POLITICS
10/17/2011 03:51 EDT | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

Manitoba chiefs call for boycott of Air Canada over 'racist' Winnipeg hotel memo

WINNIPEG - Manitoba chiefs are calling for a six-month boycott of Air Canada over an internal memo they say incites hatred against aboriginals by linking them to crime.

Air Canada (TSX:AC) recently cited security concerns in a decision to stop using Winnipeg's downtown hotels for crew layovers. A memo to pilots explaining the decision appeared to link flood evacuees staying in the city with criminal activity.

Manitoba chiefs called the memo racist because the evacuees come from northern reserves. They wrote to Air Canada president Calin Rovinescu expressing their concerns but Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said they were unimpressed with the written response they received.

"Not only did we not get an apology, we did not get a response from the person to whom the letter was addressed," Nepinak said Monday.

"That is completely unacceptable, particularly in light of the fact that Air Canada’s careless remarks have incited hatred in the popular media against our people."

Air Canada sparked considerable criticism earlier in the month when it quietly moved its crew layovers to hotels closer to the airport. Winnipeg's mayor suggested the decision was made for financial reasons, but the airline insisted it was due to security concerns.

Flooding has "forced approximately 1,000 displaced people from rural Manitoba to numerous hotels in the downtown area," the memo said.

"Instances of public intoxication, resulting in several downtown locations being susceptible to crimes of violence and opportunity, have been observed by local police."

The memo did not specifically mention First Nations people, but the majority of evacuees were from reserves. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said 74 flood refugees remain in downtown Winnipeg.

"Our greatest concern is that Air Canada’s irresponsible remarks have created a situation where First Nation people, driven from their homes, are now being held responsible for the crime in downtown Winnipeg," Nepinak said.

"Air Canada has refused to accept responsibility for the commentary they made."

In a letter responding to Manitoba chiefs, Air Canada's senior vice-president of operations said the airline didn't mean to offend anyone. He pointed out the memo didn't specifically mention First Nations citizens.

Peter Fitzpatrick, spokesman for the airline, said the company didn't have anything else to add.

"The lack of appropriate response requires more direct action to be taken by our First Nations and the public and therefore a call for the boycott is necessary," Nepinak said. "We are going to hold Air Canada accountable."

The chiefs are also exploring their legal options, he added.

Grand Chief Morris Swan-Shannacappo of the Southern Chiefs Organization said it was irresponsible of Air Canada to blame people who had no alternative but to seek refuge in Winnipeg while their homes were threatened by flood waters.

Grand Chief David Harper with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents the province's northern First Nations, said the "hurtful" memo raises serious concerns about the company.

Winnipeg has long been the violent crime capital of Canada and that isn't the fault of flood evacuees, he said.

"You don't hear United or American Airlines blaming African-American minority groups in the (United) States for the crime rate in Los Angeles or New York," Harper said.