Racism, sexism, denial: two Victoria women's claims against WestJet

Westjet

Two Victoria women are calling out WestJet for what they call systemic, pervasive, racism, and sexism that they say the company is refusing to admit to, or make amends for.

UVic indigenous student Nikki Sanchez and former WestJet employee Mandelana Lewis are creating awareness about WestJet’s alleged denial of racism and sexism following their formal complaints.  

This action comes after Sanchez made an Instagram post in January  that went viral, claiming a WestJet employee made racist remarks towards her saying “you people can’t handle your booze.” WestJet denies it happened. In terms of responding to Sanchez’ complaint, in one email to CFAX,  WestJet claims they couldn’t get a hold of Sanchez despite numerous attempts to, but in another say they spoke on the phone nine times. In the weeks after the incident, Sanchez says the only contact she had was when she made the formal complaint and when WestJet made comments on her Instagram post.

In an official statement, WestJet say  they “strongly dispute” the allegations and say “they have evidence that significantly contradicts” Sanchez’s “version of events.”  They also say that “WestJet has a zero tolerance policy for racism and discrimination.”

This story caught the attention of Lewis, who is spearheading a proposed class action lawsuit against WestJet claiming WestJet breached a harassment contract with its employees and failed to keep its female flight attendants safe from sexual harassment. In her affidavit, she claims at least 30 women have reached out to her, sharing their stories of workplace sexual harassment and/or assault. 

Though Sanchez says she was advised by a Human rights lawyer to take legal action against WestJet, Sanchez says she wanted to de-escalate the situation and a letter was sent asking to meet, to give them an opportunity to improve their services and ensure that Indigenous people feel safe when they fly with the airline. 

WestJet declined that invitation, saying they had conducted a “full and thorough investigation” already and were “confident” in the information they had given the media, “…We have full confidence in the capability and sensitivity of our staff. We stand behind the substantial training we provide on cultural protocols, guest relations, and issue management and resolution. This includes working with Indigenous groups,…” said WestJet in an email to Sanchez’ lawyer.

“That investigation didn’t involve me in any way. They never spoke to me,” said Sanchez. “It was very difficult to understand how they could, in the same letter, express their commitment for ensuring the cultural safety of Indigenous customers while also refusing to have a conversation addressing racial profiling that had taken place with their airline.”

After WestJet declined meeting Sanchez, they told CFAX that the Vice President called and left a message on her phone, which Sanchez confirmed. 

The claims against WestJet by both Lewis and Sanchez are linked by the allegations that the company is not properly investigating claims or following up with victims after they file formal complaints. 

In Lewis’s case, after she claims she was sexually assaulted by a pilot, she says her superiors at WestJet told her not to report it, and she was told that if she continued to talk about the assault, she could be subjected to progressive discipline, including termination.  

Lewis claims she later learned the pilot that she accused of assaulting her had a history of sexual assaults towards other flight attendants. She says he is still employed with WestJet today, while she was eventually fired for insubordination. In a court filing, WestJet said they were “unable to conclude” that Lewis was assaulted by the pilot.   

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada shot down WestJet’s appeal to throw out Lewis’ proposed class action, in what she says has been a four year battle to bring them to court.

A 2016 audit of the company also found WestJet’s policies and procedures to be lacking.

Ernst and Young (EY), a professional services company hired by WestJet, conducted an audit of the company’s reporting procedures, as well as practices for a safe and harassment-free work environment for its employees.

EY reported that WestJet’s policies may not reflect current regulatory requirements, human rights commission standards, or leading practice benchmarks.

“A RITW policy is in place, however, it is not well understood by some employees leading to inefficiencies, contradictions on how to address issues, knowledge gaps, avoidable risks, and inconsistencies in its application,” the report reads.

The list had 23 recommendations for improvement, and six strengths, including that a RITW policy exists that is accessible and corporate commitment to safety is a core organizational value. 

Despite the negative and abusive reactions the two women had to endure over social media in the wake of the allegations, for both Lewis and Sanchez, these are not issues that will just be swept under the proverbial rug. 

“I want people to understand that coming forward to address systemic oppression, whether it be race or gender, often means that the people who speak out are re victimized and attacked. It's not in any way fun or enjoyable to pursue,” said Sanchez, who adds that all that she wanted from this was to find a meaningful resolution and work for better practices from WestJet going forward.

“It just becomes that enough is enough. Especially following the BMO incident in Vancouver where a grandfather and 12 year old were put in handcuffs, I feel like we can no longer be silent about structural racism in Canada and the toll that it takes on Indigenous and people of colour.”  

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