Hard questions for CBSA as coroner’s inquest into in-custody death of Lucía Vega Jiménez begins

Latin American community groups excluded from participating in the inquest

VANCOUVER – Evidence will be heard today at the opening of the coroner’s inquest into the in-custody death of Lucía Vega Jiménez, who was being detained by the Canada Border Services Agency when she hanged herself in a detention facility washroom at Vancouver International Airport in December 2013. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), which has raised questions publicly about her death since it first came to light through media reports in January 2014, is a participant in the inquest. The BCCLA has stated that it seeks answers to a number of questions about her death and about CBSA’s practices.

The importance of the inquest – and BCCLA’s longstanding demand for independent oversight of CBSA – is underlined by the fact that another detainee has reportedly died as a result of injuries sustained while in CBSA custody in Niagara Region, Ontario, over the weekend.

“Would Lucía Vega Jiménez still be alive today if CBSA had acted differently?” said Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BCCLA. “We need to know – did the conditions of Ms Vega Jiménez’s detention by CBSA lead to this tragedy? Did any action, or inaction, on the part of CBSA contribute to the desperation that she evidently felt, and that drove her to take her own life? Were there warning signs that CBSA ignored?”

This morning, lawyers for the Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a coalition of Latin American community members and migrant groups in Vancouver, asked the Coroner for the opportunity to participate in the inquest. Their request had previously been denied in a letter from the Coroner.

Paterson stated: “The BCCLA is disappointed by this decision. This coalition would have brought a great deal of value to the inquest because of their close connection to the case, their understanding of the particular experience of Latin American people in CBSA custody, and the fact that they have been leading the calls for accountability in this tragedy. We are indebted to them for the indispensible work that they have done to bring light to this tragedy.”

The BCCLA also intends to question the role played by the private security firm that CBSA hired to supervise detainees at Vancouver Airport.

“Keeping a person locked up against their will is a supremely serious act that takes away their freedom. Society entrusts the power to take away our liberty to the government, only to be used when it is absolutely necessary. The power to restrict people’s liberty and to use force against people should not be contracted out,” Paterson added. “CBSA gave Genesis Security the job of detaining people. We question whether there was adequate oversight of private security carrying out CBSA’s duties. And we question whether these security guards had the right training and the right equipment to do the job.”

The Coroner will look at matters up to the time of Ms. Vega Jiménez’s death. It does not have the authority to find fault, or the ability to examine other issues that arose after her death that the BCCLA and others have raised. The BCCLA has commented that the public has still been given no explanation as to why Ms Vega Jiménez’s death was not disclosed to the public by CBSA, or whether CBSA asked Ms. Vega Jiménez’s family to sign some sort of agreement after her death. The Coroner’s Inquest will not examine these questions.

The BCCLA has stated that the death of Lucía Vega Jiménez makes clear that there is a need for an independent oversight agency to review CBSA’s actions and to ensure respect for the human rights of refugees, migrants, and Canadians who deal with the agency. While CBSA has sweeping police powers, it is unlike most other police forces in Canada because there is no independent oversight.

Lorne Waldman, President of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the protection of refugee and human rights and which has spoken out on Ms. Vega Jiménez’s case, added: “CBSA officers have wide-ranging police powers with almost no constraints, and no independent oversight. When people feel their rights have been violated by CBSA, they have nowhere independent to make a complaint. Independent oversight of CBSA is long overdue, and is necessary for the public to have confidence in the work they do on our behalf.”

The inquest is expected to last until Friday, October 3.

The BCCLA is represented at the inquest by lawyers Jason Gratl of Gratl and Company, and Neil Chantler of Chantler and Company. Mr. Gratl is a member of the BCCLA’s board of directors and its executive committee.