Press Release from Véhicule Press
Quill & Quire blog, June 14, 2008

Calgary Herald articles, June 16 and 17, 2008
Globe and Mail article, June 16, 2008

Jaspreet Singh on Véhicule Press website

Véhicule Press

Intense security checks lead to author's absence

Monday, June 16


An Indo-Canadian author and playwright from Calgary cancelled scheduled appearances at two major cultural events in Toronto on the weekend after failing to get assurances from Air Canada that he would not be subjected to the intense security checks that marred previous flights from and to Calgary earlier this spring.

Now Jaspreet Singh is writing a letter to the country's most famous author, Margaret Atwood, asking her to get involved in remedying what he calls his “Kafka-esque position” as a seemingly unwitting victim in Canada's participation in the “war on terror.” He's also calling on the help of PEN Canada, which defends persecuted writers here and abroad. “Air Canada's behaviour was not only very insensitive, “Mr. Singh said in an interview from his home yesterday, “ but a violation of my constitutional rights.”

Mr. Singh, 39, was to have read at a spotlight on new South Asian writing Saturday at Toronto's Luminato Festival Saturday evening and autographed copies of his new novel, Chef, Sunday afternoon at BookExpo Canada. But he bowed out of both dates last Friday after encountering “difficulties” that day catching an Air Canada flight from Calgary, his home since 2006 when he was named writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary.

A Canadian resident for almost 20 years – he has a PhD in chemical engineering from Montreal's McGill University – and a Canadian citizen since the early 1990s, Mr. Singh tried to use the electronic check-in at the Calgary airport for his Toronto trip. When repeated attempts failed to issue a boarding pass, he elected not to do a manual check-in with Air Canada staff and instead returned home.

It was the third time in less than seven weeks that Mr. Singh failed at the electronic check-in. Prior to this, Mr. Singh had travelled far and wide for many years without incident, including a trip to his Indian homeland in January this year with a return to Calgary in late March.

The first altercation occurred April 26 when he tried to board an Air Canada flight from Calgary to Ottawa where he was scheduled to launch his novel and give a reading. When the electronic processing failed, Mr. Singh was told to line up and to try to board through check-in staff. Asked for his passport, Mr. Singh declared his Canadian citizenship and told Air Canada: “I don't travel with a passport in my own country.” After a few minutes, “this mysterious person was called,” in Mr. Singh's words, and subjected the writer, while still standing in line, to “lengthy and detailed questioning” – “the kind of questioning you normally get in the immigration process in a foreign country.” Eventually, Mr. Singh was permitted to board his flight but informed, “your name is on some sort of list.”

The second run-in with the country's biggest airline occurred May 6 in Montreal when Mr. Singh again tried to get his boarding pass electronically for a flight back to Calgary. (He'd gone to Montreal from Ottawa to participate in Montreal's Blue Metropolis literary festival and attend a reading of his play,

Speak, Oppenheimer) Again the electronic check-in failed; again he had to line up; again before being permitted to board he was questioned vigorously by an unidentified individual who this time told Mr. Singh, “Your name is on a no-fly list.”

(Transport Canada, at the direction of the Harper government, drew up its first no-fly list a year ago last month. Various sources estimate the number of names on the list as being as few as 200 and as many as 1,000.) Three days later, Mr. Singh recounted this episode in a letter of complaint faxed to Air Canada's customer relations department. In the letter, he notes Air Canada staff “made the preposterous suggestion” that he change his name “or adopt a middle name, but without giving specific details.” When Mr. Singh asked if he would have to face such questioning the next time he flew, they said, ‘Yes, you'll have to answer it every time.' “And I said, ‘But why?' and they kept answering, ‘There is no why here.'”

As a result, when it came time to fly to Toronto this past weekend and with no letter in sight from Air Canada, Mr. Singh decided, “I just couldn't put myself through what happened earlier in Calgary and Montreal. In fact, he's now so spooked that he recently drove 13 hours to Vancouver to promote his book instead of flying, and cancelled another Vancouver date, a joint reading June 19, with Governor-General's award nominee David Chariandy. Also cancelled is a three-month artist-in-residency in Bergen, Norway that was to start next month. “I do not feel safe with my name on a list. Those lists are shared with outer countries. You do not want to get into one of those worst-case scenarios.”

Yesterday a representative from its media relations department said “for privacy reasons,” she could not “specifically address this situation.” However, she said Canada's biggest airline, like all other couriers here, “is obligated to enforce” the Canadian no-flight list as well as its U.S. counterpart which is estimated to contain close to 50,000 names. The airline also can decline to board passengers on the basis of “past misbehaviour, credit-card fraud and health reasons.”

Sometimes, she acknowledged, a person not on the no-fly list will have the same or a similar surname to an individual on the list. In this instance, “we request secondary information,” possibly an Aeroplan card, and usually this is enough to expedite matters for the non-listed person. “We certainly regret any inconvenience” Mr. Singh may have experienced, she said, noting that the occasional glitch has to be expected when “you're dealing with 34-million passengers a year.”

Mr. Singh wasn't taking much consolation in this yesterday. “How many other Canadians are experiencing this?” he asked. “How many people are on the list? Is it my name on the list? Or is it someone else? How many people have become Kafka-esque characters? How many Joseph Ks [a reference to the protagonist in Kafka's novel The Trial] have these lists produced in Canada?”