Truck News


A Question of Race

TORONTO, Ont. - Is the trucking industry guilty of racial profiling?Certainly it's an issue for the industry; hassle-free crossings are crucial to transborder carrier efficiency, and media reports of ...

TORONTO, Ont. – Is the trucking industry guilty of racial profiling?

Certainly it’s an issue for the industry; hassle-free crossings are crucial to transborder carrier efficiency, and media reports of the difficulty Canadian-Arab in particular have passing through U.S. Customs certainly appear to be on the increase.

But whether these factors play a role in driver hiring decisions all depends on whom you ask.

Truck driver and Iraqi native Kali Al-Zamil, 39, suspects his ethnicity may be a problem, but he’s not sure.

He had started his first job, hauling for a southern Ontario paper company, when he was suddenly told to stay home because business was slow.

Al-Zamil stayed home for three weeks before he dropped by the company’s yard to see if business had picked up. He was told they’d already hired another driver. Problem was, Kali, who had five years of experience previously owning and operating his own truck and repair shop in Iraq, was never officially let go.

“I’m not sure it was because I’m Middle Eastern, but I think so. The dispatcher kept telling me ‘You don’t speak well.'”

According to Guy Rahim, owner of the Ontario Truck Driving School in Windsor, racial profiling is a reality trucking grads, especially those with Middle Eastern backgrounds, must face every day. The school was the training institution 23-year-old Jamal Akkal attended before being arrested in Israel last November on suspicion of terrorism.

“I definitely think there’s a tendency to equate ‘Middle Eastern’ with ‘terrorist,'” Rahim told Truck West in the days following reports of Akkal’s arrest.

“And I have no doubt that attitude has an influence on hiring practices in the trucking industry, especially when it comes to companies that have to cross the border every day. Students with Middle Eastern backgrounds, even if they are citizens, are having a harder time getting jobs. Companies just don’t want to risk them getting held up at the border.”

Jodie Bertozzi, director of the Road-Wise Truck Training School based in Hamilton, agrees.

“I train a lot of Middle Eastern guys, and it’s very difficult for them to get jobs. It’s not impossible though – but mostly they have to look for local work.”

Bertozzi said even those drivers who have all the necessary documentation are having difficulty crossing the border and therefore getting or retaining jobs.

“It’s funny, because I know of a guy who had a gun possession charge who got through Customs, but if that guy was Middle Eastern I bet you he wouldn’t have.”

The result is, companies are reluctant to hire drivers with Middle Eastern backgrounds, said Bertozzi.

“I was recently trying to find work for one guy from Iraq – so I contacted a local carrier and let him know I had someone available. But when I mentioned the guy was from Iraq, the guy said right out that he wouldn’t have a problem with it but the other drivers would.”

The example highlights the kind of fear and suspicion that is on the increase in the industry and across the country thanks to the atmosphere largely created by the U.S. “War Against Terror,” said Rula Sharkawi, communications director for the Canadian Arab Federation.

“In today’s post 9/11 environment, where individuals of Arab origin are treated with suspicion, especially at the border, I think it’s quite possible that cross border trucking companies would think twice about hiring a person who looks Middle Eastern, especially if they have a deadline and they want to make sure there are no delays,” said Sharkawi, who regularly receives reports of people who look Middle Eastern being interrogated at border crossings.

“Certainly if you have a driver who’s going to be treated as a criminal suspect every time they cross the border, you’re going to have a human resources hassle to deal with.”

Rula Sharkawi said she’d recently heard from a truck driver of Arab origin, a Canadian citizen, who’d been told by U.S. Customs they’d never let him back in.

“He was driving back from the U.S. into Canada, and his truck was inspected and they found a map of Ottawa in the cab. That’s when someone from U.S. Customs told him he’d never be able to return to the U.S.”

It turned out the map of Ottawa belonged to another driver – a driver who didn’t have any connections to the Middle East, which apparently made a world of difference when it came to Customs’ perception of the item.

“The driver had to get his company to clear the whole matter up with Customs, to explain to officials it wasn’t his map,” said Sharkawi. “It turned into a big deal for both him and his employer when it shouldn’t have.”

This sort of incident is what discourages employers from hiring people of Arab origin, said Sharkawi.

Even so, she said, employers should know better.

