A security guard at Prince George Airport resigned Apr 10 after members of an HIV/AIDS awareness organization expressed outrage at being told their flight to Vancouver would have to be wiped down when they deplaned as at least one person in the group allegedly had a disease.
On Mar 28, a group of 10 people from Positive Living North (PLN) were in the Prince George Airport boarding lounge awaiting a WestJet flight to Vancouver for a conference when a WestJet flight attendant allegedly expressed concern about the group’s sobriety, according to Alison Paul, a PLN prevention support worker and the travelling group’s point person.
“We had got through security and everything seemed to be flowing quite nicely, and I was approached by an attendant who kind of explained to me they have the right to refuse people flights if they are intoxicated,” recalls Paul.
“I assured her that there’s a lot of people here that yes, are on medication, prescribed medications, and I feel comfortable that my group is safe to fly or else I would probably not be asking them to join our group.”
As the flight continued to be delayed, Paul says she asked “what the holdup was” only to be told that arrangements were being made to have her group seated all together — a situation Paul says she found strange because “we already were sitting together.”
That was followed by an announcement about mechanical difficulties, she says.
“Then the next thing, the flight attendant approached me and asked if the pilot could speak to me. [He]asked me why I would have to have the plane wiped down. I said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ He said, ‘Didn’t you say?’ and I said, ‘No, I didn’t say anything [of] that sort.'” Upon questioning, the attendant revealed the request had come from security, Paul says.
Paul then spoke to the security guard, questioned his knowledge of her group’s medical statuses, and suggested he needed some training on HIV. Paul says the pilot apologized on the spot.
“He kinda touched me on the shoulder and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I had tears in my eyes, and I said, ‘You know, I’ve never been treated like this. I’ve flown all over Canada with groups of people to go to conferences and never have been treated like this,'” Paul recalls, noting that she was “a little bit touchy” by then.
“My emotions were a little bit high. And the pilot asked me if he was going to have any trouble with my group,” Paul alleges, “and I said, ‘No, we’re just trying to go to a conference.’ And basically that was the end of that. There were lots of apologies. We went and we got to our conference.”
Now almost a month after the incident, Paul says she’s still angry.
“Discrimination and stigma with HIV, in this day and age, with all the education that’s put out there, it really shouldn’t be happening anymore,” she says.
Great sadness is how PLN’s co-executive director Catherine Baylis described her reaction upon hearing about the incident.
“HIV/AIDS activists and people living with AIDS all over the world have, for close to three decades, been working to reduce this stigma,” she notes, “and still a whole group of people go through a traumatic experience like this. It’s saddening and disheartening.”
Baylis says the situation presents an opportunity to highlight the issues of HIV/AIDS and the lack of awareness that still exists. But she maintains it’s unfortunate that it had to happen “on the backs of those who are already oppressed.”
“These are people who are for the most part living with HIV, who are for the most part living at street level, who are for the most part aboriginal, and face various forms of stigma and discrimination, and so they felt spotlighted,” Baylis points out. “Everybody who was on the plane, who was scheduled to get on the plane with them, came to understand it was about them.”
Garda World Security media spokesperson Joe Gavaghan says the security guard involved “came to us and resigned” and Garda has accepted his resignation. He adds that Garda has apologized to PLN both “in the public statements that we made” and in meetings with the organization.
“We will be sending Catherine Baylis a formal letter of apology. We spoke to her, and we’d be happy to provide that to her,” Gavaghan told Xtra West Apr 18.
But another Garda spokesperson notes the guard’s letter of resignation makes no explicit link between his resignation and the wipe-down incident.
The letter cites health and personal reasons, according to Larry Johns, Garda’s general manager for BC and Fort McMurray, AB.
Gavaghan says Garda is now in discussions with Baylis and PLN about training programs for Garda staff.
“We have been talking with them about their assisting us in preparing some training progams for our people,” Gavaghan reveals. “At some point, we will arrange for that training to take place.”
Asked how universal that training would be, Gavaghan says it would cover the staff at Prince George Airport.
Garda personnel undergo training both from the company itself and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), Gavaghan notes, adding that the security firm is talking to PLN about the components they could add to the training already in place.
Baylis confirms that PLN will be doing some work with Prince George Airport security but feels it would be a good idea for all security at all airports to have sensitivity training.
“CATSA has not been in touch with Positive Living North, no,” says media spokesperson Mathieu Larocque when asked if the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, which gave Garda the contract to provide security and screening services at Prince George and other airports, had contacted PLN since the incident last month.
“[PLN] will be providing a sensitivity training to security staff at the airport, but other than that, we do not plan to be in contact unless we need to,” he says, adding that “so far, we don’t see the need.
“If there was a problem, we would be talking with them but right now, we don’t see any problem,” he maintains, pointing out that Garda has been in touch with PLN and that “the person in question resigned from Garda.”
Glyn Townson of the BC Persons With AIDS Society (BCPWA), hosts of the conference PLN members eventually attended, says he’s all for training for personnel in any public forum such as airport security. But he says there must be government responsibility at the federal level.
“It’s not about someone losing their job here,” says Townson, emphasizing that the bigger issue is education.
“I think it shows that in 2008 we still have a long way to go with our education in the community about HIV awareness,” he notes.
“When these kinds of public demonstrations of these people basically holding up a flight in public view, and people wiping things down — I mean I think in this day and age, it’s despicable. No one should have to suffer that kind of embarrassment,” he concludes.