About a year ago, while at an airport in Detroit, Canadian Cabinet minister Navdeep Bains found himself in a situation he had never experienced before.
The country’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development said in a televised interview Thursday that he was repeatedly asked by airport security agents to remove his turban — even after he had passed through security and was at his departure gate. Bains, a Sikh, said he was allowed to fly only after he showed the agents his diplomatic passport.
“I felt very awkward,” Bains said. “It’s not something that I expected. I’ve traveled to the U.S. on many occasions.”
In Sikhism, wearing a turban is “considered one of the most dutiful acts for a person of the faith,” Bains said in a statement to CNN. The practice “asserts a public commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of the tradition, including service, compassion, and honesty,” according to the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy organization.
After the incident, Bains said Canadian officials contacted the U.S. government and received an apology, according to La Presse, a French-language news site. La Presse was the first to report on the minister’s experience in an article published Thursday.
While Bains said he accepted the apology, he decided to go public with his story to raise awareness about diversity and inclusion.
“So many Canadians can relate to this story because of the challenges that they face themselves,” he told reporters in Toronto.
Canada has more Sikh ministers than any other country, The Washington Post has reported. In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced “the most diverse cabinet in the country’s history,” including four federal ministers who are Sikh, according to The Post.
The incident involving Bains happened in April 2017 when he was traveling through Detroit Metro Airport on his way back to Canada. He had attended an event in Michigan where officials had discussed “strengthening Canada-U.S. relations,” he said.
Bains said he cleared the metal detectors without any issue, but was then subjected to additional security measures because of his turban, according to CNN.
In 2007, the U.S. Transportation and Security Administration revised its screening process for people who travel with headwear, such as turbans. Under the new regulations, travelers are allowed to keep their headwear on while going through airport security, the Associated Press reported.
Bains said his screening process hit a bump when “there was some challenge and issue with the swab machine.” Swabs are taken to see whether a person has come into contact with explosive materials, according to Fox News. The samples are run through a machine that tests for bomb or explosive residue or traces of drugs. When the machine emitted a warning sound, the officer asked Bains to remove his turban as part of a secondary search.
“I told him it was the machine that was not working well,” he told La Presse. “I asked him to repeat the sampling test again. And if there is a problem, we can consider other options, because I think it’s an intrusion into my private life.”
A second test revealed Bains’s turban to be free of any prohibited substances, and the minister was able to make it to his gate.
But that wasn’t the end of his travel saga.
After arriving at his gate, Bains said another TSA agent approached him and requested that he return to the security check point and remove his turban, saying proper security protocol had not been followed. It was then finally that Bains did the one thing he knew would convince U.S. authorities that he was not a threat. He showed them his diplomatic passport.
“Ultimately I was allowed to fly, but it was because of who I was and that should not be the case,” he said. In the interview with La Presse, Bains explained that he intentionally hides that he is a government official when traveling because he wants to “understand better what ordinary people” experience.
“It doesn’t matter what your status is, what your position is,” he said in the televised interview. “It’s really about making sure people are not discriminated against, that people are treated fairly and with respect.”
Bains said he was fortunate his position allowed him to bring up what had happened to him with U.S. officials.
In an interview Thursday, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said “Canada’s perspective” was expressed to the U.S. government. She said conversations happened “official to official.”
“We heard about the difficulties that Minister Bains encountered at the border,” Freeland said. “I thought that was important for us to support Minister Bains and frankly, to support all Canadians traveling across the border.”
The TSA also released a statement addressing the incident, CNN reported.
“We regret the screening experience did not meet the expectations of Mr. Bains,” TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy said in the statement. “Upon review of airport closed-circuit video, we determined that the officer conducting the screening did not follow standard operating procedures and therefore received additional training.”
The statement went on to say that “all persons wearing head coverings may be subject to additional security screening, which may include an officer-conducted or self-conducted pat-down. TSA does this to ensure that prohibited items or weapons are not concealed beneath any type of clothing and brought onto an aircraft. This policy covers all headwear and is not directed at any one particular item or group.”
Although Bains said he understands the importance of security, he added that it is critical to focus on understanding people of diverse backgrounds and different faiths. Discrimination, he said, is something that he has seen “far too often … with so many people of so many different backgrounds.”
“My hope is now that I’m talking about this, now that this has come to public light, that we can avoid these types of instances going forward,” he said.
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