“There are laws against discrimination in this country,” she said pointedly.

Al-Zamil meanwhile, has already put his negative experience behind him.

He’s now waiting for his citizenship papers to come through, so he can haul cross border for McBurney Transport Ltd., with terminals in Hagersville and North Bay Ont.

“They say they’ll have work for me crossing the border once I get my papers,” Al-Zamil said.

When it comes to experience, Al-Zamil has excellent credentials. He drove and repaired his own truck in Iraq for five years, and spent his time at a refugee camp in the late eighties fixing trucks there.

He got to Canada eight years ago, after a group from the Canadian embassy vetted him for immigration here. Apparently he had the right skills.

But when Al-Zamil got here, his first job was at a Calgary slaughterhouse.

“I wasn’t a butcher in Iraq,” said Al-Zamil.

Finally, Al-Zamil moved himself and his family (who came over four years after he did) to Hamilton to take the truck driver training course at Road-Wise.

“I finished the course, got my licence and got the job driving for the paper company,” he said. “But after four weeks the company told me to stay home because it was slow.”

Despite the experience at the hands of his former employer, Al-Zamil said his exchanges with other truck drivers have been positive.

“I haven’t experienced any discrimination from other drivers. I saw a lot of them when I used to haul to Niagara Falls, and they were all really nice to me.”

And Al-Zamil has somehow managed to maintain hope for his future.

“I predict a good future in my career with McBurney,” he said.

Indeed, not all carriers appear to have become complicit in the atmosphere of fear and thinly veiled racism some critics of U.S. Customs contend is driving the government agency.

“I’ve never been one to judge people by their looks, if you know what I mean,” said Brian McBurney, CEO of McBurney Transport Ltd.

The company, which specializes in general freight, regularly hauls everything from lumber to drywall, to steel, food and even hazmat and explosives across the border to Detroit.

“I’ve already got one Middle Eastern guy working for me hauling into the States,” McBurney said. “He’s been working here for six months and I haven’t had a single complaint about him.”

Nor has the driver in question ever experienced border delays beyond what other drivers have experienced, said McBurney.

“He has his papers and they let him across. I told him and Kali – ‘You may have some trouble at first, but if you have your documentation together, and once they get to know you, you’ll get across just like everyone else.”

McBurney’s theory has so far proven true.

Al-Zamil is currently in the final stages of his in-house training, during which new drivers are paired up until they feel ready to hit the roads alone.

Then he’ll haul in Ontario until his papers come through.

“Then he’ll be crossing the border like everyone else.”

The question remains, however, as to whether Al-Zamil and other drivers of Middle Eastern origin, working at McBurney and elsewhere will ever be asked to haul hazmat or explosives into the U.S.

As to whether McBurney and others with similarly open recruitment practices are exceptions to the rule when it comes to hiring drivers with Middle Eastern backgrounds, KRTS president Kim Richardson says they aren’t.

“Absolutely not at all,” said Richardson.

“We have absolutely no such problems with the carriers we’re dealing with. But then again, we only work with eight companies. We choose our clients.”

Hiring practices at Challenger Motor Freight are untainted by racial discrimination, said Enno Jakobson, vice-president of risk management.

“I know there are difficulties crossing the border, because I myself am tanned and usually end up being scrutinized more closely at airports. But I think I can say without fear of getting hit by lightning that we haven’t used racial profiling or any discriminatory practices when hiring drivers. We hire drivers based on whether they meet certain criteria: they have to have clean driving records, the appropriate licences, the ability to enter the U.S., and so forth. As far as drivers with Middle Eastern backgrounds go, if they’re properly credentialed it’s not a problem getting across. We don’t have the attitude that Customs will refuse them just because they look or sound Middle Eastern.”

Besides, McBurney and Jakobson agree: the industry can’t afford to discriminate against drivers based on their ethnicity.

“Your driver pool will be severely limited if you start doing that,” said McBurney.

Added Jakobson: “Drivers are already an endangered species.”

Drivers who have questions about discrimination and their rights can contact the Canadian Human Rights Commission at 888-214-1090, or via e-mail

Drivers who believe they’ve been discriminated against because of their Middle Eastern backgrounds can contact The Canadian Arab Federation at 416-493-8635 or via e-mail at

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