Navdeep Bains wants his experience at Detroit Metro Airport last year — when he was asked by security officers to remove his sacred turban — to be nothing more than a teachable moment.
“Ultimately, from my point of view, this is about the fact that discrimination really knows no borders,” Bains said Thursday in a phone interview from Toronto.
“Discrimination occurs every day from the classrooms to the boardrooms, and for me, this was an important issue.”
The devout Sikh, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development in the Trudeau cabinet and graduate of the University of Windsor Odette School of Business MBA program, had been in Windsor and Detroit in April 2017 attending a Great Lakes Economic Forum and was preparing to board a flight to Montreal.
Bains said at Detroit Metro he had showed his ticket and identification and then proceeded to security.
They regretted what they did, they apologized for it, and I accept that apology
He went through a metal detector with no issues, and was then taken aside for a swab of his turban, to test for traces of explosives.
“There was a swab test on my turban, there seemed to be a malfunction with the machine and I was ultimately allowed to go through after the second test was conducted,” he said.
Bains then proceeded to the boarding area and was there for about 20 minutes before Transportation Security Administration officers reappeared.
“Before boarding I was asked to come back to the security checkpoint to remove my turban and then ultimately, at that point, I disclosed my diplomatic passport because they were asking for identification, and at that point they realized who I was, what I was there for, and they allowed me to fly out,” said Bains, who in the end did not have to remove his headwear.
“I’d indicated that I had followed all the security processes and procedures and then, at that moment, when senior airport officials asked for my identification, they came to the realization of my particular position.”
Bains soon after contacted his colleague and Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, who contacted her U.S. counterparts, who in turn issued an apology.
“I have travelled to the U.S. many, many times, I’m going to be travelling to the U.S. next week as well, but this was the first time this had occurred,” Bains said.
“They regretted what they did, they apologized for it, and I accept that apology.”
The incident came to light on Thursday from an article in the French-language La Presse news website, which Bains said resulted from them “asking about some of the challenges and issues that I faced and in that discussion my story emerged.”
I think most of the time it happens because of lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding
Bains said he had never had such an experience previously but has since had a similar experience in Antigua while on vacation with his family.
The Trudeau government has asked for a similar apology but has not yet received one.
After Thursday’s story emerged the TSA in the U.S. issued another statement.
“We regret the screening experience did not meet the expectations of Mr. Bains,” the statement from spokesman Michael McCarthy says.
“Upon review of airport closed-circuit video, we determined the officer conducting the screening did not follow standard operating procedures and therefore received additional training.”
Rather than declare his ministerial status, Bains said he prefers to watch things unfold as they would as an ordinary citizen in the same situation.
“I just wanted to know how anyone else would experience this,” Bains said.
“For me this is not about status, this is not about who you are and who you know, this is about making sure that people are treated with respect and the processes are followed. Discrimination occurs with so many people, we hear so many stories of people who face challenges, and for me I just want to understand the challenges people go through. I unfortunately was put in a situation like that myself.”
Harjinder Singh Kandola, president of the Sikh Cultural Society of Metropolitan Windsor, said he has never personally had a similar experience but appreciates Bains raising the issue.
“I think most of the time it happens because of lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding,” said Kandola, who estimates about 2,000 Sikhs line in Windsor-Essex.
“Only in a few cases it may be because of some kind of intolerance or personal bias but I think normally it’s a lack of awareness and we need to be more proactive to create more awareness.”