Published (in a shorter version) in The Globe and Mail, February 5, 2004, p. A-21.

Now It Seems We Need a Passport Inside Canada
Pierre Lemieux


Canadians have recently become accustomed to produce “government-issued photo ID” before boarding domestic flights. But contrary to what most people think, this requirement is not mandated by any law or regulation. I know because I refused to show any government ID and was able to board three Air Canada flights over a two day period – after short discussions with dumb-founded airline personnel.

I complained to Robert Milton, Air Canada’s CEO, who replied: “The requirement for individuals to produce ‘government-issued personal photo identification’ for all flights departing from airports in Canada is set out in a Security Measures Order issued by the Minister of Transport. Disclosure of the order is prohibited by subsection 4.8(1) of the Aeronautics Act.”

I filed an Access to Information request about the “secret order.” A Transport Canada official wrote to me that “security measures require that domestic travelers present travel documents, i.e., a ticket and boarding pass upon check-in. These security measures do not require passengers to provide government-issued photo identification for domestic flights in Canada.” I was not able to get a copy of the secret regulation; indeed, it appears that even a MP cannot see it.

Confronted with the evidence, Mr. Milton’s changed his story. “I can confirm,” he wrote in a second e-mail, “that the now since amended security measures did indeed contain provisions which required airlines to request the production of government issued identification for domestic flights. Air Canada has chosen to maintain that requirement in order to ensure the safety and security of our customers which Air Canada is entitled to do under its tariffs in order to establish ‘positive identification’. … Adult customers refusing to provide such identification may be denied boarding.”

Do we get this right? Air Canada had never realized that requesting government-issued ID was necessary for its passengers’ safety until they got a secret order from Big Brother himself. Then, they saw the light. The light was so brilliant that, even after Big Brother secretly rescinded the secret ID requirement on domestic flights, they second-guessed him. Yet, they continue to hide behind the pre-secret-amendment secret order and require ID papers in a country where they legally don’t exist.

Virtually all Canadian airlines do the same. The only exception is WestJet which accepts “personal identification in the form of photo or non-photo id,” including credit cards and ATM cards.

Since 9/11, official ID is required to board domestic flights in most countries. Among the major countries, we could only find the U.K. where this is not the case, although some British airports now insist on ID. It is only in the U.S. that an official legal requirement exist. Since the mid 90s, American regulations require passengers to show government-issued photo ID, but the requirement is not absolute: if a passenger does not provide such ID, he will be interrogated by security personnel and may be allowed to board his flight.

According to a Library of Parliament report dated December 22, 2003, the 1985 Aeronautics Act provided the legal basis for the 2000 Canadian Aviation Security Regulations which authorized the Minister of Transport to issue the secret Air Carrier Security Measures Order. It is not clear when exactly the order was issued. One airline spokesman claimed that it is only in May 2003 that the order was amended to force passengers to show “government-issued ID” on domestic flights, and that this requirement was revoked in July or August.

Since we are dealing with a secret order, the disclosure of which is punishable by one year in jail, this is as much as I was able to find. It is easy to understand why the rule of law, when it prevailed, required laws and regulations to be public.

Columnist George Jonas recently dealt the final blow to the security argument. Airline personnel are not trained to distinguish false ID, and concentrating on ID papers diverts attention from what could be real signs of danger. I would add that it is only worth fighting the “war on terror” if the goal is to protect our traditional liberties. The absence of ID papers is very much part of them.

Why are Canadian airlines requiring government ID on domestic flights? One argument is that it prevents trading tickets, and scalping. The secretly amended secret order has given them the opportunity to enforce a self-interested requirement that was otherwise unenforceable. The problem with this argument is that it is not clear, from an economic point of view, why it would be in a carrier’s interest to do this: boosting the flights’ occupancy rate would seem to be the paramount consideration.

Another, probably more fruitful, hypothesis is that the airlines are so heavily regulated that they are not private companies in any meaningful sense. They depend more on the state than on their customers, are very inefficient, and are used to passing the buck to the state. This would also explain why old Air Canada is more inflexible than young Westjet.

To the extent that airlines are private companies, it is difficult to argue against their right to ask whatever contractual terms they want, including official ID papers. But this justifies the traditional Canadian opposition: once government has issued any photo ID, it is too tempting for private parties to take advantage of it, thereby making it more and more indispensable.

Indeed, Québec law forbids requesting the driver’s licence or the medicare card, except for the purposes for which such ID documents were created. Private firms and government bureaucracies circumvent the well-intentioned law by saying that they don’t “request” any specifically forbidden ID document, and that any government-issued photo ID will do. However, a spokesman for the Commission d’accès à l’information confirms that it may be illegal to put a person in a position where he must provide either his driver’s licence or his medicare card.

Therefore, airlines operating in Québec are probably violating Québec law, except to the extent that the Canadian passport provides a third alternative. But this would mean that the Canadian passport has become an interior passport.

There was a time when passports were even not even required to travel internationally, at least in the civilized world. Reflecting on the pre-World War I period, British economist Lord Maynard Keynes wrote, “The inhabitant of London … could secure forthwith, if he wished, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality.” For the benefit of a citizen traveling to uncivilized countries, his own state would issue a passport that was a warning to foreign tyrants not to mess with him.

Now, we need an interior passport to travel in our own country. “I swear,” said a friend and former cop who works in the federal Parliament, “we’re getting more like the Soviet Union every year.”

Jayant Bhandari contributed to this article.

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