OTTAWA - Canada's bilingualism watchdog is going undercover at eight major airports to see if travellers are served equally well in English and French.
Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser says his office will conduct more than 1,500 anonymous observations this fall at airports in Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.
He says audits of some of those airports have been done in the past, but this will be the first time so many are done at once.
"I've been interested in the language rights of the travelling public really throughout my mandate," Fraser said Wednesday.
"So at different times, we've been looking at different aspects of what the traveller's experience is. We've looked at border services, we've done an audit of Air Canada's service to the public, and now we're looking at airports."
All airports that serve more than one million passengers a year must provide services in both English and French.
The commissioner will check if signs are in both official languages, if staff offer a bilingual greeting to travellers and if services are available in French in predominantly English-speaking parts of the country and in English in French-speaking parts.
Past audits have resulted in airports becoming more bilingual, Fraser said, pointing to airport bookstores adding French titles to their shelves, or tuning television sets by the baggage carousels to channels in both languages.
The commissioner's office says the project will include observations of Air Canada's services on the ground and in the air on flights designated as bilingual.
"We get a lot of complaints about Air Canada," Fraser said.
"Often there are complaints about announcements that are not made in both languages, services that are not given by personnel. It's often directed at Air Canada, but sometimes it also applies to the airport authorities themselves."
It will also look at the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority's third-party services in security areas.
The commissioner's office will share its recommendations with the airports after it finishes the survey.
"Once people are aware that this is what they should be doing, they're often pretty good and pretty imaginative in creating an environment in which both languages are seen and heard."
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) has received a large number of complaints about the body scans now being taken at airports. The following is a sampling of the outrage expressed by travellers.<br><br> (BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)
From a traveller at the Montreal airport: "I am writing to voice a complaint about security screening yesterday (October 18, 2010) in the U.S. departure wing, around 10:30 am. I was flagged for additional screening and asked to do a full body scan. When I asked for a pat down from a female agent, the male security agent refused and said "everyone" did the body scan. He also told me that it was not a body scan but a radio-frequency scan and no image of my body would be made. He also made the comment "sorry, I can't do your pat down," indicating that he would have liked to. However, the machine was clearly a full body scanner, as confirmed in news reports. The full body scan should never be lied about or forced on passengers. I wanted to draw this to your attention."
An elderly woman from Victoria, B.C., wrote to complain that she felt a CATSA officer had threatened her with a naked full-cavity body search if she didn't go through the scanner.<br><br> "A male security agent said to me, in a manner that sounded like he was joking, "would you like to have a full body search?" ... if not, then proceed to the body scanner. I was quite taken aback, but proceeded. Upon exiting the scanner, the female agent distractedly told me to basically move along. After retrieving my belongings, I walked away trembling, found a chair and sat down and cried. I am a [woman's age blanked out] travel somewhat frequently, and am not given to emotional outbursts. However, for whatever reason, I found this very disturbing. I felt I was treated without respect and my dignity was violated."<br><br> The woman went on to say she would like more information, specifically if the "full-body search" the screen officer mentioned "involved being naked, and cavities probed?"
From a passenger flying through the Ottawa airport: "Despite the fact I was wearing shorts, the machine indicated I had objects on my calves, which resulted in a pat down from the CATSA officer. I am complaining about the waste of time this process was. It achieved nothing except delay me."
An older woman who flies through Halifax said she is protesting scans by implementing her own boycott: "Rather than refusing to go through the scanners, I have significantly reduced my flying trips to the US. There are at least 10 short haul trips to the US that I have made by car rather than flying with Air Canada as I used to do ... Because I am an older woman, I am often chosen for extra pat downs so that the screeners can demonstrate that they are not profiling."
Another Halifax traveller is refusing to fly altogether because of scans: "In light of the recent introduction of blatantly intrusive and gratuitous manhandling at Canadian airports, I will no longer fly. When faced with two choices, sumit to molestation or submit to naked body scanning with equipment that has no real long-term safety testing, I choose neither. My only question is this: How is it that Israel, a country with a MUCH more real threat of daily terrorism manages to operate its airlines without naked body scanners? I am aware of the threat of terrorism and the need for safety, yet I am also aware that a naked body scan might not find something that has been inserted into a body cavity, should we expect cavity searches to come complimentary with our airline passes? You see how this does not have an end."
