No-Fly Lists

The government of Canada has recently announced that a formal no-fly list is about to be released. Actually, this is the second time there has been a formal announcement. This one is a Conservative one. The previous one, in 2005, was made by the federal Liberals.

But no matter who is taking credit for it, I find the idea of a secret list frightening. If U.S. senator Edward Kennedy can be denied his flight because of an error, what confidence do I have that it won’t happen to me? A quick google of my name leads to a number of people with the same name (a surprising number have faith connections)—some radical, some conservative, some with no discernable politics. Brian Burch walks the planet as a musician, power boat advocate, retired vintners, librarian, poet, racer, teacher, wedding photographer, minister, arts park manager and a civil servant in the Department of Environmental Protection. At least one Brian Burch, a Brian Wayne Burch, was charged with dangerous driving in B.C. in the early 1980’s—something I know about because I was picked up on his warrant. I was quickly released, but it certainly helps me not trust any screening list.

One’s name can be on the list and never know it. It isn’t until one tries to board an airplane that there is a check to see if your name matches. People denied access to a flight can apply to have there name reviewed—which will happen long after the flight has gone.

If such a list is to exist, people should have a right to challenge their name on the list long before check-in. Certainly the ideal time would be at the time of the purchase of the ticket. If I am on the list, I should have the chance to challenge my name before I’ve incurred a cost—not afterwards. If the airline can have access to my name and to the no-fly list for comparison purposes at check-in, then it makes little difference in terms of privacy and related concerns if they make the check before issuing me a ticket. Simple fairness would ensure that someone who wishes to challenge their name on the list should be able to do so at the earliest opportunity.

Or perhaps the screening should occur even earlier. If one is going to not be permitted to fly, should this restriction on movement not be ordered by a justice of the peace or a judge?

There is no indication in the various reports I’ve read that that government will refund the costs of a missed flight, even if there does turn out to be a mistake. Errors can and will be made and it should be the responsibility of those whose actions were in error to make real amends, and at a minimum ensuring that there is no financial harm caused by an error.

I don’t feel I’d be safer on an airplane as a result of a secret list of potentially dangerous people. False positives and false negatives are all too likely. I feel more secure (although annoyed) at security procedures that screen out hazards than the possibility of Edward Kennedy or someone like him sitting across the aisle from me.

A non-fly list seems more of an exercise in the appearance of increased security rather than actually doing so. If the government truly believes I’m a danger, and has evidence to this effect, why would I free to drive a car to Ottawa but couldn’t fly to Ottawa out of the Toronto airport? Being able to devise a list in secret to restrict freedom of mobility with an automatic penalty that can only be challenged afterwards is a real erosion of basic rights such as those found in Articles 6 and 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

6. (1) Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.
(2) Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right
(a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and
(b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.

7. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

If I can’t fly to a job interview because my name is on a list, if I’m denied access to a flight I’ve paid for because my name is on a list, that seems like a clear restriction on my mobility and my right to not be punished before being formally accused of an offence.

I don’t like the idea of secret government lists. This is frightening. I’ve read too much on the practices of authoritarian and totalitarian states to not find echoes in post-September 11th practices disturbing. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that I’m not shocked any more by hearing of them. In a time of multi-partisan consensus on the desirability to erode hard won rights, I am no longer surprised with news that yet again freedom is being eroded. I suspect that all too soon it will no longer be news, but just the normal state of affairs.

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