Need Training on All Ethnic Groups

The Hamilton Spectator
October, 2008
by Raheel Raza

It’s with interest and trepidation that I read about a federal government initiative to mandate sensitivity training for airport border officials at Toronto Pearson International Airport “so they can deal more appropriately with Arab and Muslim passengers.”

According to news reports, this initiative is the result of hard lobbying by some Muslim organizations who are very concerned about Muslims being targeted and racially profiled. One complaint is “greater scrutiny” and luggage being searched.

Welcome to the world post 9/11! It’s a reality about security that we have to get used to. Incidentally, this scrutiny isn’t directed only toward Muslims. Ask my Hindu friend who gets checked every time he travels to United States.

There have been two official responses to the news. Patrizia Giolti, a spokesperson with the Canadian Border Services Agency, says sensitivity training is already provided to staff to ensure fairness in dealing with passengers (verified by airport officials who explain that learning about Muslims has been high on the agenda).

On the other hand, Marie-Claire Coupal, Ontario vice-president of the national Customs Excise Union, scoffed at the idea of special training and for having to “accommodate foreign and religious customs rather than having travellers act like a Canadian.”

Both these approaches have come under fire, especially Coupal’s remarks. But there seems to be some sense in both of them.

When we demand sensitivity training for dealing only with Muslim and Arab passengers, we’re being exclusive and self-serving. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world, so sensitivity as a natural instinct should extend toward all Canadians.

For Canadians to get along, there is a compelling need for knowledge and understanding about each other, and sensitivity will automatically be inculcated among those who are open to the concept.

Personally, I don’t think sensitivity can be taught. However, respect for “the other” is something all of us need to engage in, regardless of which organization we work for. All employees and employers need to understand the diversity that makes Canada a thriving multifaith, multicoloured, multiethnic mosaic.

As a diversity consultant, I try not to use the term “sensitivity training” because it automatically infers that the audience is insensitive, making a generalization which is inaccurate for most Canadians. I present “diversity workshops” because there’s a great need to learn about each other making this exercises a two-way process.

In teaching others about me, I must be just as open to learning about them. With a few exceptions, I believe Canadians have got the picture, but like every other community, every now and then racism rears its ugly head. However, I don’t think there’s an epidemic.

My spouse works at Pearson airport, and apart from travelling extensively (very ethnically dressed, I may add), I’ve spent hours observing airport workers. In general, I would say Canadian officials are the politest in the world. They may be a bit ignorant about all the diverse ethnicities passing through their borders — but they’re mostly respectful.

I’ve seen them deal with passengers in the most challenging circumstances where, if I had been in their place, I would have “lost it.” It might be worthwhile to address some of the challenges they face and hear their side of the story as they try to do their job for the security and safety of Canada.

Discrimination does exist. It’s targeted randomly against gays, Asians, Sikhs, the black community and many other ethnicities. So if sensitivity training is in the works, and the federal government has decided to use the term, then it should be about all cultures and ethnic minorities and not just Muslims and Arabs.

At the same time, Muslims need to accept that first and foremost we are Canadians. Then take a step back and consider that when we make unreasonable demands of the Canadian government for constant accommodation primarily to our own insecurities, we may be headed for a backlash.

Raheel Raza is a consultant in cultural diversity and interfaith issues, an author, public speaker, journalist and filmmaker. She lives in Mississauga.