Montreal woman's curly hair searched at airports 3 times since May

Montreal writer Christine Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority after her curly hair was physically searched three times in a row after going through the airport security body-scanner. (Chloe Ranaldi/CBC - image credit)
Montreal writer Christine Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority after her curly hair was physically searched three times in a row after going through the airport security body-scanner. (Chloe Ranaldi/CBC - image credit)

With the lifting of most pandemic restrictions, writer Christine Rodriguez has been travelling a lot for work lately, going in and out of airports regularly to get to festivals and media events.

But with the return to air travel has come an unpleasant experience: Rodriguez has had her hair searched by airport security agents three times in less than two months.

The third time it happened was about two weeks ago, at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

"I was really upset because it's just — it's not random. It's happening to me, like, every time I travel," said Rodriguez, a Montrealer, in an interview with CBC News.

Rodriguez, who has a mixed racial background, often wears her crown of brown hair in a ponytail.

Even when she undid her ponytail and shook her hair out at the security gate, the agents said they would have to check her hair with their own hands, she said.

"They don't seem to understand that it's deeply offensive and invasive," said Rodriguez.

Nancy Falaise is a Black hair stylist in Montreal who specializes in curly hair. Falaise said there is a history of Black women having their hair touched by strangers without their consent, and mixed into that history is the persecution Black women have faced for wearing natural hairstyles.

Nancy's Workshop | CBC Short Docs
Nancy's Workshop | CBC Short Docs

"It enhances the trauma that we've incurred for many years about not feeling pretty enough, always having to straighten our hair to look professional," said Falaise. "And now we can't catch a flight with our crowns?"

Rodriguez said the searches, which took place at three different Canadian airports, happened after she had entered the body scan machine at the security gate.

The first time, on May 20, Rodriguez said she thought the request was a joke but went along with it because the agent conducting the search was a Black woman.

"I didn't feel too threatened because she probably could relate to my experience," Rodriguez said.

The second time it happened was in June, and the third, two weeks after that. The checks began to feel like a "physical violation," she said.

Scanners triggered by certain styles?

In the U.S., there have been several reports of Black women with curly hair having similar experiences.

In 2015, a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California prompted the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to conduct sensitivity training "with special emphasis on hair pat-downs of Black female travelers," according to the ACLU.

However, even after that, ProPublica, an American investigative journalism nonprofit organization, found the pat-downs were still happening frequently.

ProPublica surveyed several hundred women of all races with curly hair.

It reported that the alarms on the scanners, which are now found in most international airports across North America, "are frequently triggered by certain hairstyles" and that agents are required to conduct a pat-down when that happens.

The TSA made a request to vendors in 2018 for help to "improve screening of headwear and hair in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act," according to ProPublica. "That law bars federally funded agencies and programs from discriminating — even unintentionally — on the basis of race, colour or national origin."

CATSA aims for 'respectful' approach

CBC contacted the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), which is responsible for the screening of people and baggage at airports across the country.

In a written response, CATSA said that while it cannot comment on a specific case until it has investigated an official complaint, the federal agency aims to screen people in a respectful and professional manner. It encouraged Rodriguez to file a complaint, which she says she has done.

"When an issue has been identified, we work to investigate and review the passenger's screening process and ensure procedures are being followed and additional training for screening staff is provided if required," CATSA spokesperson Suzanne Perseo said in an email.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

Fo Niemi, the director of the Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said the hair checks appear to have become more common in Canada.

He said CATSA agents should undergo racial sensitivity training with a special focus on gender, so that if protocol still requires agents to conduct pat-downs on people's hair, they can do so with a more thoughtful approach.

"Many Black travellers have been subject to differential treatment and excessive scrutiny at airports," Niemi said. "This is another incident that eventually may require a policy change."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.