Detained at Pearson airport: Man to get hearing into human-rights complaint over CBSA

Canada’s top human rights watchdog has referred to a hearing a complaint by a man who says he was detained without just cause, on suspicion of drug-smuggling, upon his return from a trip to Jamaica.

Royland Boothe, a telecom field technician from Newmarket, Ont., was sent for secondary inspection at Toronto Pearson Airport in February 2019, supposedly for carrying undeclared food items in his baggage.

He was held in a small cell, searched with his pants down and forced to defecate in an open space to provide a stool sample. He was released after being detained for 15 hours, and only after he had become unwell and was taken to hospital, where he had an X-ray.

No drugs were found on or in his body. In examining Boothe’s luggage, officials found only multiple undeclared milk powder bags, cakes and small bags of apples.

In making its referral, the Canadian Human Rights Commission overruled its own investigator’s recommendation to dismiss Boothe’s complaint against Canada Border Services Agency.

Chief Commissioner Marie-Claude Landry concluded that the investigator failed to adequately examine the possibility of “unconscious bias” by border officials in their treatment of a Jamaican Canadian.

“Discrimination need not be overt and can be subtle. Discrimination is not generally practised overtly or intentionally, which is why the entire context of this complaint should be assessed to determine whether the ‘subtle scent of discrimination’ was present,” Landry wrote in her referral letter to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal last week.

Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Boothe followed his mother and two sisters to Canada in 2003 and was the first in his family to graduate from college. He returns to his home country to visit his father, a retired teacher, almost yearly.

The 2019 trip was prompted by a request from a cousin in New York to have Boothe represent all the “farin” (meaning overseas) relatives in North America at the funeral of an uncle he had never met.

Being the most available member of the extended family, he said, he gladly accepted the offer of a free ticket and treated it as a five-day mini vacation during the Ontario winter.

During the human rights complaint investigation, Canada Border Services Agency initially told investigator Linda Foy that Boothe was sent to secondary inspection for “verification of his declaration and a baggage check.”

It also stated the complainant was referred for further inspection “based on his answers to the primary questions, as well as physical indicators — overly friendly, long pause in answers, short lead time, short stay, 3rd party ticket purchase, can’t afford the trip, doesn’t have a relationship with the deceased.”

In recommending the dismissal of Boothe’s case, the investigator concluded she did not find the negative treatment he suffered could be linked directly or indirectly to his colour, national or ethnic origin, race or religion.

However, the chief commissioner said the border agency contradicted itself in its justification for flagging the complainant for further examination.

On the one hand, the secondary inspection appeared to be prompted by the officials’ doubt concerning Boothe’s declaration of merchandise, alcohol, tobacco, currency and food. On the other hand, they also cast him as a possible drug smuggler.

“There must be some evidence supporting at least one allegation. In the present case, there is sufficient evidence that the decision to refer the complainant for secondary screening may have been based on a protected ground of discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious,” wrote Landry.

“The seemingly contradictory reasons for the complainant’s referral to secondary inspection may indicate that the subtle scent of discrimination was present and warrants an inquiry by the Tribunal.”

Lawyer Glen Chochla, who represents Boothe, said he was pleased the head of the rights commission recognized that discrimination does not have to be overtly expressed but can be driven by unconscious biases.

“They looked at his skin colour and his religion (as Rastafarian) and they looked at whether his referral for secondary inspection was rational, whether it made sense. And they concluded that the referral for his secondary inspection, on the face of it, did not seem to bear scrutiny,” said Chochla.

“They concluded that all that together suggested that there was unconscious racism and discrimination going on … that something in what this person of colour has experienced does not seem right.”

Although it has taken more than three years for Boothe to see some action taking place in regards to his complaint, the father of two said he felt his experience and concerns were validated by the commission.

“I was right. There was something there. They tried to put it under the rug. If I didn’t file a complaint and retain legal advice, it would be under the rug,” said Boothe.

“The system has to change. That’s what gets me going. My children were born and raised in Canada. I don’t know what would happen if the system doesn’t change and if they’re going to have the same experience just because they have dark skin and their dad is Jamaican.”

Both Boothe and the border agency will be required by the tribunal to make an attempt to mediate and come to an agreement to resolve the complaint. If no settlement is reached, the case will proceed to a hearing.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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