Home / Media Release: Death of man in CBSA custody after altercation on plane requires independent investigation, rights watchdogs say

Media Release: Death of man in CBSA custody after altercation on plane requires independent investigation, rights watchdogs say

CBSA the only police force in Canada without independent accountability

For immediate release

Ottawa (August 10, 2018) – The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) reacted today to the reported death of a Nigerian man in Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) custody. While the circumstances of the altercation with CBSA officers that lead to his death remain unclear, reporting by CBC Calgary suggests that the federal government was deporting him after he lost his long legal fight to remain in Canada, and that he strongly feared he would be killed if he were deported to Nigeria.

The organizations understand that Calgary Police are investigating the incident to determine whether any the man’s death was the result of any crime on the part of the CBSA officers, while CBSA itself is investigating whether the officers are guilty of any misconduct. The BCCLA and CARL criticized this internal misconduct investigation as inadequate, stating that such incidents require independent, external investigation.

In 2016, after two deaths in CBSA custody in the space of a week, human rights organizations urged the government to create an external oversight agency to ensure that tragic incidents, and allegations of CBSA misconduct, were independently investigated. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale promised that the federal government would create such a body, ending CBSA’s unusual status as the only major law enforcement agency in Canada without an external accountability agency. While the government engaged an outside consultant to provide it with advice on creating an agency, and Minister Goodale repeated the promise publicly in December 2017, the Trudeau government has taken no concrete public action more than two years after its 2016 promise.

Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BCCLA, said: “We don’t know how this tragedy occurred on that plane, or whether CBSA and its officers behaved appropriately. It would have been the job of an independent oversight agency to investigate that, but the Trudeau government has yet to follow through on its two-year-old promise to create one. Instead, the CBSA will investigate itself without any external review. We don’t accept that for any other law enforcement agency in Canada, and yet we are still stuck with that unacceptable situation when it comes to our border security agency.”

The organizations called on the Alberta Chief Medical Examiner to ensure that the death in custody is investigated to the fullest extent of their authority under the Fatality Inquiries Act, as a death that reportedly involved violence and that may have occurred as the result of improper or negligent treatment by CBSA officers.

Lorne Waldman, refugee lawyer and past president of CARL, stated: “We are deeply concerned by this death. While we don’t yet know what happened on that plane, we know that this man was in the care and custody of the CBSA when he died.  How did a struggle get so out of hand that it became lethal? Did the officers attempt to de-escalate the situation, or did they resort inappropriately to the use of force? The CBSA’s duty is to do everything in its power to ensure that its detainees are safe, and this death once again raises the question as to whether CBSA failed in its duty to protect those who are in its care.”

Noting that at least 14 people have died in CBSA custody in since 2000, Lobat Sadrehashemi, President of CARL, stated: “We can’t wait any longer for this government to act. They keep saying action is coming, but months have stretched into years and it never comes. Now we question whether they will actually be able to get new legislation passed to create an independent accountability mechanism before the next election. Every other police agency in Canada has an independent external accountability agency and it is deeply disappointing that CBSA continues to be the exception to this rule several years after the government promised to fix that problem.”

The organizations pointed out that the CBSA wields a wide range of police powers and deals with some of the most vulnerable people in Canada. In addition, CBSA plays a unique role as prosecutors for the federal government in refugee and other hearings, such as the hearings that this individual had during his legal fight. A federal audit recently revealed that CBSA officers have behaved inappropriately in carrying out those duties on the government’s behalf, including using inaccurate evidence and intimidating immigration tribunal members. The organizations stated that the audit reinforced the position that any accountability body for CBSA must be able to review the full range of CBSA’s conduct, whether at the border, inland, or in hearings.

The BCCLA and CARL are two of the numerous organizations in the nationwide effort to address the failure of the federal government to establish an independent accountability agency to supervise the CBSA. CARL’s member lawyers have daily dealings with CBSA across Canada, and both organizations have been working alongside others for years towards reform of CBSA, reform of immigration detention, and accountability for the agency. In 2017, the BCCLA published a report (with CARL’s assistance), “Oversight at the Border”, making recommendations for the structure of a CBSA accountability agency.