Air Canada accused of discrimination by Amnesty International head

Angel DiBilio /

The secretary general of Amnesty International Canada has accused Air Canada of racism and discrimination after she was denied boarding for a flight to Mexico City. 

Ketty Nivyabandi was traveling from Ottawa’s Macdonald-cartier International Airport (YOW) to Mexico City International Airport (MEX) on March 30, 2023 for a work conference. 

However, Nivyabandi said in a Twitter thread and during an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), that the confusion of airline staff and misinformation about documents led to her being denied boarding for the flight.

Nivyabandi, who is originally from Burundi, is a permanent resident of Canada. She holds a government-issued refugee travel document in lieu of a Canadian passport when she travels.

CBC said that, according to the Canadian government, these documents are sufficient evidence of an individual’s immigration status and should allow them to travel outside the country.

The airline staff did not seem to be aware of this and insisted that Nivyabandi required a visa to enter Mexico. 

“I was simply stunned when I was told that I couldn’t board and my luggage was returned to me. That is not a scenario that I expected at all,” Nivyaandi told CBC. 

Nivyabandi then received confirmation from the Embassy of Mexico in Canada that she did not require a visa to enter Mexico. 

“We have reached out to Michel Rousseau,” Nivyabandi said in a Twitter thread, adding that there had been: “No response yet. No apology”.

Nivyabandi also denounced the treatment she received, calling the experience “unacceptable discrimination”.

“I was the victim of racism,  discrimination and sheer incompetence. The agents eyes lit up when they heard I was born in Belgium: “this may help!” they exclaimed, showing clear bias towards European travelers. The senior agent on the phone still refused to have me board,” Nivyabandi wrote on Twitter.

Nivyabandi later wrote an update saying she had spoken with the airline’s VP who apologized on behalf of the company. Nivyabandi said she requested a public apology and a meeting with the airline’s CEO “to address the experiences of other Convention refugees, Black, racialized travelers”.

Amnesty International also condemned Air Canada’s treatment of Nivyabandi, stating on their website that Air Canada must publicly apologize for the racist treatment of Amnesty International’s secretary general. 

“It’s outrageous and unacceptable that Air Canada has refused to allow Ketty Nivyabandi to board her flight, despite her meeting all the legal requirements to travel to Mexico. Air Canada staff at the Ottawa airport treated Ketty in a discriminatory and racist manner, humiliating her and preventing her from participating in an important human rights conference at her destination. We demand a public apology from the airline and reparation for the harm caused, which must include immediately issuing her a new ticket to fly as soon as possible,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International said in a statement.

Air Canada told CBC that it had since “obtained further clarity on the rules” and has apologized to Nivyabandi.

“These rules can be complex and may vary from country to country, particularly in instances where a customer is traveling on a less-commonly used type of document, such as in this instance, a refugee document,” Air Canada said to CBC, adding that airlines are subject to penalty if they allow passengers to fly without proper documentation. 

“It is Air Canada’s policy to treat every customer with respect and courtesy and this is how we responded to Ms. Nivyabandi’s situation at Ottawa airport,” the airline said.

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