The 2018 federal budget is allocating $81.4 million to fix Canada’s air passenger security screening system, thanks to the efforts of two Western University students among other activists.

Canada’s no-fly list, also known as the Passenger Protect Program, is used to flag individuals who might pose a security threat and to prevent them from boarding flights to or from Canada. For many years, the system was criticized for using only first and last names with no other unique identifiers, such as birth date or passport number, to screen individuals, resulting in many false positives. Falsely flagged individuals undergo extra screening that can result in long delays or missed flights.

Third-year medical sciences students Yusuf Ahmed and Rayyan Kamal are members of the No-Fly List Kids group. The group contains over 200 individuals whose family members, children in particular, are continuously flagged as false positives. 

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Rayyan and Yusuf

Third-year medical sciences students, Rayyan Kamal (left) and Yusuf Ahmed (right).

Due in part to the group’s advocacy efforts, the government allocated $81.4 million of the 2018 federal budget to enhance the Passenger Protect Program.

The government will use the money to develop a rigorous screening model and a system of redress, where individuals who are falsely flagged are assigned a unique identification number to prevent another false positive. After five years, the government will dedicate an additionally $14 million annually to maintain the new system.

“It’s a huge victory for the people in our group as they no longer have to face delays and undergo extra security or undue scrutiny,” said Kamal. “We were very happy to see that we’ve made it to the finish line, but it's also a start. The next step is to see it through and make sure that it does get implemented.”

“It started out with a tweet from one of our group members whose son was flagged,” said Ahmed. “Then a couple of other families joined and then we joined, and it's really amazing how much we've accomplished.”

Ahmed has been falsely flagged and detained in airports numerous times throughout his life. Growing up, regular 40-minute delays at airports felt “like an eternity” because of the looks and the stigma of being constantly singled out for additional screening. 

In the past year, Ahmed and Kamal played an active role in drawing attention to the broken system by quantifying its effects on Canadian citizens. Using a conservative calculation, they estimated around 100,000 Canadians have the potential to be falsely flagged in airports as a security threat.

Ahmed explained the problem will persist for at least another few years as the funding is back-loaded over a five-year period. Of the $81.4 million, only $8 million will go out this year. Another $16 million will go out in 2019-20.

Still, Ahmed and Kamal are optimistic now that it has been passed in the federal budget.

“We’re grateful they heard us and got our issue resolved,” said Kamal. “For me, it [represents] the triumph of democracy. As youth,… we see that our voices are being heard and that we can influence change.”

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