Dignity should not be a barrier

Humiliating people in the name of security should never be acceptable.

Humiliating people in the name of security should never be acceptable.

On Jan. 4, security officers at Calgary International Airport reduced an 82-year-old breast cancer survivor to tears after they subjected here to extreme humiliation and called a liar.

Elizabeth Strecker of Abbotsford, B.C., was returning home after visiting family in Calgary at Christmas when she was forced by security to reveal her prosthetic breast — made of gel — during a public pat-down.

She was accused of lying when asked if she was carrying any liquids or gel. She said “No.”

A metal pin in her hip triggered a metal detector. Directed to a room for a full-body scan, she was told to raise her arms over her head — something she can’t do.

“I told (the security officer) I can no longer do that (with her left arm) and she said I had to so I yanked it up with my right and she said ‘you can’t do that, you have to keep both arms up.’ By then, I started crying.”

Strecker’s daughter-in-law, Karin, said she heard chuckling among staff.

These are troubled times and strict security at airports is necessary.

However, passengers undergoing security pat-downs in Canada, involving feeling the genitalia and breasts, must be treated with dignity and professionalism.

The account of a man in the United States going through airport security and agreeing to a pat-down, but first insisting “don’t touch my junk,” gained international notoriety.

Airport security today can make or break a trip by turning anybody boarding a flight at their discretion.

There were 1,520 grievances in 2009-10 filed to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority from passengers complaining about security procedures, alleging humiliating and undignified behaviour. Security authority spokesperson Mathieu Larocque says the complaints represent a “minute fraction” of passengers.

Screening officers are taught to treat people with dignity and respect, he said.

However, a security officer reportedly told a passenger in April at the Calgary airport who complained of being treated in an undignified manner: “According to protocol, I don’t have to say please or be any way pleasant with you.”

Canadian Press reports that the 1,520 complaints included insulting remarks, giggling, harassment and the whiff of pot smoke.

At the Regina airport, a security screener made light of a limping passenger with cerebral palsy. “Looks like someone has a bad owww-ee,” she said. Asking the passenger why he walked “so funny,” he explained. She smirked. “I’ve been there before.”

In Winnipeg, a former hotel security worker claims to have detected “the distinctive smell of marijuana” on two officers.

And in Fort McMurray, a passenger complained of a male screener making physical contact for no reason, after a screening, despite requests to back off. “I was in a double bind as he had power over me in the situation,” said the complainant.

A former customs officer complained about a screener who giggled with one of her colleagues as she rifled through his belongings.

“Treating people with respect does not take much,” he said, urging officials to “enforce the importance of being courteous, professional and nice to people.”

Security is a serious issue, but every Canadian should expect — and receive — courtesy and compassion as they and their belongings are scrutizined. Anything less should bring an apology and dismissal.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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