Radio — Challenging injustice in Canada’s no-fly list

On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh interviews Karen Ahmed and Zamir Khan. Each of them has a child whose name is identical to a name that appears on Canada’s no-fly list, and who therefore face hassles and stigmatizing scrutiny every time they fly. Karen and Zamir are also core members of the group No Fly List Kids, which is pushing the government to make the changes necessary to stop the no-fly list system from unjustly interfering in so many lives.

Imagine that you have a new baby. Imagine you are flying to another part of the country when he is six weeks old so he can meet his grandparents. You buy your tickets, and at the appropriate juncture you try to check-in for your flight online. You get a message saying you can’t, so you have to check in at the desk, in person. It takes awhile, and the rationale they give for why you have to do so doesn’t really make much sense, but you don’t think much of it. Except every time you fly with your son over the next year and a half, there is a different and equally dubious reason given for why you haven’t been allowed to check-in online. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this is no accident, but it is only when an airline employee lets slip that your son – your eighteen month-old son – is flagged by the Government of Canada’s no-fly list that it becomes clear why you have unexpected problems every time you travel. This is what happened to Zamir Khan and his family.

Or imagine that you have a teenage son. You were vaguely aware of having additional hassles at the airport every time you travel with him, but you only realize how serious things are when you are at the end of a family trip to India, ready to board the plane home to Canada, and the airline tells you that you will not be permitted to do so. After several panicked hours you are eventually able to clarify the situation and begin the trip back to your jobs and lives in Canada, but it’s a sign that this could easily up-end your lives without warning in the future. You, too, eventually find out that your son’s name is on the no-fly list, and that any time he travels, he could face such arbitrary impediments. This is what happened to Karen Ahmed and her family.

The no-fly list has been around since shortly after 9/11. It is meant as a security measure, but few countries outside of the US and Canada have such a thing, and it has long been a focus of skepticism and concern for many. Exactly how names are added to that list, and on what basis, is shrouded in secrecy, and not everyone is satisfied with the idea that we should just trust the process. This is, after all, in the context of significant evidence of the Canadian national security state targeting Muslim individuals and Muslim communities in multiple ways – as documented, for instance, by activist writers like Matthew Behrens and scholars like Sherene Razack, among others. And it is also in the context of this month’s official state apology to victims of the anti-LGBTQ purge campaigns conducted in earlier decades by the federal government, which show the long history of the national security apparatus in Canada causing harm to marginalized groups under secretive security rationales that do not hold up to rigorous, justice-based scrutiny.

The specific problem that the group No Fly List Kids has come together to address is that when a name is added to the no-fly list, the list then targets everyone who shares that name. Originally, many parents of children affected by this problem thought they were the only ones, and it was only when one case hit the media that they began to realize how widespread the problem is and to find each other. Parents of kids whose names appear on the list – certainly some of whom are Muslim, but who are from many different backgrounds – began talking on the phone, getting to know each other, comparing notes. Soon enough they had a website and Facebook group, and they are now a loose but sizeable network, with a core of families that have gone public, but many more who have chosen not to do so. And the network now includes not only families of children who are targeted, but also adults who are targeted by the list as well.

They are demanding a change in the no-fly list system that would allow those who are targeted to go through a one-time vetting to get a unique identifying number that would allow airlines and border officials to quickly and easily identify them as being allowed to fly. The US has had such a system for years. As well, they think other changes to how the no-fly list works – for instance, using more than just a name to match individuals – could help avoid the broad targeting of people in the first place.

The group started off with the families talking to their own MPs. Gradually, they enlisted their extended families and personal networks to do likewise. They are now at the point where they have had a petition that has been widely circulated and they have formal letters of support from many, many Members of Parliament, including a lot of members of the governing Liberal Party. Part of the frustration that they face is that almost all of the politicians and officials they talk to about the issue are sympathetic at an individual level, but there are still no signs of any action whatsoever from the federal government. They have been willing to work with the government on the issue, but their patience is wearing thin, and if there is once again no funding to start solving the problem in the next federal budget, they may begin actively considering other options, including launching a lawsuit.

Image: The image modified for use in this post was taken by Can Pac Swire and is used under the Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license from Creative Commons.


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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