B.C. prof accuses Air Canada of racist behaviour, files Human Rights complaint

Check-in counter at boarding gate. June Francis is filing a complaint over racist treatment she says she received while waiting to board an Air Canada flight. (Getty)

A professor from Simon Fraser University has filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over humiliating treatment she says she experienced while flying with Air Canada, which she says is related to her race.

June Francis, an associate professor of marketing at the school’s Beedie School of Business, still gets emotional when recounting the incident that happened in March 2018. She was flying from Vancouver to Toronto to present at a conference, before travelling to Peru. She was travelling on a business class ticket to accommodate her doctor’s orders after a recent knee replacement surgery. When she arrived at the airport, there was a long line for business class passengers, which she wasn’t able to stand in as a result of her condition. 

When she approached a woman wearing an Air Canada uniform to explain her need for help, Francis says the response was confounding.

“She looked at me and yelled at me to get in line,” she tells Yahoo Canada. “When I tried to explain my situation, she just yelled at me to get in line. When people treat you badly, you can’t help but feel humiliated and embarrassed...being alone as a black woman, with no one knowing why she was yelling at me like this.”

Francis thought that maybe the woman wasn’t an employee of the airline and went to ask her, but the employee continued to yell at Francis to get in line. At that point, Francis felt she needed to do something.

“I went up to her and said ‘your behaviour to me is so outrageous, I need to know your name, I’m going to report you’” she said. “She refused to give me her name and covered up her face with a piece of paper.”

Since Francis didn’t want to jeopardize her chance to get to Toronto, she got in the line to check in. Once she got there, she took a picture of the woman who refused to help her. The employee then grabbed Francis’ boarding pass, as a supervisor approached, telling her she had to delete the picture or she wouldn’t board the plane. Accompanying the supervisor was a security guard.

Francis says at that point, another passenger intervened to tell the supervisor that she had done nothing wrong, and gave her his card. 

“At that point, I burst into tears because I thought, ‘why is no one helping me? Why am I standing, being humiliated at the airport, people see I’ve done nothing wrong so why is no one stepping in,’” she says. “Then the supervisor said to me ‘I can see why she treated you this way and you’re in this position.’” 

The supervisor continued to deny Francis the chance to board unless she deleted the photo. Francis felt unsafe with the armed security guard there, especially since she was in a compromised position with her knee. So she showed the supervisor that she deleted the photo – though she emailed one to herself – and was then allowed to board the plane.

“Why was I the only one isolated, singled out with that treatment and why did it escalate?” she asks. “Is this how you normally treat people? Then why did you treat me this way?”

Francis brought her concerns to Air Canada’s complaint department, stressing that she felt the incident was racially motivated. They sent her a form to fill out, which she felt was an insufficient response.

“I told them I wanted to discuss the remedies I thought they should take,” she says. “It was meant to be a conversation with the airline about what they needed to do and the experiences I had and others have had. I wanted them to recognize the seriousness of the situation.”

Francis doesn’t have to look far for other examples of questionable treatment from the airline. Stephanie Allen, a friend who Francis met volunteering, tweeted at the airline in January about being singled out, along with another black passenger, to check their luggage. This, despite no formal announcement being made by the airline to ask for volunteers to check in carry-on luggage:

Hi @AirCanada An agent (Julie) in YYC singled out me & the only other Black woman waiting to board 219 to *tell us* to check our carry on bags. No announcement asking for volunteers, no Qs if we needed the contents (Im traveling w someone in a wheelchair). The bias is stunning. (Note: Allen’s Twitter account is now private)

The company reached out after Allen took to Twitter, with an apology letter and the offer of a $200 voucher. Allen told CTV that she wasn’t looking to be compensated. Instead, she wants the airline to reassess their operations for bias and racial discrimination.

Air Canada did not response to Yahoo Canada’s request for an interview.

Francis says her lack of a sufficient response from the airline is why she’s taken steps to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, since Air Canada is a federally regulated body. They’ve declined mediation, so Francis is waiting to hear back on a hearing date. Until then, Francis says she fears travelling as a result of her experiences, which aren’t limited to the one she filed a human rights complaint about. She says she’s also been pulled out of lines at airports and accused of dealing drugs as a result of her frequent travels. 

“I want Air Canada to do something systematically to deal with our experiences,” says Francis. “It is systemic to me.”