Traveller wins Customs fight
By JOHN SAUNDERS
Wednesday, February 6, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A1
TORONTO -- In an unprecedented settlement with an indignant black traveller, Canada Customs has pledged to hire an antiracism expert to train its officers and to collect race-based statistics on those chosen for luggage searches or other special attention.
The deal, which heads off what could have been a five-week Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearing, also includes an apology and undisclosed cash payment to Selwyn Pieters, the Toronto man who launched the case after a student Customs officer decided to search his bags as he returned by train from a weekend in New York in May of 1999.
Mr. Pieters, a federal employee and part-time law student who has more than once complained of official racism, ended up in a tense exchange on the train with a Customs supervisor. The supervisor called him "Billy Jack," the title of a 1971 movie in which a half-white, half-native karate expert avenges bigotry with his feet.
Although Customs admitted the name-calling was wrong, Mr. Pieters pressed for a public hearing, asserting that he was picked for the search because of the colour of his skin. After an investigation, the Canadian Human Rights Commission decided last spring that a hearing was warranted.
The settlement, signed on Jan. 18 and approved by the commission last week, was not made public until now.
In it, Canada Customs pledges to:
Order its officers to tell everyone picked for secondary inspection (luggage searches, body searches and other steps beyond initial questioning) the reason for the inspection.
Ensure that decision-making criteria used by the officers do not unlawfully discriminate on racial or other grounds.
Hire an outside expert by March 1 to provide antiracism and cultural diversity training to student Customs officers during their orientation, new officers within 180 days of hire and all others as regular refreshers.
Hire an outside contractor for a pilot project to collect statistics by race, colour, national or ethic origin and gender on travellers chosen for secondary inspections and to analyze the criteria used in choosing them.
Consider making the statistical project permanent, with a public report each year to the human-rights commission.
Meet with representatives of minority groups each year to hear what they think about Customs practices.
Mr. Pieters, now 34, is a refugee claim officer with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and volunteer operator of an antiracism Web site.
He has also pursued racial-harassment complaints at the provincial level against the Toronto Police and the former Toronto board of education.
He had set out to make the federal hearing a public examination of racial profiling -- the use of race, consciously or otherwise, in official guesses about which individuals are likely to break the law.
Even so, he is happy with the settlement, he said last night.
"Now we have something saying that Customs isn't going to target people based on irrelevant characteristics such as race. . . . We now have antiracism training that each and every officer is going to get within 180 days of their hiring, and they're going to be continually upgraded.
"We now have Customs [promising] to provide an explanation to each and every person as to why they're being referred to secondary search.
"I mean, that's significant, because at least it's going to cure the arbitrariness."
Michel Proulx, a Customs media-relations officer, said the agency admits no wrongdoing but decided it was best to settle without a hearing.
Customs employees already undergo what is called sensitivity training, he said, but "to ensure that we don't have any problems, additional training will be given to our Customs officers."
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