Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the government is working to resolve ongoing airport hassles children face due to security snags — and passing a federal bill now before Parliament is the first step.
Families from the group known as the No Fly List Kids came to Ottawa to make their case to MPs and ministers Monday with the aim of ensuring that funding for a new computer system to fix the problem is included in the 2018 federal budget.
Parents of children who have repeatedly endured nerve-racking airport delays because a youngster's name matches one on a no-fly list say the federal legislation will do nothing in the short term to ease their woes.
The government is proposing an amendment to the Secure Air Travel Act that would allow the public safety minister to tell parents that their child is not on the Canadian no-fly list, meaning the name simply matches that of someone who is actually listed. The government says this would provide assurance to parents about their child's status.
The legislation, part of a broad package of security-related measures, would also allow federal officials to electronically screen air passenger information against the list, a process currently in the hands of airlines. The government says this would prevent false name matches by enabling it to issue unique redress numbers for pre-flight verification of identity.
But it also means creating a new computer system to do the job.
Goodale said Monday the overall solution entails passing the legislation, enacting regulations and building the computer system from the ground up.
"It is a complicated process, sadly. The mistake was made several years ago when this thing was set up in a backwards fashion," he said before the daily question period.
"We've got to change the system and that's what we're working on."
Families were disappointed funds for the new system did not turn up in the last federal budget and they're beginning to lose patience.
"This is a technical problem that requires a technical solution," said Sulemaan Ahmed, whose son Adam, 8, has been held up many times before boarding a flight.
"The families are not willing to wait longer for more excuses."
In June 2016 the government created an inquiries office to help resolve travellers' problems. But the No Fly List Kids group, which now includes more than 100 youngsters, says the difficulties persist.
"Every time we fly it happens," said Heather Harder of London, Ont., whose son Sebastian, 3, has been repeatedly flagged.
"My family is from Saskatchewan. And so we go back to visit them fairly often. Every leg of the trip we're stopped," she said Monday after a news conference.
"We've only flown domestically. We're actually too nervous to fly internationally."
Ahmed and his wife Khadija Cajee stressed the need for a more effective redress system last month in a presentation on behalf of the group to a House of Commons committee conducting consultations on the next budget.
"Some of our children have been denied initial boarding and delayed to the point that they have missed flights internationally. Older No Fly List Kids avoid travel due to the potential for stigmatization," the submission said.
"All families find the security screenings become increasingly invasive as their children have gotten older."
Ahmed worries about children who have been caught in the no-fly web for years and now find themselves travelling abroad as young adults, with no guardians nearby to sort out problems.
"This goes beyond the no-fly list, actually," he said in an interview. "This could impact their employment, this could impact security clearance, this could impact admission into universities and schools."
In addition, the group says, the mismatches often involve Muslim-sounding or Arabic-sounding names, raising the question of charter of rights guarantees of equality under the law.
"The darker side here is that we know that things go terribly wrong when it comes to information-sharing and lists of this sort that get shared with governments around the world," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, who attended the news conference.
"It can even lead to unjust imprisonment, disappearances and torture. That's why we need to take this seriously."
The No Fly List Kids group has enlisted support from MPs of all stripes who have written letters to encourage Finance Minister Bill Morneau to include the redress measure in the next budget.
Among them is Toronto Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who chaired the House of Commons public safety committee when it issued a report on national security calling on the government to provide the financial resources for the new system.
"Through expert witnesses, it became apparent to our committee that the no-fly list's social cost, without an appropriate redress system, greatly outweighs its security benefit," Oliphant says in the August letter.
"Affected Canadians find their ability to visit family members, travel for leisure or travel for the economic benefit of Canada severely limited and sometimes revoked."