is posted online at the soonest possible opportunity . Until then , please continue to comment sensibly . That is all .

  13. i think that’s about as close as you’re going to get to a conservo-fuckhead blaming the previous lib govt, rt….

    KEvron

  14. RedTory said…”fundamentally boneheaded, and thoroughly counterproductive initiatives such as this”…
    …”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”?”….

    How ? The fact remains peoples of differing cultures have differing mannerisms etc.Welcome to the real world,welcome to Canada,a country of diverse cultures and peoples,a country of immigrants.
    As a custom officer you are going to deal with diverse peoples on a daily basis.At least understand that reality,and act accordingly.It’s not a hard thing to be polite and respectful.Why would you not want to to be more sensitive to the diversity that is Canada and the World ?
    …………………………………………………………………………….
    Marie-Claire Coupal, Ontario vice-president of the national Customs Excise Union 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,”

    Gee Maria I don’t know…perhaps because its the job/career you chose.Because as a custom officer you are going to deal with all kinds of people(s). Peoples with diverse mannerism and cultural practices.Mannerisms etc that you might not be familiar with,mannerism etc that might lead to needless misunderstandings.Better to mitigate the situation rather than bellyache about who’s to “blame”.
    Get over it lady your making a mountain out of a mole hill.
    Again being polite/respectful is not much to ask or expect from people.Particularly from people who’s job it is to deal with people on a daily basis.Politeness begets politeness,respectful behavior begets respectful behavior.
    …………………………………………………………………..
    Indeed the response of Maria points to the possibility, that indeed there might be a problem.Whether out of ignorance or a combination of factors,particularly this part where she says;
    …”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 fails to understand the knife cuts two ways.She fails to understand the nature of her own country.Understanding is a two way street,the onus does not fall on one side and not the other as Marie’s statement implies;
    ….”they should pick up our ways and not have us picking up their ways,”….
    Again Canada is a country of immigrants,Canada is the Canada we love because of her diversity.

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