Published May 5, 2014
Citing public criticism and a need to focus on “our key priorities,” Canada’s top border enforcement official last fall recommended that his agency end participation in a popular-but-controversial reality/documentary TV series that follows the day-to-day lives of officers, newly released records show.
But Luc Portelance, president of the Canada Border Services Agency, either had a change of heart or was overruled by federal Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney because filming is now underway for a third season of Border Security: Canada’s Front Line, one of the most popular shows on the National Geographic Channel.
Critics, who have complained that the show is exploitative and tramples on the privacy rights of citizens, said Wednesday the reversal demands explanation.
“If the CBSA itself recommended dropping the show because it was not directly linked to CBSA’s priorities, then which priorities does this reality show serve?” asked Josh Paterson, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. “What new information caused the CBSA to change its view? Who ultimately made this call?”
CBSA spokeswoman Esme Bailey said Wednesday in an email that “after thorough internal discussion, it was subsequently concluded that the benefits of the series warranted continued participation.”
Viewers get a better understanding of the agency’s mandate and get to “witness the professionalism with which the agency performs every day,” she said.
Jason Tamming, a spokesman for Blaney, confirmed that the minister approved filming for a third season, and noted that the series has attracted more than 11 million Canadian viewers per season.
However, Portelance wrote to Blaney last October to say that he was “unable to recommend that we consider a third season at this time,” according to a briefing note obtained by Postmedia News through access-to-information legislation.
While the program represented “good value for money,” elevated the profile of border officers, and fostered a “growing sense of pride in our work,” there continued to be “some risk” in continuing to participate in the show after two seasons, Portelance wrote.
He cited the backlash that followed the controversial filming in March 2013 of an immigration raid at a Vancouver construction site that ensnared several undocumented workers. Community organizations, human rights groups and other critics expressed concerns over privacy and whether individuals were provided an opportunity to give informed consent. They also complained that the filming of enforcement actions was “undignified.”
A complaint was lodged with the federal privacy commissioner. There was also a complaint to Canada’s commissioner of official languages regarding CBSA’s participation in an English-only television series, according to the memo. Both reports are still pending.
Even though CBSA spent a “relatively modest” $200,000 per season in “communications support” for the show, the program also required managers to devote time to screen episodes, Portelance wrote. “Given that the project is not directly linked to either our key priorities or our core business, the ‘risk/reward ratio’ for the project is questionable.”
“While we believe that the show engenders pride among CBSA employees, and perhaps Canadians in general, there are no measurable outcomes that can be readily attributed to this show,” he wrote.
Paterson said he understands that government agencies and their ministries have discussions and that views can change.
“But when the head of the CBSA writes a recommendation to cancel a program that has prompted significant human rights and privacy concerns, and then CBSA does exactly the opposite of that recommendation, that raises serious questions,” he said.
The series, modelled after a highly successful Australian program, is produced by Vancouver-based Force Four Productions and airs in more than 50 countries. More than 350 officers volunteered to participate in the filming of the second season.
Filming for the third season is now underway on the West Coast and in the Greater Toronto region, officials said.
The program’s website states that viewers get to follow officers as they “question, cross-examine, inspect, pat down, swab, search and X-ray suspects and their belongings, chipping away at the holes in their stories.”