8-year-old boy flagged as security threat takes the fight to clear his name to Ottawa

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'Empty promises': Parents of kids affected by no-fly list renew push for redress system

'Empty promises': Parents of kids affected by no-fly list renew push for redress system

Two years after Adam Ahmed was stopped at Pearson airport while travelling to a hockey game and flagged as a possible security threat, the young boy's fight to clear his name and that of hundreds of others is heading to Parliament Hill.

On Friday, dressed in his best suit and red sneakers, the eight-year-old boy did something few others his age have done. He sat in a closed-door subcommittee meeting in Toronto with a select group of invitees to push for the funding of a federal redress system for those falsely flagged on Canada's controversial no-fly list.

Next month, Ahmed and his parents will head to Ottawa to deliver a petition to the House of Commons, along with letters from some 150 MPs from all federal parties backing them.

"It started with Adam, but it's become something a lot bigger," his father, Sulemaan Ahmed, told CBC News ahead of the deputations. "What we've learned now is that there are hundreds of children across Canada and thousands of adults who are impacted."

Canada's no-fly list — officially called the Specified Persons List under the Secure Air Travel Act (SATA) — dates back to 2007, and while the government has refused to confirm specific numbers, is estimated to contain as many as 2,000 names of people considered a threat.

But critics have pointed out the system is built on names rather than on unique identifiers such as dates of birth or passport numbers, meaning Canadians who simply share the name of someone considered a threat are wrongly caught up in the system. 

Living 'under cloud of suspicion'

As calls mounted for Canada to implement a system to eliminate false positives, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced last fall that a redress system modelled on the American system could be in place as early as 2018.

Last June, a redress office called the Passenger Protect Inquiries Office was established to help resolve that problem. The office said earlier this year that it had "resolved" the cases of 11 children falsely flagged so far, but a pitch for $78 million to be allocated annually to create the technology to eliminate false positives was ultimately nixed by the federal government. 

Testifying before the subcommittee Friday, Ahmed's mother pointed to the dangers of false positives being shared with other countries that may not uphold the same commitment to human rights that Canada does.

"Innocent people risk being associated with acts they did not commit, resulting in possible detention, false imprisonment and torture, as has happened in the past with Mr. Maher Arar," Khadija Cajee told the committee.

"My eight-year-old son has been 'designated high profile' since infancy. I do not want him living the rest of his life with the cloud of suspicion lingering over him."

Problem 'shouldn't exist'

Meanwhile, Goodale's spokesperson, Scott Bardsley, told CBC News Friday that Bill C-59, the government's proposed national security legislation overhaul, "takes an important first step" toward a redress system, by leaving the screening of passenger information against the no-fly list to the government, rather than airlines.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter said the testimony Friday added to the argument in favour of funding a redress system, but acknowledged there are competing demands on the budget.

"You'd think it would be simple in that you'd just the check the age of the individual along with the name.… Technology costs money and we'll have to look at it from that perspective, but it's a problem that really shouldn't exist in our own country."

Since the Ahmeds came forward with their story, they say they've heard from more than 100 other parents whose children are in the same position. And they aren't the only ones.

Stephen Evans, who works in the digital technology sector, found out in the fall of 2015 that he couldn't check in online. Upon further inquiry, he learned that he too was on the list. He managed to get a redress number in the U.S., but said that his case shows it isn't just Muslim or Arabic-sounding names falsely flagged. Any Canadian could find themselves on the list.

"This isn't just an issue of kids with certain types of name, it's a much broader Canadian issue for all of us."

'A name doesn't define you'

Nineteen-year-old Yusuf Ahmed is another example. The third-year university student is on the list along with his two brothers and father, a surgeon. He said he's been accustomed to longer waits at the airport since he was a baby.

"Yusuf, you're going to have to go to the back of the line because you're going to get held up," he vividly remembers his Grade 11 classmates telling him while on a soccer trip to Nova Scotia.

"It doesn't make sense right.… A name doesn't define you. Obviously you're very proud of your name, and why am I flagged because of my name? That's not the only thing about me."

Friday's meeting was held by a subcommittee of the finance committee. The decision on whether or not to fund the system, will ultimately fall to the finance minister, who did not respond to a CBC News request for comment.

But eight-year-old Ahmed and his parents hope Friday's testimony will help make that happen.

"He is a child now. I am with him to advocate for and protect him," his mother told those present. "But this won't always be the case as he gets older."