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Air Canada Deemed Racist for Saying Displaced Aboriginals Make Downtown Winnipeg Dangerous

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As if long-term displacement from flooding wasn’t enough, aboriginals stuck in hotels in downtown Winnipeg for months have now been branded “dangerous” by Air Canada, which suggested in an internal memo that their presence was the reason it has decided to put personnel up in hotels closer to the airport.

Air Canada, having offended aboriginals with an internal memo containing allegedly racist inferences, has now given what Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs calls a halfhearted apology—which he's rejected.

The kerfuffle erupted after the September 23 memo that Air Canada wrote to employees explaining that they will no longer spend layovers in downtown Winnipeg.

“In response to several reports indicating questionable safety in the area surrounding the Radisson Hotel in downtown Winnipeg a Security Assessment was conducted, in conjunction with the Winnipeg Police Service, by Air Canada Corporate Security,” the memo said. “Recent environmental issues have forced approximately 1,000 displaced people from rural Manitoba to numerous hotels in the downtown area. Instances of public intoxication, resulting in several downtown locations being susceptible to crimes of violence and opportunity, have been observed by local Police.”

The missive ends with, “Authorities anticipate displaced people to be an issue for another 12 months.”

Aboriginals jumped on the memo as soon as it started circulating.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. They're picking on the First Nations people who've been flooded out," said Lake St. Martin Chief Adrian Sinclair, according to the QMI news agency.

Nepinak called the airline irresponsible, ignorant and racist for sending out the memo, QMI said. Although he knows of "certain specific individual people" who made trouble, he said, they had been kicked out.

"I think it's unfair to characterize any one group of people with broad strokes," Nepinak said to QMI. "It is entirely inappropriate for one of Canada's largest corporations to link the presence of First Nations citizens in Winnipeg's downtown core with any increased security risk. To attribute any community of people as posing an increased risk of violence or criminal activity is just, plain and simple, racist."

Although Nepinak said an apology from the airline "would absolutely go a long way," he rejected the one that Air Canada did offer, calling it halfhearted.

Winnipeg has been home to an unwilling group of aboriginals who were forced off the Peguis, Ebb and Flow, and other reserves by flooding in May and have been unable to return. They don’t want to be in downtown Winnipeg hotels any more than the airline wants them there and have in fact asked the federal government to house them in houses on an abandoned military base until they can rebuild.

On Wednesday October 5 the president of the University of Winnipeg, which is also located downtown, criticized Air Canada’s decision and wrote demanding an apology, the Canadian Press reported.

"When a major Canadian corporation blames a lack of safety and security in a large Canadian city on a specific community, the action is irresponsible, not to mention inaccurate," wrote university president Lloyd Axworthy, according to the Canadian Press. "As one of Canada's best-known companies, Air Canada should lead by example and I can only express my extreme disappointment and call upon you to reverse your decision and provide a full and unequivocal apology."

CBC News reported that Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz had spoken with Calin Rovinescu, the airline’s president, who told him that deals with other downtown hotels had fallen through, which was the main reason for the move to another hotel near the airport. The airline was not commenting to the media on Wednesday.