Michael Pierre has spent most of his life on a no-fly list. He was stopped for the first time while boarding a plane with his family when he was four years old. Now, he’s 16.
“For a long time, we struggled with being detained, searched, and going through security screenings, questioned. Anything you can think of, it’s probably happened to us,” he said at a town hall with Canada’s public safety minister on Sunday.
Pierre was one of many who showed up at the discussions, held inside a high school cafeteria in Markham, Ont. The consultations were ostensibly supposed to be talking about Ottawa’s plan to overhaul its anti-terrorism legislation.
Instead, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was confronted by families who have been stopped while trying to board a flight because their children’s names matched those of people on Canada’s no-fly list.
“That was one of the most terrifying experiences we’ve ever had.”
And one by one, they took to one of the two microphones in the room, outlining their experience with the program.
The no-fly list has become somewhat of a boondoggle in Canada, as dozens of Canadians have been forced to go through intense screening and interrogation because their name resembles one on the no-fly list. Some 50 families have come forward to the no-fly List Kids, an advocacy group set up to press government to fix the program.
“A solution would just be nice because I’m a Canadian citizen. I don’t want to deal with being stopped all the time, being harassed, something I have nothing to do with,” Pierre told reporters outside the meeting.
Pierre’s family only found out why they were being stopped in 2013 when a WestJet employee told them his name was being flagged on Canada’s no-fly list. Pierre asked Goodale how the system could be made more transparent, so other families wouldn’t be left in the dark.
In response, Goodale did not offer specifics, but told Pierre he was yet another example of why the issue needed to be addressed as soon as possible. The governing Liberal party vowed to fix the no-fly list while campaigning for election last year, but Canadians still have been unable to have their names removed from the list.
“If he wants to go away with his friends, I can’t send send him until I know he’s off this list.”
Speaking with reporters, Goodale explained that fixing the problem will involve a complete overhaul of the existing computer system. It could be fixed within 18 months, he said, although he would not commit to the timeline with certainty.
The new system will be modeled after the American redress system, which provides those who are falsely flagged the first time with a number that they can enter when booking flights in the future to avoid extra security checks.
The only movement thus far, though, has been the Passenger Protect Inquiries Office, which was set up in June to help families facing delays at the airport because their names were falsely flagged. But some who have submitted information about their cases say it’s done little to help, and that all they’ve received is a letter explaining what the government is doing to resolve the issue more broadly.
Karen Ahmed, whose son’s name is also on the list, recalled an incident in 2015 when her family was told at an airport in India that they could not fly back home to Canada.
“That was one of the most terrifying experiences we’ve ever had,” she said, adding that her son had just turned 18 and that the year-and-a-half timeline offered by Goodale is a “long time for my son to worry about flying.”
“If he wants to go away with his friends, I can’t send send him until I know he’s off this list,” she said.
Others parents, scheduled to fly internationally with their kids in the near future, echoed the same concern and pressed Goodale for an interim solution.
But Khadija Cajee, whose son’s story first brought the no-fly list issue to light, said she understood the challenges facing the government.
Last December, her son, then 6 years old, was travelling with his father to Boston when an Air Canada agent showed them he’d been flagged.
The family had been stopped every time they’d tried to fly since he was 6 weeks old.
“Mr. Goodale was very thorough in his explanation of what is required in order to redesign the entire system,” she told VICE News. “We appreciate that he’s taking it very seriously and addressing it with urgency.”