Transport Minister John Baird said Canada would have to review a U.S. plan to single out travellers arriving from specific countries for additional screening at airports to see whether adopting it might violate the rights of Canadians.
Civil liberties activists and Muslim leaders have expressed concern over new methods of screening passengers travelling into the U.S., which they say open the door to profiling based on race.
The U.S. Transportation Security Authority has instituted additional screening for anyone flying into the U.S. who is a citizen of or is travelling from any of the 14 countries deemed to be state supporters of terrorism or "of interest" to the U.S.
However, Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms prevents discrimination based on a citizen's country of origin. Baird said Wednesday it was unclear how the newly adopted measures in the U.S. might affect the rights of Canadians.
"We will get the specifics [of] what the request is from the United States and then come up with a Canadian response," he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper left open the possibility in an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge on Tuesday that Canada might not follow suit with similar restrictions and develop its own security policy.
"We're going to take a look at these measures very carefully, and we may arrive at different conclusions," Harper said.
14 countries focus of U.S. screening
The new U.S. screening procedures came in the wake of a failed attempt by a Nigerian man to set off a bomb on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.
The U.S. State Department lists Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism. The "countries of interest" include Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.
Canada has thus far not adopted the same country-of-origin screening policy, with Baird saying Tuesday that "100 per cent" of Canadian travellers bound for the United States could be subjected to secondary screening.
Both countries have stated that travellers selected through a screening process would be subjected to a body scan capable of detecting items hidden underneath clothing.
The government announced Tuesday that 44 scanners would be installed at major Canadian airports in the coming months in order to comply with new U.S. security protocols.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the policy of targeting travellers from specific countries opens the door to discriminatory racial profiling.
It also gives a false sense of security, the groups allege, since it would exclude such dangerous individuals as the men who perpetrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the U.S., who came from Germany, and the 2002 London shoe bomber, who held a British passport. Neither Germany nor the U.K. is on the watch list.
Security to watch for suspicious behaviour
Baird indicated that the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority will not focus on particular countries but instead identify passengers who exhibit suspicious behaviour and subject them to enhanced screening.
Former Muslim Canadian Congress founder Tarek Fatah, an often outspoken critic of conservative Islam, said he believed some screening should be in place to protect North Americans from the threat of terrorist attacks.
Canada's method of focusing on passenger behaviour is more reliable than the U.S. plan to target 14 countries, he said. The latter method will result in Muslim families, for example, being wrongly singled out while not doing enough to target young men travelling from countries not on the list.
"Using country status profiling is merely for President Obama to suggest that 'I am a tough guy'," Fatah told CBC.
Concerns of harassment
Canadian Civil Liberties Association general counsel Nathalie Des Rosiers expressed concern, however, that in light of the U.S. policy, the subjective nature of Canada's behavioural screening process might lead to profiling anyway.
"In the context of the pressures from the United States, that concerns us," she said.
Shahid Hashmi of the Canadian Pakistani Chamber of Commerce says even though he has lived in Canada for 37 years, he is concerned that since Pakistan is his country of birth and he is a Muslim he will be targeted by security officials when he next flies into the U.S.
"I'm quite nervous," he said. "I don't mind having a security check, but there is a difference between checking and harassing."
He said he understands the need for checks to prevent terrorism, but said the same check should be done on everyone.