Families share their 'no-fly list' ordeals with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair

Families including a mother and her 8-year-old son who was recently denied boarding a plane because he was flagged as a potential security threat, met with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair yesterday to explain the toll Canada's no-fly list is taking on their lives. 

Redress system for families facing airport delays slated for mid 2020

Muhammad Al-Sabawi, 8, wasn't permitted to board a plane on Nov. 8 because he was flagged by the no-fly list, according to his mother. (Submitted)

Canadians who are being mistakenly flagged by the so-called "no-fly list" took their plight directly to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair Thursday, urging him to take swift action to prevent the list from punishing people who pose no threat to aviation security.

During a meeting with the minister in Toronto, Sarrah Lawendy showed Blair a video of her eight-year-old son Muhammad Al-Sabawi in tears after being stopped on Nov. 8 at Toronto International Airport. Lawendy said Air Canada told her Al-Sabawi was on the list and would not be permitted to board.

"I was just devastated," said Lawendy. "I felt like someone slapped me across the face. I'm a Canadian citizen and so is my son. And I'm being discriminated against in my own country. It was really shocking."

She said Al-Sabawi was upset he was separated from his father, Mustafa Al-Sabawi, who had to go ahead and board the plane because of a work obligation in Singapore. Meanwhile, Lawendy and her four children were forced to spend hours in the airport trying to sort out "the mess," she said. 

Lawendy said she spent the day on the phone with her lawyer and MP's office, and was forced to get a hotel in Toronto because the family is from London, Ont. Officials cleared her son to fly the next day.

8-year-old upset at Toronto airport after mistakenly flagged as security threat

4 years ago
Duration 0:43
Muhammad Al-Sabawi, 8, was denied boarding a flight in Nov. because of his name was similar or the same as someone on Canada's 'no-fly list,' according to his family

Her son also faced extra security checks and delays at airports in Southeast Asia during their vacation, she said.

Lawendy said the ordeal left a stigma that's affected how her son sees himself. She's working with a group called the No Fly List Kids that represents dozens of families across Canada who have been affected by the list and pushing for change.

Sarrah Lawendy with her husband Mustafa Al-Sabawi and son Muhammad Al-Sabawi. (Submitted)

"Muhammad was really confused as to what the issue with his name was. He kept asking, 'What's the problem with my name. They don't like my name?'

"My son called it bullying. He said to treat someone differently because of their name is bullying."

Lawendy said Blair personally apologized and took ownership of the problems facing the government's no-fly-list, which is meant to stop potential security threats from boarding commercial planes. His department is working to roll out a new redress system in 2020 to prevent unwarranted travel delays for innocent Canadians.

'It's ludicrous'

The list — officially called the Secure Air Travel Act List — has been heavily criticized by families who have been mistakenly flagged in the system because their names match, or are similar to, the names of genuine security threats.

Built in 2007, the list contains thousands of names but doesn't contain unique identifiers — such as dates of birth or passport numbers — that would prevent cases of mistaken identity.

Lawendy said she told Blair that being on the list isn't just an inconvenience — it's leading Canadians like her son to see themselves as victims of institutionalized racism. 

"It doesn't make any sense. It's ludicrous," said Lawendy, an educator on the board of the Muslim Association of Canada. "It's a system that's flawed and probably brings about no benefit if it has children on it. They are in no way a threat to our country, our safety."

Lawendy said Blair didn't "make excuses" for the list's flaws.

"He really seemed to understand what the challenge was," she said.

'It's a humiliating experience'

Yusuf Ahmed, 21, a medical student in Toronto, was also at the meeting. He encouraged Blair to speed up the rollout of the redress system. Ahmed told Blair that he and his two younger brothers have been falsely flagged by the system since they were children, an experience he described as "traumatizing."

"It's a humiliating experience," he said. "We feel like we've done something wrong because we're getting looks from other passengers in the back of the line. They are worried, they think we are potentially a threat. We're feeling embarrassed."

He said he worries about getting stopped in another country and being detained. 

Yusuf Ahmed said he's been stopped at airports since childhood because of his name. (Submitted)

'We felt betrayed'

Ahmed also raised concerns about Transport Canada overseeing airlines' compliance with the no-fly list after a recent CBC News story. A public servant allegedly sent a racist email that contained a link to a song targeting turban-wearing travellers as terrorists and condoning violence against them.

The group 'No-Fly List Kids' and Amnesty International Canada brought the email to Transport Canada's attention a year before CBC News published the story. Ahmed said their group was assured the department would discipline the employee. However, the worker told CBC News he was never disciplined and called it an "alleged" email.

"It was almost as if we were lied to," said Ahmed. "We were promised in writing that this issue would be dealt and to hear that it wasn't, it was completely disheartening. We felt betrayed."

He asked Blair to look into the case.

"Minister Blair said that the email sent by a Transport Canada employee a decade ago was racist and unacceptable," said Blair's office in a statement. "[Transport Minister Marc] Garneau has asked his deputy to re-examine any emerging evidence in this case."

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair met with the group No Fly List Kids yesterday in Toronto. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Blair's office added that the government is investing more than $80 million over five years, and $14 million annually afterwards, to build a new centralized screening system that will include a redress program for people mistakenly flagged by the no-fly list.

As with the system in the U.S., travellers who apply under the planned redress program would be assigned a number to give airlines to avoid being flagged. Bill C-59, which gives the department the authority to create the new system, was passed last June.

"We are grateful for the patience and understanding of those affected in the meantime," said Blair's office.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct involving senior leaders in the Canadian military. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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