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Canada's no-fly list: Who really controls Canadian airspace?

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Carleton University's Jeff Sallot and human rights activist Moazzam Begg discuss the effects of no-fly lists on rights and security. Photo: Prism TV

I wish I could answer the above question with absolute certainty. One thing is certain: Canada is not the only decision-maker when it comes to refusing air travellers on overseas trips, and on some selected domestic flights which pass through U.S. airspace. This fact made many civil rights activists question whether Canada has lost its airspace sovereignty.

I do not think the issue of the no-fly list (and its sister lists such as the screening list,) which operates under the nicely-labelled "Passenger Protect Program," has received the attention it deserves. Is it because only a segment of the population is affected (as those affected happen to be Muslims)? Or is it because the Canadian and the U.S. governments have kept a shroud of secrecy on how this list works and operates? All I know is that the negative impact of this list on civil liberties and on the lives of many innocent human beings has been significant: Lives have been destroyed, professionals who rely on their business travel to the U.S. to earn their living lost their main source of income, and worse of all, the psychological scars endured by those who are targeted by the list persist and may never go away.

The fundamental problem of this list is not that it exists, but rather the fact that there is no credible and speedy recourse for people to clear their names once they are placed on it.

The Canadian government position has so far been is that its citizenry should blindly trust its actions vis-à-vis this matter. Knowing that a lot of mistakes have happened, and that the threshold required to place people's names on this list is very low, makes the government's position extremely hard to digest. In fact, simply knowing people who are under surveillance or investigation might land your name on this list. This unjustified violation of basic civil liberties, and the abuse of private information, raised the eyebrows of Canada's privacy czar who warned that the actions taken by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority could amount to racial profiling.

The following few publicized stories will tell volumes about the Kafkaesque nature of this no-fly list (many people, particularly Muslims, choose not to report abuses they suffer at airports for fear of reprisals).

Shahid Mahmood is an editorial cartoonist. He travelled to Chile with his family at the end of last year. Upon arriving in Santiago airport, he was arrested by the police and questioned by the Interpol. The interrogation lasted for more than 90 minutes. Mahmood's initial problems started in 2004 when he was refused boarding on a domestic flight that would have taken him from Vancouver to Victoria. Until this day Mahmood does not have the answers he needs, but he speculates that it might be his anti-American cartoons that may have landed his name on the no-fly list.

Dawood Hepplewhite is a British Muslim who divides his time between Toronto, the hometown of his wife, and Sheffield, England, where he resides. He was not allowed to board an Air Canada flight back to England. No one could provide him with a straight answer for why this happened to him; not Air Transat, not the British Embassy in Ottawa, and certainly not Transport Canada. Mr. Hepplewhite suspects that he was flagged as a terror suspect because of a recent visit he had made to Yemen for a job interview. After the news of his story broke, the British Embassy intervened and allowed him a one-way ticket back home.

Montrealer Mohammed Khan was coming back from his native country Bangladesh, where he was on a visit. Air Canada didn't allow him to board the connecting flight from Frankfurt to Montreal because his name was on a "blacklist." Khan decided to buy a costly British Airways ticket (which apparently had no issue allowing him on board) so that he could home sooner rather than later. Air Canada cleared him around the same time he decided to fly on British Airways. The airlines attributed this mishap to the fact that similar names appeared on the no-fly list.

The list is long: Adil Charkaoui, a former security certificate detainee, was not allowed to fly back from New Brunswick to Montreal, Abdullah al-Malki, a torture survivor, was prevented from boarding a flight that would have taken him from Ottawa to Windsor where he was supposed to speak about his experience. There is also the story of former Guantanamo detainee and human rights activist Moazzam Begg who was detained in Montreal and refused entry to Canada (watch the Prism TV video in which Mr. Begg recounts his experience.) There are countless other examples that the affected people only speak about in private for fear of reprisal.

The situation is only getting worse. A recent article posted on the Independent website, confirms that passengers wishing to fly from the U.K. to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa or Halifax have to first be cleared by Homeland Security at least 72 hours before boarding the flight. This is now the norm thanks in part to the passing of Bill C-42 in Canadian parliament last year. The bill, which was approved by all parties except the NDP, forces all airlines to pass on the full information of all passengers travelling to and from Canada to Homeland Security for clearance. What is done with the information once it is in the hands of Homeland Security is not something the approved bill examined or took into account. Knowing the past, it does not take a genius to know what will ultimately happen.

Of course, I have my own stories with the no-fly list, or more specifically with the Canadian screening list, which I prefer to write about in a future blog post.

Special thanks go to Rock Tassé from the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG) for providing the links to some of the references quoted in this post. This article was first published in Prism Magazine.

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