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Parents irked toddler's name is on Canadian no-fly list

Sebastian Khan, seen with his parents Zamir Khan and Heather Harder, is on the no fly list which has caused delays every time his family has tried to fly.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Like many toddlers, Sebastian David Khan loves to marvel and coo at big noisy vehicles – including airplanes. The problem he faces is that airline security screeners don't seem to like him very much.

Each of the eight times the 21-month-old has boarded a domestic flight in Canada, his parents have been asked to present him in person first. That way, airline clerks can eyeball him, call a security centre to relay his age and appearance, and in doing so reassure authorities that the boy is no aviation threat.

Sebastian's parents, who have no problems flying themselves, say they have been told this happens because their son's name matches that of an adult red-flagged on a government no-fly watchlist. Yet, they cannot get officials to tell them much more than that, or to ratchet down the screening measures that seem to take no account of age.

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"I make offhand remarks – 'He's a baby!'" says Heather Harder, the boy's exasperated mother.

She says that while airlines always do eventually let her son board after 10 to 20 minutes of extra precautions, she finds the process time-consuming and galling.

"I know it seems like a minor inconvenience, but travelling with an infant is a minor feat in itself," she said in an interview in her living room in London, Ont., on Monday. She spoke with Sebastian on her lap, pulling and munching on her necklace and occasionally interrupting her with cries demanding a feeding.

The Canadian government's secretive handling of no-fly lists has been a chronic issue over the past 15 years. But it resurfaced anew this week after the ordeal of a six-year-old came to light. CBC reported that Syed Adam Ahmed of Markham has also been consistently routed to stepped-up screening, again because of watchlist false positives and with age having no apparent bearing on procedures.

The Canadian government administers its aviation watchlists through the Passenger Protect Program, which is jointly administered by the Public Safety and Transportation ministries.

The negative publicity has prompted Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's office to promise to examine cases of red-flagged children, and the minister has e-mailed Sebastian's family directly to say he will look into the case. However, the administration of no-fly lists is not identified as a government priority in the mandate letter Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent to Mr. Goodale late last year.

Sebastian's parents say they don't know which specific blacklist their son's name is on, or how it got there in the first place. It appears to them to be some sort of list maintained by the Canadian government, given their son has no passport and has never gone further than Saskatchewan or New Brunswick.

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Zamir Khan, Sebastian's father, says he even called someone at Passenger Protect last year after airline officials first confirmed to him that his son name was on a government watchlist

Mr. Khan said that a program official spoke to him only on the condition of anonymity, and asked whether Sebastian was ever actually denied boarding. "I said 'Well of course not – he's 18 months old,' " Mr. Khan recalled. "She said 'I'm very sorry to tell you this, but unless he has been denied boarding, there is no redress to be sought.'"

Sebastian's parents argue that a system with no built-in redress for false positives is a bad system. They believe that it would be fairly easy for officials to screen travellers for age, so that children with the same names as banned travellers could be kept out of the mix.

Down the road, they worry whether their son's future might be harmed if he goes through life with some sort of ambiguous notoriety attached to his name. There is one other option they have discussed among themselves, but it is a horrible capitulation to contemplate.

"We've had these sad moments where we've had the discussion: Would we change his name?" said Ms. Harder.

"Maybe consider it as a last resort," said Mr. Khan. "We agreed when the kids were born they would have my last name, but if that's going to be the difference between them getting harassed on their travels, and not …" His voice trailed off.

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But "even then, that doesn't change the bigger issue," added Ms. Harder. "That it [the watchlist] is just not very well-executed."

The parents say they dream of the day they could just get a boarding pass at an electronic kiosk, like other passengers do.

"We enter his birth date when we buy his ticket," said Mr. Khan. "My question is, why can't they automate this?"

- An earlier version of this story had an incorrect age for Sebastian. This is the corrected version.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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