'Treated like a terrorist:' Edmontonians urge federal government to fix no-fly system

An Edmonton university graduate and a professional planner flagged on Canada’s no-fly list are among those urging the federal government to overhaul the system in next year’s budget.

'The customer service representative said I should change my name back to my maiden name'

Albertans Eleanor Mohammed and Bashir Mohamed say they've faced extra screening for years because their names match individuals on Canada's no-fly list. (Supplied)

An Edmonton university graduate and a professional planner flagged on Canada's no-fly list are among those urging the federal government to overhaul the system in next year's budget.

The request is backed by Edmonton Liberal MP and Transport Minister Amarjeet Sohi, one of 200 MPs who have written letters to the Liberal finance minister and public safety minister, according to No-Fly List Kids, a group of families affected by the list across Canada.

For years, Bashir Mohamed, 22, didn't give much thought to the extra screening he faced at airports, or his inability to check in at a kiosk or online. But he grew more suspicious as Canadians complaining of being being wrongfully flagged on the list began making headlines.

But Mohamed, who is also known for his advocacy against police carding, couldn't confirm if he was on a terror watch list — until last Sunday.
Bashir Mohamed says the airport check-in screen he saw Sunday confirmed he was on Canada's no-fly list. (Bashir Mohamed)

While en route to Vancouver, Mohamed ran into the usual delays. But at the check-in counter, he caught a glimpse of the agent's screen, even snapping a photo.

The alert identified Mohamed as a travel risk, instructing the agent to call for clearance.

"That proved beyond a doubt that I was affected," said Mohamed, chuckling at the notion of being branded a possible terrorist. 

"Which is actually kind of funny, I'm a pretty boring person."

Mohamed posted the photo to Twitter, and tagged Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, with a simple request: "Please fix this."

It's a plea heard increasingly from Canadians, led by the organization No-Fly List Kids. Khadija Cajee and her husband Sulemaan Ahmed co-founded the group after their son Syed Adam Ahmed, 8, was flagged as a newborn.

They say the group's membership now consists of hundreds of children and adults who share a similar name with someone on Canada's no-fly list, known as the Passenger Protect Program.

Name-change to Mohammed prompts enhanced checks

Among them is Eleanor Mohammed, 39, a professional planner from the Edmonton-area who was recently named in the Top 40 Under 40 by Avenue Edmonton magazine.

Twelve years ago, she was suddenly subjected to increased airport security checks after switching from her maiden name, Gartland, to her new husband's last name, Mohammed.

Innocent people are being treated like terrorists on a regular basis- Eleanor Mohammed

On her first trip abroad under her new name, Eleanor Mohammed was pulled aside and nearly missed her flight back to Canada. When an airline employee told Mohammed she shared a name with someone on the no-fly list, she asked how to avoid future trouble.

"The customer service representative said I should change my name back to my maiden name," said Mohammed.

After that, Mohammed felt anxious while traveling. She noticed her computers, hands and feet were swabbed more often and her bags checked more frequently.

"I'm being treated like a terrorist and I've never done anything," said Mohammed. "And these are the policies that our government has put in place — that innocent people are being treated like terrorists on a regular basis."

She added: "I had the privilege of growing up and not being harassed at all so this was a real eye-opener to how others have suffered from day one."

Hundreds of children impacted

The Passenger Protection Program was created in 2007. Apart from names, the no-fly list contains no unique identifiers, such as dates of birth, to distinguish would-be terrorists from innocent travelers.

Cajee estimates thousands of Canadians are affected. She points to the name David Mathews, which belongs to a 6-year-old boy on the list. An online 411 search turns up 345 Canadians with the same name.

"And that's just one name in Canada," she said.
Syed Adam Ahmed's parents founded No-Fly List Kids after he was flagged as a security threat. (CBC)

Last fall, Goodale said a redress system modelled on the American system could be in place as early as 2018.

Wrongly identified U.S. citizens can apply for a redress number which is entered when making a booking to avoid extra invasive screenings.

But it's not known if Goodale has made the multimillion-dollar budget request to upgrade the computer program and fix the error.

Government's own ministers press for fix

MPs across the board, and even cabinet ministers such as Sohi and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, have written letters to Finance Minister Bill Morneau to express support for budgetary funding. Sohi wrote to Goodale on Oct. 7, noting those "unfairly impacted" include constituents in his Mill Woods riding.

"I hope you recognize this as an important priority for the department and our government, and ask you to advocate for this additional funding," Sohi wrote.

"I strongly encourage you to ensure the next federal budget allows this to be resolved in order to protect the Charter rights of Canadian citizens," he wrote to Morneau the same day.
Edmonton MP and Transport Minister Amarjeet Sohi has expressed his support for including funds to fix the computer system in the 2018 budget. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Earlier this week in question period in Ottawa, Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole called on Goodale to commit to a redress system "so these children can get off our no-fly list."

He later appeared in a video post with Calgary Conservative MP Michelle Rempel who encouraged Canadians to lobby their MPs to fix the no-fly list list that "wrongly affects Canadian families" and national security.

Last June, Goodale established the Passenger Protect Inquiries Office. According to the department of public safety, as of June 2017, the office had received 194 inquiries and resolved 168 of those cases, including 16 involving children.

Those resolutions don't guarantee problems stemming from being on a no-fly list will immediately come to an end. They involve having the complainant apply for a redress number with Homeland Security or having the person enlist in a rewards program.

Bill C-59 'important step'

The most common interim solution is to join an airline loyalty program, which can rule out someone falsely flagged through additional identifiers, Goodale's press secretary Scott Bardsley said in an email to CBC.

Bardsley said proposed national security legislation known as Bill C-59 would provide an "important step," in part by providing the legal authority to fix the data base. Under current regulations, airlines are not required to do screenings on minors, he said.
Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale is facing growing calls to request additional funding to fix errors in the Passenger Protect Program. (Kirk Fraser/CBC News)

But No-Fly List Kids said children are still being flagged, even after signing up with the Passenger Protect Inquiries Office, and insisted an injection of cash to overhaul the database is key.

"This is a technical solution that's required," said Cajee.

Critics have expressed concern that information, presumably shared with countries that don't value human rights, could land someone in prison. Already, said Cajee, some people are afraid to travel.

Eleanor Mohammed said she was fortunate the harassment she encountered began when she was 27-years-old, but worries about the impact on youth.

"If you're treated like this from childhood, what do you think the long-term effects are going to be for that individual, for our society as a whole and also for our country?" she asked.
Khadija Cajee, whose eight-year-old son is on the no-fly list, insists a technical solution is required. (CBC)