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Friday, January 23, 2009

EDITORIAL: A lot of people failed Dziekanski

January 23, 2009
Times Colonist

We all need, at least once in our lives, the help of strangers. And everyone has the chance, probably much more than once, to help a stranger in need.

Those acts of kindness -- those moments when we can give freely of our time and expertise, expecting nothing in return -- are a measure of our society.

By any measure, Robert Dziekanski was let down when he arrived at Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 13, 2007.

Dziekanski died after being tasered and restrained by four RCMP officers who were called after he began to throw furniture. By that point, he had been in the customs area of the airport for about eight hours.

An inquiry into his death is piecing together what happened to Dziekanski during that time. We hope that it is able to provide answers to his grieving mother.

We also hope it will provide lessons to us all -- lessons about what we can, and should, do when we see strangers trying to cope with the unfamiliar.

Consider that Dziekanski's mother and the man who drove her to the airport from Kamloops both tried repeatedly to get information about where Dziekanski was.

They were asking at the wrong spot -- an information booth designed to promote tourism, not help people deal with immigration officials. They were never told they were asking the wrong people.

They were, however, referred to another information booth, one that was no better prepared to answer their questions. Rather than being helped, they were simply shuffled along to someone else.

When they reached an immigration official by telephone, they were told there was no one matching Dziekanski's description in the international arrivals area.

They had Dziekanski paged, but he did not respond. That was because he was not in an area where the pages could be heard.

Nonetheless, the person who paged Dziekanski advised his mother that he "must have missed his connecting flight," so she should leave the airport for the day.

The inquiry will hear from many more people over the next month, including the four RCMP officers who responded to the call. We hope this will give us a better understanding of why he died, and why he spent several hours in the airport's secure area without being noticed by the people who work there.

The airport has instituted policy changes designed to ensure that people do not get lost in the shuffle the way Dziekanski did. Let's hope, as the airport prepares to greet the world for the Olympics, that it has learned valuable insight from the death of a lone Polish immigrant.

The inquiry has already made it clear that several people had a chance to get involved, but chose not to. And there had to be others inside the secure area who saw Dziekanski, but did not try to help.

It's impossible to say whether Dziekanski would have survived the airport if someone had intervened a few hours earlier. It might also be impossible to determine precisely why he remained in the secure area so long. The only person who could answer that is Dziekanski, and he is dead.

Ultimately, however, this is not just about one immigrant, coming from Poland for the promise of a better life in Canada. It is about our society, and our willingness and ability to offer help to those we don't even know.

It is too late for Robert Dziekanski. It is not too late, however, to help your neighbours, tourists or anyone else who has a need. Someday, someone else will surely return the favour.

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