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Ottawa tight-lipped on delay to improving no-fly list

Currently, airlines are required to screen their flight manifests against the Secure Air Travel Act list, which is meant to prevent people with terrorist ties from getting on flights.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The federal government has stalled without explanation a plan to create a system that would allow smooth travel for Canadian airline customers, including children, whose names closely match those on the no-fly list.

Last November, The Globe and Mail reported that cabinet was presented with a proposal to allocate $78-million annually until 2022 and $12-million every year thereafter to set up an independent no-fly list controlled by Public Safety, Transport Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency. However, the money didn't appear in the federal budget last month, leaving the parents of affected children disappointed and confused.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale wouldn't comment on the proposal Monday, citing cabinet confidence, but said the government is trying to fix a "seriously deficient" no-fly-list database it inherited from the previous government.

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"It takes an entirely new redesign of the system and the database. It also takes a lot of very substantial regulatory changes. We are working on all of that. The work is not done yet. There's a lot more that needs to be accomplished but we're trying very hard to remedy a problem that we inherited from a previous government."

But a source familiar with the proposal says Finance and Treasury Board did not approve the proposal. When asked why the funding wasn't in the budget, Finance Minister Bill Morneau's office said it doesn't comment on cabinet leaks, decisions or funding deliberations.

Currently, airlines are required to screen their flight manifests against the Secure Air Travel Act list, which is meant to prevent people with terrorist ties from getting on flights. However, airlines have been known to use other non-Canadian security lists when vetting their passengers, which has led to some Canadians being falsely identified as being on the no-fly list.

A government-controlled system would allow Canadians whose names closely match those on the list to apply for a unique identification number – known as a redress number – which they could use at the time of ticket purchase to clear their name before their flight, preventing delays at the airport.

Over the past year, the government has come under pressure to create a Canadian system after complaints from airline passengers.

Dozens of families came forward after the father of Canadian-born Syed Adam Ahmed tweeted a photo of an Air Canada message showing his then-six-year-old son was "deemed high profile." The family was on their way to Boston for the NHL Winter Classic.

Mr. Ahmed has been leading a campaign asking the government to create a redress system. The campaign, which uses the hashtag #NoFlyListKids, has so far identified more 62 affected families.

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Natalie Pierre, whose 16-year-old son Mike Pierre has faced delays at airports most of his life because his name is similar to one on the no-fly list, has been lobbying Ottawa to fix the problem for years. She said that while she was disappointed the funding for a new system did not make it into the budget, she is hopeful the government will eventually set aside the money to do so. She recently spoke to Mr. Goodale, who encouraged her to write to Mr. Morneau asking for the funding.

"I think our message has been received. I find the government is listening to us and we're just kind of waiting for the next step," Ms. Pierre said. "I think the money is a hurdle."

The government has recently set up a new federal office to deal with false name matches on the Canadian no-fly list. The Passenger Protect Inquiries Office provides an appeal process and works closely with the bilateral working group established by Canada and the United States to help sort out identity errors. However, the families of those affected say a formal system is needed because their children are still on the no-fly list after applying for an appeal with the office.

Heather Harder's son Sebastian David Khan was first flagged by an airline when he was only six weeks old. She said she was initially told the delay was the result of an error she made when booking her son's travel. But after repeated delays at the airport, Ms. Harder learned that Sebastian, now three years old, had a similar name to one on the no-fly list.

Ms. Harder said she cannot check Sebastian in online before a flight and has to show up three hours in advance so she has enough time to deal with delays at the check-in counter. She said a Canadian redress number would, in theory, clear her son for trouble-free travel.

"We would provide documents to prove that Sebastian is not the person that they're worried about and once we've proven that, they would give us this number and … because of that second piece of information, the airline and the government would immediately know, 'Oh this isn't the person we are worried about. Go ahead, enjoy.'"

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, she was the associate producer of CTV’s Question Period and a political writer for CTVNews.ca. Michelle has also worked as a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics, covering foreign affairs, defence and immigration, and as a city desk reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. More

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