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Border guards without boundaries: Why CBSA needs a watchdog

September 5, 2019

3-minute read

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is one of Canada’s largest law enforcement agencies, employing 12,000 officers who enforce customs and immigration rules. These workers monitored the over 85 million people who travelled in and out of Canada in 2017-18.

They screen travellers at land crossings and at airports for contraband, immigration status and security risks. They process newcomers to Canada. They are the guards at detention centres holding adults and minors awaiting decisions on their immigration status, and they monitor and arrest those believed to have violated immigration rules.

CBSA officers can question, search, strip search, detain and arrest people. They can seize goods or deny entry. They can use force if necessary, though for the most part they do not carry firearms.

And they’ve been in the news quite a bit lately. From 2016 to 2018, more than 600 “founded” public complaints were filed against the CBSA leading to disciplinary action and even dismissal. The CBSA has begun to collect exit data on all people leaving Canada for the U.S.: the government will now know every time someone leaves the country by land, and hold onto that information for up to 15 years.

CBSA agents working in detention facilities, which for the vast part hold individuals who are not considered dangerous, including families and children, will now start carrying batons and pepper spray, and wearing body armour. There are recent reports of random immigration ID checks on the streets of Toronto. And over the past year, CBSA officers have allegedly used racial profiling in “recommending” to airlines to bar some 5,000 travellers from entering Canada from overseas.

CBSA officers wield a tremendous amount of power and are regularly granted more responsibilities.

That’s why the final reason the agency has been in the news is so astounding: there is no dedicated, independent review body for the CBSA that can examine the agency’s work, accept public complaints, and determine appropriate fixes or take disciplinary actions.

Many police forces have their own independent review body. The RCMP, for example, is monitored by a well-established review and complaints body, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC). It isn’t perfect, but it is much better than having no review body whatsoever.

On May 7, less than 30 days before the House of Commons was set to rise for the summer, the federal government introduced Bill C-98, “an Act to amend the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act and the Canada Border Services Agency Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.” The legislation would rename the CRCC the Public Complaints and Review Commission (PCRC) and give it jurisdiction over the CBSA. Individuals would be able to file complaints about CBSA officers, and the review body would have published an annual review of the border agency’s work.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad piece of legislation. Bill C-98 largely reflected the decade-long call from civil liberties groups for a CBSA review body. I’ve switched to the past tense because the legislation died in on the Senate’s order paper after being rushed through a House of Commons vote and cursory parliamentary committee study that did not hear from a single witness.

There was no way that this bill was ever going to make it through the parliamentary process before the summer recess. The government had three and a half years to bring in a CBSA review body, as promised in the 2015 Liberal election platform, and waited until the last possible moment to do so.

In the coming federal election there will be a lot to debate about the border. Rhetoric is ramping up around who is a legitimate newcomer to Canada. More spurious accusations are flying about “fake refugees” flocking to our borders. Day by day, there is a stronger case to do away with the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.

Canada must also face its own use of immigration detention centres and the deaths that have occurred there under the CBSA’s watch. It is federal policy here, too, to detain children and families. We need stronger rules, regulations and training to do away with racial profiling at the border and in immigration decisions.

As of July 17, the CBSA’s national security activities can be reviewed by the new National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA). But this only covers part of the CBSA’s activities and does not allow the public to file complaints. What’s more, the NSIRA is tasked with examining the work of nearly 20 other departments that carry out national security activities, so the level of focus it can or will place on the CBSA is still unknown.

Whoever forms the next government will need to commit to a strong, independent review agency that can shine a light on problems at the CBSA, whether or not that takes the form of a re-tabled Bill C-98. The rights of travellers, and especially of refugee claimants and newcomers to Canada, depend on it.

Tim McSorley is National Co-ordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. This article is part of the Monitor's special election issue, which you can read here.

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