A man travelling through Montreal's airports expressed concern that he was racially profiled: "I was instructed by your security person to step into a glass chamber. I asked him why I was selected. He said everyone in that line had to do it. After going through that I realized it was the "naked" X-ray machine. I was never given a choice. My wife [word blanked out] was given the choice to be patted down or to go through the machine. She chose the pat down. In the US we are told that we have a choice. I complained to the supervisor at that post and identified the person who forced me to undergo this treatment without my consent ... I think this was a violation of my civic rights ... My wife and I spent more than $2,000 in Canada on this trip, in a country [words blanked out] I will be reluctant to travel to Canada again and I will exercise my influence with every professional organization to avoid Canadian cities for conferences ... I want an investigation and the person responsible to be reprimanded if he violated your policy. On the other hand, it might well be your policy [words blanked out] in a sneaky ways,"
Another passenger in Halifax: "I do not think it should be an option to view children naked and ask that you do not use it on anyone under 18. Also, please do not ever make them mandatory as it is an invasion of privacy."
A traveller on a WesJet flight from Regina to Calgary last February complained that the scanner made her sick: "This was my first time to go through the body scan. As soon as I stepped into the scanner I immediately began to feel sick. I looked at the agent to my left for instructions and just moving my head made me very dizzy. As I stepped out of thee scanner I was very dizzy and sick to my stomach. I notified the agent and she called for the supervisor. I could barely stand. They sat me down and after about 10-15 minutes I began to feel a little better. The supervisor took my information and assured me he would file a report. The agents took very good care of me and showed concern. I stood up to leave the area and I was just OK. When I sat down again I became very sick and extremely dizzy again. I was concerned if I would even be able to fly. After about 30-45 minutes after the scan I returned to normal. Just wanted you to be aware of the side effects of the scanner."
A Calgary traveller voiced his outrage that the government has purchased full body scanners: "Searching random individuals does not improve airport security, nor do I believe Health Canada's assertions that the full body scan of radio waves is harmless. This same agency approved cigarettes and bpa in plastics. This technology is merely a smoke and mirrors show to make a certain portion of the population feel safer. I will continue to opt for the UNNECESSARY full body pat down rather than be subjected to these manipulative devices."
"I find the new screening process ridiculous for domestic lights. This so called random selection for additional screening has singled me out each of the 6 times I've flown in the past month. I do not believe the body scanners are safe, especially considering how often I am being subjected to them. I cannot fathom how they could have been diligently tested considering how quickly they were deployed. Furthermore, recent <a href="http://www.edmontonsun.com/news/canada/2009/09/11/10834091-sun.html" target="_hplink">newspaper articles have highlighted the deficiencies in the little testing that was done</a>. The alternative physical search is tantamount to molestation and a gross afront to my privacy."
A traveller at Halifax International Airport said a security agent said "there was nothing to fear" and handed the complainant a pamphlet explaining the machine.<br><br> "Now as an epidemiologist, I am aware of research into health effects. I was astounded to see that the agent had absolutely no knowledge regarding current research into this device. I asked her about the risks of going through this device. She said there wasn't any. I said that although Health Canada allows its use, its effects on health are still a) debated, and b) not fully known. The agent was getting impatient, and I was getting more unsettled by her lack of knowledge which was not at all reassuring, and by the fact that I felt pressured."
"On January 21st, 2011, I was flying from YUL to FLL. I was placed in a line with what looked to be a new machine. I knew that airports were implementing the 'naked' body scanners and I believe that I have the option to opt-out and request a pat down. However, I was unsure if this was in fact one of those machines as there were NO signs indicating so ... Being unsure - I asked the agent 'is this that naked scanner thing?' He laughed, and said No..no.. and I believed him. Why wouldn't I? Well it turns out, it was that body scanner that I was sent through. I am absolutely OUTRAGED that my rights have been completely violated. I would have 100% opted out of the scan and requested a pat down for 2 main reasons. 1 - health risks: [information dealing with the passengers medical information has been blanked out ] It is my understanding that YUL only uses milimetre wave technology. If this is true - How often are the machines serviced and or calibrated? Novermind the fact that we don't really have a lot of data regarding the potential health risks of these machines, but it is a fact that if the machines have not been calibrated properly it CAN cause burns. I would never put myself at this risk. [information blanked out.] 2nd reason is PRIVACY: I am being STRIP SEARCHED without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion and this goes against my charter rights."
One traveller at the Calgary International Airport was upset CATSA officers didn't inform passengers of the risks involved in going through the scanners:<br><br> "I understand that the amount of radiation a traveller is exposed to in one of these machines meets the arbitrary standard set out by Health Canada, however, the risk is still not zero, and had I been told of this most basic information, I would have gladly consented to a pat down search instead. My issue has, therefore, less to do with the dangers of radiation to one's body than to the fact that travellers are blindly given the choice of a "pat down or a scan" without being told even the minimum advantages and disadvantages of each choice. This altercation ended in my being verbally vilified by the screening staff (one female employee had a particularly confrontational tone of voice which I did not appreciate) for standing up for my rights and demanding why these risks had not been told to me when I had first been given the choice of a pat down or a scan."