Guest post by Catherine Dauvergne, Professor of Law, University of British Columbia. This post was originally published on In Due Course: A Canadian Public Affairs Blog on 21 November 2014.

It’s curious that complaints about the egregious behaviour of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) get so little traction. I wish there were a sophisticated, multi-faceted, complex explanation for this, but having watched the press on this for almost a decade, I think the explanation is pathetically straightforward: the CBSA deals mostly with foreigners. Sure, the Agency does a few bad things, a few human rights abuses and arbitrary exercises of power, but the broadly defined ‘we’ group is essentially willing to ignore this―or at least put up with this―in exchange for the sense of security that an armed border guard gives us.

With sweeping powers of investigation, few constraints and no oversight, the CBSA has been accused of dealing unfairly with migrants.
Today, in my regular pursuit of near futile causes, I’d like to highlight just two things, to serve as a reminder that CBSA practices are quite far from the norm of what ‘we’ typically will tolerate from armed state officials and jailers in Canada.

First, an excerpt from an exchange on a refugee advocacy listserv last week. There’s nothing confidential here, just an advocate asking many hundreds of list serve members for some advice:

I’m supporting a family that’s facing removal [deportation] very soon. A CIC/CBSA agent demanded that the family buy their own ticket for their deportation (this is a relatively common practice). BUT, when the family indicated they had a limited revenue, and might not be able to buy their own ticket (also very common), the agent indicated that he would detain them and also indicated he would not study their PRRA [pre removal risk assessment application]. This basically blackmailed the family into buying a ticket they couldn’t afford.

What kind of recourses might exist to complain and hold this agent accountable? Keep in mind that the family will likely be deported very soon, so any complaint would come from a third-party who was not physically present when the agent threatened detention unless the family bought their own airline tickets.

Sadly, this kind of CBSA behaviour is common, even typical. And the answer to the question about accountability is that there is no effective mechanism at all for complaints or civilian oversight of the agency.

Second, a recall of the Coroner’s verdict in the inquiry into Lucia Vega Jiminez’s suicide. This was released in October and included 34 separate recommendations for the CBSA (I’ve counted them by grouping some together). Some highlights of the recommendations include that if there is any doubt whether a detainee can understand English, a translator should be obtained immediately; and immigration holding centres should be above ground so that there is some access to natural light, ventilation and outside access. In other words, there is substantial room for improvement. This is not rocket science.

The verdict was scarcely noticed by the mainstream media. So let me say again: the CBSA is in desperate need of civilian oversight. The lack of outrage is itself outrageous. Any thoughts about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.