It is a shame that a number of Canadian toddlers and young children are being humiliated at the airport in the name of extra security checks and delayed in boarding their plane with their parents. How as a society have we reached this level of complacency, accepting that such actions are "normal" under the pretext of living in security?
The recent promise by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to open an investigation into the case of six-year-old Syed Adam Ahmed, whose name appears on Canada's no-fly list, isn't enough and here's why.
In 2007, when the Passenger Protection Program (PPP) -- copied on the U.S. model -- was established in Canada, the Canadian government at the time failed to produce any concrete evidence of the efficiency of such a program. Canada was under a lot of pressure from the U.S. government to have this program and prevent "unwanted" travellers from boarding planes. The problem with this list is that it is shrouded in secrecy. The number of persons listed is not public. It is estimated to be between 500-2,000 persons. The government refused to release the exact number, claiming that this might help the terrorists in their plans to attack or harm us.
Here we have to distinguish between two categories of passengers: those who are denied boarding and those who are delayed boarding a plane.
In the case of the children presented in recent media reports, we are dealing with the second category. It is known as a "false positive." In other words, these are people who do not represent any threat to security but are going to wrongfully end up on the no-fly list.
Since 2010, the government has been aware of this problem and hasn't taken any concrete measures to correct the situation. Rather, I suspect the situation has worsened since we now have cases of children brought to us as "false positives."
This is what Director General of Aviation Security at Transport Canada, Laureen Kinney, declared more than five years ago to the Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations about this topic:
"The other point that I might raise is that there have been approximately 850 potential false positive matches that our people have handled in the three years of the program..."
So at that time, this was already a huge number; I wonder how many cases we have today? Why can't Mr. Goodale give us this number?
Another disturbing question worth mentioning is why this six-year-old boy kept being delayed through the years even though Transport Canada claims that the list is refreshed every 30 days. Indeed, this is what Ms. Kinney said at the same committee in 2010:
"As I mentioned, the list is reviewed every 30 days. It is a built-in process. There is a meeting of the committee that looks at the Specified Persons List. We look at the list every 30 days in that process. The meeting is held without fail. The names that come forward for consideration deal with people who have demonstrated, in some fashion, the capability and intent to pose a threat to aviation security. Absolutely, it is not based in any way on ethnic, cultural, religious or other such factors. It is purely about what has happened, what has been done and what the specific facts of the individual are. Evident from the statistics of the program, the small number of people who have been matched indicate that is the case and it is applied that way in practice."
So assuming Syed Adam Ahmed's name was mistakenly added the first time and then brought to the attention of Transport Canada officials, we would expect that they would have refreshed the list after 30 days so his name should have been erased by the second or third attempt at boarding a plane, but Syed Adam Ahmed's parents said that this ordeal was repeated each time they tried to board a plane with their son, until recently.
And finally, there is the whole question of redress. In a democracy, there must be a judicial review process to accompany any government program to avoid arbitrary decisions and human mistakes that may occur. With these "false positive" cases, there is no such process. People affected are left with no recourse except the media.
Now that more and more parents are coming forward with similar stories about their kids being stopped and delayed in boarding their plane, it is time for the government to act swiftly. An investigation isn't enough. A total revamp of the no-fly list is needed as well as the implementation of a transparent judicial review that would allow everyone who has been prevented from travelling or delayed in flying to get the explanations they deserve.
Yesterday evening, Minister Goodale issued a statement promising that the government will hold public consultations on the PPP to make sure that Canadians will remain safe while upholding our democratic values. This is a very promising step. It is overdue.