Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, is in Ottawa today to argue for independent oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
The BCCLA is testifying at a hearing of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, which is looking into various aspects of the Canada Border Services Agency’s work, including the question of CBSA accountability.
CBSA is a national law enforcement agency that conducts thousands and thousands of dealings with Canadians, visitors, and migrants including refugee claimants. When CBSA officers carry out their responsibilities under Canada’s customs and immigration laws, they have wide-ranging police powers. CBSA officers have powers of arrest, detention, search and seizure. At the border, CBSA officers have an even wider range of powers than police. For example, they can stop travellers for questioning, take breath and blood samples, and search, detain and arrest non-citizens without a warrant. Despite these sweeping police powers, there is no independent oversight body for the CBSA to review its actions and to ensure respect for the human rights of refugees, migrants, and Canadians who deal with the agency.
This is a highly unusual situation in Canada. Every major police agency in Canada, from the national to the provincial to the municipal level, has got some kind of independent oversight or review body. CBSA stands very much alone among major law enforcement agencies – and not in a good way. The absence of an independent review body for CBSA, in our view, does CBSA and the public a huge disservice, and is producing genuine harm.
The BCCLA takes the position that any oversight agency (or combination of agencies) for CBSA must, at a minimum:
• Be able to receive and deal with public complaints about CBSA conduct, including third- party complaints from public interest organizations
• Be able to initiate its own reviews and investigations about CBSA conduct even where there is no complaint. CBSA deals with many vulnerable people who may be making refugee claims in Canada, or whose status in Canada is otherwise uncertain. These people, in many cases, are either unaware of how to file complaints or tend to be reluctant to file complaints because they are making a claim to the Canadian government and fear that complaining may result in less favourable treatment. Other potential complainants have been deported from Canada and may be unable to access a complaints mechanism in Canada. In addition, because many of the national security activities of CBSA take place in secret, an oversight process that is driven solely by complaints is inadequate as few people may ever learn about some of these activities.
• Include independent civilian investigation of critical incidents involving CBSA officers and individuals in CBSA custody.
We are asking the committee to include recommendations in its report that Parliament act to create an independent, civilian oversight mechanism for CBSA – including not only its national security activities, but its exercise of police powers, and its border control, immigration and refugee activities.
An independent civilian complaint and review body for CBSA, is strongly in the public interest. It would also serve the interest of building confidence in the CBSA’s law enforcement activities, and benefit CBSA officers as the public will understand that they are being held to the highest standard of accountability. Given the sweeping powers available to CBSA officers under our immigration legislation, it is simply unacceptable that there is no public independent review or investigation mechanism. We are urging the Senators to recommend that Parliament take action to fill this gap.