The head of Amnesty International Canada is accusing Air Canada of racism and discrimination after she was denied boarding a flight to Mexico.
Ketty Nivyabandi, who is a permanent resident of Canada with official refugee status, was due to depart from the Ottawa International Airport on Thursday afternoon, but said when she went to check in, the Air Canada agent became confused by her travel documents. Nivyabandi said she was travelling to Mexico for a work conference.
I’m not the only one who has experienced this, it’s a pattern.– Ketty Nivyabandi
Originally from Burundi, Nivyabandi uses a government-issued refugee travel document in lieu of a Canadian passport when she travels. According to the Canadian government, these documents are sufficient evidence of an individual’s immigration status and should allow them to travel outside the country.
According to Nivyabandi, however, the first agent she dealt with didn’t appear aware of that.
“He seemed to have never seen a travel document of the sort,” she said.
About an hour and a half later, after speaking with the agent, his manager and then another agent on the phone, Nivyabandi said she was denied boarding. Their explanation — that she was missing a visa to enter Mexico.
Nivyabandi said there’s no such visa requirement for permanent residents or refugees living in Canada. She said none of this was an issue when she took the same flight with the same airline back in October.
“I was simply stunned when I was told that I couldn’t board and my luggage was returned to me. That is not a scenario that I expected at all,” she said.
She inquired directly with Mexico’s embassy in Canada, which confirmed she’s right.
“Permanent residents of Canada must present their Permanent Resident Card and one of the following documents: valid Passport or Refugee Travel Document. [THEY] DO NOT REQUIRE A VISA,” the embassy wrote in an email later that day.
The same information is also publicly available on the embassy’s website.
“I was shocked. I felt humiliated,” said Nivyabandi.
‘Systemic pattern of racial profiling’
Nivyabandi said this is not the first time she’s experienced problems trying to enter or leave the country, and she knows she’s not alone.
“It’s part of a pattern and a systemic pattern of racial profiling, of over-scrutinizing travellers who happen to be racialized, happen to be Black, happen to be from a religious minority, happen to be refugees who are immediately assumed to be in the wrong,” she said.
Those sentiments were echoed by the Americas director for Amnesty International, who called the situation “outrageous and unacceptable.”
“We demand a public apology from the airline and reparation for the harm caused, which must include immediately issuing her a new ticket to fly as soon as possible,” wrote Erika Guevara-Rosas in a statement posted on the organization’s website.
Rules ‘complex,’ says Air Canada
Nivyabandi was refunded the cost of her flight. She re-booked and was able to board a more expensive flight Friday afternoon.
The airline said it had since “obtained further clarity on the rules” and has apologized to Nivyabandi — though maintained it handled the situation appropriately.
“It is Air Canada’s policy to treat every customer with respect and courtesy and this is how we responded to Ms. Nivyabandi’s situation at Ottawa airport,” the airline said in a statement to CBC on Friday.
Air Canada wrote that several agents worked hard to help Nivyabandi, including consulting Timatic, a data resource maintained by the International Air Transport Association that airlines can consult on national entry requirements including a passenger’s eligibility to enter a country.
“These rules can be complex and may vary from country to country, particularly in instances where a customer is travelling on a less-commonly used type of document, such as in this instance, a refugee document,” Air Canada said, adding that airlines are subject to penalty if they allow passengers to fly without proper documentation.
“The information Timatic provided in this instance was unclear about the necessary documents to travel to Mexico,” Air Canada said. The airline said it’s working with the service to make sure its information is correct and updated.
Confusion rife, lawyer says
Immigration lawyer Jacqueline Bonisteel said she can sympathize with airlines that must navigate complex regulations involving multiple jurisdictions.
While a refugee travel document is a legitimate and accepted form of identification, “the reality is that that document isn’t accepted by every country, and travel on that document does tend to be more difficult than it would be on a Canadian passport,” she said.
Bonisteel noted she often hears about “confusion” among airline workers who are “making calls that we believe don’t comply with the law.”
“I think it’s just another example of barriers that refugees face and something that we need to look at as best we can,” she said.
“It’s not Canada’s rules, it’s the rules that the countries that people are trying to travel to, but perhaps there’s more that we could be doing to ensure that these issues don’t come up.”
Nivyabandi said she understands that airlines need to follow the rules, but felt what happened to her was an example of how those rules are subject to interpretation, which can leave people like her in a difficult position.
She has since reached out to Air Canada leadership for a conversation about wider reforms, including training for employees on racial profiling and compensation for travellers who are unfairly denied boarding a flight.
“I’m not the only one who has experienced this, it’s a pattern. It happens across the board, and so it requires a robust and systemic response,” she said.