An airport security video posted to YouTube has prompted Transport Minister John Baird to order an investigation into whether airlines are following the rules and checking the faces of covered passengers who board their flights.
The video, which was posted by a British man last month, shows passengers boarding an Air Canada flight in Montreal. The frame is small, the footage choppy and edited, but two female passengers appear to board the flight without removing scarves that may be obstructing their faces.
"If the reports are true, the situation is deeply disturbing and poses a serious threat to the security of the air-travelling public," Mr. Baird said in a statement released Sunday.
Airline personnel are required to verify passengers' identity before they board a flight.
A spokeswoman for Air Canada, Isabelle Arthur, said procedure calls for the identification of all passengers to be checked at the gate and that Muslim women wearing a niqab or burka can be isolated and their identification checked by a female employee.
"These are mandatory procedures that all employees must follow," she said. "We are aware of this video that has been on YouTube and … we have not only reinforced this mandatory procedure to all our employees but we are also working with Transport Canada on this matter."
The video shows a man hand over some passports to a gate agent. Some women, who appear to have their faces covered, though they never face the camera, file through. A musical score worthy of an action film and explanatory slides have been added to the footage.
"Two people with their faces covered except for their eyes were allowed to board the aircraft without being identified!" one of the slides reads.
In his statement, Mr. Baird said he has instructed his department "to immediately look into this matter and report back."
The video was posted online under the title: A major Canadian airline risks your safety, pandering to Muslim sensibilities.
It urged viewers to write to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and included the minister's office e-mail. The video generated thousands of hits and a slew of comments, including racial slurs and rants against political correctness.
It is not the first time the federal government has wrestled with the issue of verifying the identity of women who wear niqabs or burkas to cover their faces.
Elections Canada ruled in 2007 that veiled women can cast ballots - a decision with which Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he "profoundly" disagreed. It prompted the Conservative government to introduce legislation to overturn the agency's decision.
But the effort was abandoned last year and the Tories blamed a lack of opposition support.
With files from The Canadian Press