No one denied flight because of no-fly list mistakes, government memo says

Despite persistent calls to reform Canada's no-fly list system, a briefing note prepared for the public safety minister last fall maintains no one has been denied the right to board a flight because their name falsely matches someone on the list.

But passengers, including young children, still face long delays due to mistaken identity, say critics

The Canadian government doesn't disclose how many people are on its no-fly list or who they are. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)
  Despite persistent calls to reform Canada's no-fly list system, a briefing note prepared for the public safety minister last fall maintains no one has been denied the right to board a flight because their name falsely matches someone on the list.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's office asked for the briefing note last September after a claim in the Globe and Mail that "every day at airports across Canada, thousands of people are being denied their mobility rights... because their name happens to match someone else's name on the list."

​"To date, there has not been a case where someone has been denied boarding strictly as a result of a false positive match," said the briefing note prepared for Goodale. Spokesperson Scott Bardsley confirmed the number is still zero.

Goodale's office flagged the error and the newspaper column was later corrected.

A group fighting to clean up Canada's no-fly list says there is an irony in that finding because officially barring a passenger from boarding a flight due to a false positive would open up avenues of recourse — the very thing advocates have been arguing for.

Just this week, members of a group called No Fly List Kids, which advocates for children whose names match those on the no-fly list, asked for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make their case.

They said they've since been in contact with the Prime Minister's Office, but haven't confirmed a meeting yet.

When airline passengers, including children, have a similar name to someone on the no-fly list, they can face extra security hassles at the airport.

Under Canada's Passenger Protect Program, airlines are not even required to check whether the names of travellers under 18 match those on no-fly lists — but families say it still happens.
Sulemaan Ahmed and Khadija Cajee are parents of a a now 8-year-old who has struggled when travelling because of the no-fly list. They have been fighting for a better system to fix false positives. (Courtesy of Sulemaan Ahmed)

Khadija Cajee's eight-year-old son Adam has been flagged since he was an infant. This past December, she says an airline agent asked her to provide Adam's passport for a domestic flight from Toronto to Halifax or he'd have to call a security centre, resulting in more delays.

Luckily, she said, she's begun carrying her son's passport on her, just in case.

"Sometimes these delays have resulted in missed flights. Sometimes these delays have resulted in additional screening and questioning," she said.

The public safety department wouldn't say how many people are delayed at the airport because their name has been flagged.

"We do not comment on screening statistics for security reasons," said Bardsley.

Cherry-picking accusations, say advocates

Zamir Khan, whose three-year-old son Sebastian has had difficulties at the airport because of the list, says the government's internal briefing note doesn't paint a full picture, since long delays often lead to people missing their flights.

"The department can't say there's a problem they need to address and then say there isn't a problem," he said.

"To cherry-pick a statistic whose methodology is unaligned to the actual complaint is disrespectful."

Part of the issue, says Khan, is a documented denial could actually help people who have been spent their lives dogged by false positives and the no-fly list.

Under the act, people who have received a notification preventing them from boarding can apply to remove their name from the list.

"That's their ticket to appeal," he said. "We would actually have recourse."

In 2016 the government launched the Passenger Protect Inquiries Office to deal with complaints, but it's been criticized as toothless.

Khan says a redress mechanism like the one in place in the United States, which uses dates of birth and other information to remedy cases of mistaken identity,  would be a "massive improvement" over the current Canadian approach. He will be watching the Liberal's spring budget for any spending announcements.

Khan's group says it has letters of support from two-thirds of the House of Commons, including 130 Liberal MPs.

Despite cross-party support and a promise from Goodale to address the system, changes are slow to come.

​​"We are trying very hard to fix that system," said Goodale in the House of Commons last month. "It requires new legislation, new regulations, and a new computer system built from the ground up."

His spokesperson urged patience.

"It will take time to make regulatory and database changes to support a redress system.‎ We are grateful for the patience and understanding of those affected in the meantime," added Bardsley.