A week ago the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Association for Refugee Lawyers joined together to call for independent oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). The press conference was well attended, and the mainstream press ran a series of pretty good stories about it. But almost no one reported on the CBSA horror stories that those of us involved the conference thought would get the most attention.
I am still wondering about this. I just can’t bring myself to conclude that the mainstream press in Canada is not interested in salacious detail.
Here are some of the things that did not get noted in the dozen or so stories that followed the press conference:
- A CBSA officer handcuffed a man who had voluntarily attended a meeting and told him that during his deportation flight if he caused trouble he would be forcibly put into a diaper.
- A CBSA officer refused to let a woman use her computer to a make a request for identity documents, and when the woman then gave her password to the officer so that the request could be made for her, the officer opened every single one of her emails.
- CBSA officers sat in on an interrogation in Sri Lanka that was based entirely on an confidential affidavit used in a Canadian refugee hearing that CBSA had shared with Sri Lankan authorities.
Maybe people are prepared to see these stories as just routine. Or maybe people don’t believe these accounts. Who knows. In any case, this is clearly the kind of low-level abuse of human rights that doesn’t attract much attention.
Whatever the reason, the lack of interest is troubling. Non-citizens in Canada have the same rights and freedoms as anyone else. Except for mobility rights and entry rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to everyone who is physically in Canada. It doesn’t matter what a person’s immigration status is. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have immigration status at all.
This is one reason why independent oversight of the CBSA is so important. Many of the people who are affected by the CBSA’s intimidating and harassing tactics are non-citizens. They are at risk of detention and deportation, and they have no democratic rights in Canada – they cannot take their complaints to the ballot box.
To recap the basics: The CBSA is one of the few armed forces in the country without an independent oversight body. The CBSA has powers equal to or greater than those of regular police. The inquiry into the Mahar Arar tragedy called for independent oversight seven years ago. Nothing has been done since that time. The current complaints process is internal and, not surprisingly, almost wholly ineffective.
There is a small window of opportunity for the government to act prior to the BC Coroner’s Inquiry into Lucia Vega Jiminez’s death after attempting suicide in CBSA custody at the Vancouver airport. The inquest is scheduled for September 2014.
Sadly, it may just be the case that it takes a death for the Canadian public to attune to how the CBSA treats non-citizens. The day-to-day rights infringements do not seem to capture our attention. It is vital that we do not squander the attention that has come at such a cost.