For two-and-a-half years, Munira Omar worked for WestJet at Pearson Airport waiting on her final security clearance to be approved.
She was still waiting for a response on April 9, 2018, when she was fired because the clearance she needed to access restricted areas unsupervised had not yet been approved by Transport Canada.
It took another year before she got that response: Transport Canada denied her clearance over “concerns regarding (her) trustworthiness and reliability.” Two of Omar’s brothers had been involved in drug trafficking, organized crime and other criminal offences. They could potentially influence her, the letter stated.
Omar, 30, has no criminal record — not so much as a speeding ticket, she said — and has had little to no contact with her brothers since 2007 and 2008.
“Their records are their own. If they commit the crime, they serve the time. I don’t do it with them,” she said.
She is appealing the decision in Federal Court on Thursday — the latest among several people in recent years to challenge security clearance denials that they say are unfair.
According to her application, she is arguing both that the decision was based on speculation and unverified information about a search warrant, and that it was procedurally unfair because she wasn’t provided with the criteria by which the decision would be made.
Omar has been found “guilty by association,” her lawyer Mitchell Worsoff said in an interview.
Transport Canada should make decisions to deny security clearance “only in circumstances where there is some substance to the criminal activity, it can’t just be pure speculation,” he said.
Omar and her brothers “don’t have a joint venture together, they don’t work together, they don’t socialize where suspicious things are happening,” Worsoff said.
Her case has some similarities to that of Ayaan Farah, who was also denied clearance at the airport because of what a Federal Court judge found to be “sparse allegations” of links to people with criminal histories, Worsoff said. The court quashed the decision to deny Farah’s security clearance.
Omar wanted the opportunity to travel and was thrilled to be hired at WestJet
She started as a guest services agent and then was promoted to a more senior role.
When she started at the airport, she got a basic security pass that allows entry to restricted areas while supervised by someone with a full pass. Soon, the other people hired at the same time began to get their full security clearances. By six months, she said, everyone else in her training group had their full passes.
Her mother and sister had both worked at the airport before, too, with full security clearances. No one knew why hers was taking so long.
“Even my mom was like, what did you do?” Omar said, laughing. “They were even shocked.”
She thought it might have something to do with her brothers, but didn’t think that would actually hinder her application because she had no record or any connection to anything they’d done.
On Nov. 29, 2017 — two years after she was first hired — Omar received a letter from Transport Canada that said “adverse information” had been found that raised concerns about her suitability for clearance. It mentioned two of her brothers. It also stated that in 2013 the Toronto police drug squad and Peel Regional Police had searched the apartment where Omar, her sister and her mother lived in connection with one of her brothers Some documents, a phone and a photograph were seized, according to the letter.
Omar, without the help of her own lawyer, answered the letter and explained that to her knowledge nothing at all was taken from their home during that search, and that the brother in question was in custody at the time. He had never lived at that residence, she said, and hadn’t lived in the same home as Omar since 2008, she said.
“Basically, they wanted me to explain my DNA or my genetic tie to my brother,” she said. Her brother was also already serving his time at a prison in B.C. — “it’s not like I was harbouring him like a fugitive or something,” she said.
“He is an adult, he made those choices. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s beyond me,” she said. She hasn’t even told him, “your s- is now affecting me.”
“It’s technically not his fault either,” she said. “His sins and his crimes are his own.”
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She spoke to her cousin, a lawyer in the U.S., about whether she should mention that she no longer had a relationship to her brother. Her cousin said no. “You shouldn’t have to denounce whatever ties you have to him to prove some kind of point,” Omar said her cousin told her.
A year later, she was denied clearance. In the interim, there had been no other communication from Transport Canada. WestJet had told her she had six months to get her clearance or her employment would be terminated. Omar’s pleas for a response went ignored.
A spokesperson for Transport Canada said their position would be communicated at Thursday’s court hearing.
“Transport Canada verifies the suitability of each Transportation Security Clearance applicant with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service,” the spokesperson said in an email.
In a factum responding to Omar’s application, lawyers representing the federal government state that two of Omar’s immediate family members have been involved with serious criminal activities including drug trafficking and organized crime. This raises “significant concerns” about her suitability for clearance “in light of the vulnerability to airport security created by clearance holders who are closely associated with individuals involved in serious criminal activity,” the factum said
“Uncontrolled access to a restricted area of an airport is a privilege not a right,” the factum said.
It also notes that Omar did not mention her other brother in her response to the Transport Canada letter. The committee that reviewed her application considered her submission that the police did not seize anything from her residence during the search and that her brother did not live there, however, no evidence was provided to support her assertions, the factum said. The committee discussed the involvement of two police forces in the search and the need for reasonable grounds to obtain a warrant, the factum said.
It is also argued that Omar is improperly seeking to introduce new information in her application about her relationship with her brothers and that this should not be allowed.
Omar said the reason she was denied her clearance is unjust, as is the length of time it took to process the application and the lack of assistance she said she had in the clearance application process. She was unable to apply for promotions or progress in the company because she didn’t have the clearance and ultimately she lost her job.
Part of the issue with being found to be untrustworthy or guilty by association, Omar says, is that it feels impossible to prove you are innocent. It’s not enough that she never did anything wrong in her life or at work, or that she had no knowledge or link to anything her brothers did. If it was her own criminal record, she could show proof she had been rehabilitated and reformed, she said.
“At what point does enough become enough,” she said. “We’re not just going to look at who you are and your character, we are gonna dig into people you are related, people you are seen with. Where does it stop?”
One of Omar’s estranged brothers has two young sons. She and her family maintain a relationship with the kids — it’s hard on them with their father in custody “so you need to have more of a role,” she said. Would she need to cut ties with them too, she said, and how would that help?
She hopes the Federal Court decision will not only allow her to get her security clearance, but also stop this from happening from someone else.
“I feel like it will happen for a lot longer if people don’t speak up,” she said.