BY CHERYL CHAN, THE PROVINCE JUNE 16, 2015
A national Sikh group says recent changes to airport screening procedures discriminate against Sikhs who wear turbans.
The new protocol, which quietly went into effect April 15, require travelers wearing head gear, including ones worn for religious reasons, to go through mandatory secondary screenings.
“This is an example of increased racial profiling of different minorities and we don’t think it’s consistent with the Charter,” said World Sikh Organization president Amritpal Singh Shergill, who lives in Surrey.
“Even if there is no alarm, no indication of any security concerns, the person would still be singled out.”
There are about 600,000 Sikhs in Canada, with large concentrations in B.C. and Metro Vancouver.
Under the new procedure, turbaned Sikhs are required to pat down their turbans and present their hands for inspection of trace explosives.
Late Tuesday, Transport Canada appeared to backpedal on the policy, suggesting the decision was made by some officials without approval.
“The government recently became aware of this decision and has directed that it be reversed immediately on flights within Canada,” said Zach Segal, spokesman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.
The procedure was implemented to align with U.S. policies, added Segal: “We will discuss our concerns with this practice with the United States, and seek alternative practices for U.S.-bound flights from Canada.”
Surrey’s Raj Hundal doesn’t buy it. He is a NEXUS-card holder who frequently travels to the U.S. for work. He said Canada is going above and beyond what the United States requires in their airports.
He has traveled to four U.S. airports in May and has not been singled out for his turban in any of them.
The mandatory pat-down “creates and perpetuates a negative perception and a false stereotype that all Sikhs, because they wear turbans, must be security threats and could possibly be terrorists,” he said.
“As a proud Canadian citizen and a Sikh who has grown up here, I find it utterly disgusting that a government agency would create such a perception.”
Hundal also questioned why turbans and religious head gear are being targeted by the government as potential threats. There have been highly publicized cases of attempts to hide explosives in shoes and underwear, he noted, but not in turbans or yarmulkes.
Haranayan Singh, a Punjabi commentator for Hockey Night in Canada, also travels extensively for work and has a NEXUS card and says the compulsory secondary check is a nuisance: “I was told this was the new norm and that there is going to be additional screening on everyone wearing a turban,” he said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Earlier, Canadian Air Transport Security Authority spokesman Mathieu Larocque said the procedure was put in place after Transport Canada requested a consistent screening procedure for all passengers. He said there is no racial profiling involved, only safety considerations.
“That is not our intention. The change in procedure applies to all head coverings. It is not targeted to any specific head covering or any group,” he said.
Satwinder Bains, director of the Centre of Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley, said a turban is a symbol of the Sikh faith and “is not like a hat. You can’t take it on and off.”
She said the Sikh community is supportive of public-safety initiatives, but the “blanket targeting” of people wearing head gear, including religious gear, is problematic.
“This tends to assume someone is doing something wrong because they are wearing a turban,” she said. “I’m curious to see what instigated this. Has there been evidence of someone hiding something in their turban?”