07/07/2018 11:49 EDT | Updated 07/07/2018 11:49 EDT

Toronto Lawyer Files Complaint Against WestJet For Alleged Racial Profiling

Selwyn Pieters says police "surrounded" him without cause when he was trying to board a plane.

Colin Perkel / The Canadian Press
Lawyer Selwyn Pieters in Toronto on June 13, 2013, after The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled a tribunal was right to find he and two other black colleagues were racially profiled when asked for ID at a lawyers-only lounge at the courthouse in Brampton, Ontario.

TORONTO — The Canadian Transportation Agency is investigating a complaint from a Toronto lawyer who claims he was racially profiled by WestJet.

Selwyn Pieters, who is black, says the incident happened when he was trying to check in for a WestJet flight to Toronto on July 2, at the conclusion of a weeklong trip to Trinidad and Tobago, where he was doing legal work.

Pieters says the employee at the check-in counter told him he had been flagged by the company, as he was travelling with a one-way ticket, and asked him how he purchased his tickets.

He told The Canadian Press that he thought it was strange because WestJet would know he purchased tickets directly from their website. He also took video of the questioning on his cellphone.

'Surrounded' by police

Pieters says in his complaint that after he answered the questions, he was told he could not check in and police officers from The Airports Authority of Trinidad and Tobago "approached" and "surrounded" him. Pieters was eventually allowed to board his flight.

The complaint comes on the heels of an accusation from political speech writer Jared A. Walker that the airline's baggage policy, which allows passengers to travel to Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago with golf clubs but not any other excess baggage, is discriminatory.

WestJet CEO Edward Sims emailed Pieters after receiving a copy of the complaint, apologizing for his experience and saying WestJet doesn't tolerate discrimination, adding he will respond further after reviewing the incident.

Colin Perkel / The Canadian Press
Lawyer Selwyn Pieters speaks outside coroner's court in Toronto on June 30, 2017.

"I was very concerned about my safety," Pieters said. "I was also offended that WestJet's approach to being accountable to a customer is to put it in the hands of the police."

Pieters said he told police that he refused to delete his cellphone footage, explaining that they'd need a warrant, and also declined to show his video recording the WestJet employees.

'A violation of my dignity'

An officer told him he'd been labelled by WestJet as "non-co-operative," Pieters said, noting the police left after determining there was no disturbance.

Pieters said he considered buying a ticket from Caribbean Airlines instead, but gave WestJet "one last effort" to allow him to check in and he was allowed to board the flight.

"I felt a violation of my dignity and human rights as a passenger," Pieters said of the encounter. "It is embarrassing and shameful to be stereotyped."

WestJet's apology doesn't address his concerns but "it is a start," said Pieters, who has filed complaints regarding racial profiling before.

Last year he settled his Human Rights Tribunal complaint with the Law Society of Upper Canada after he alleged he was barred from entering the Osgoode Hall headquarters.

The Canadian Transportation Agency said it has received Pieters' complaint and is looking into the matter.

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