The Canada Border Services Agency faced more than 100 founded complaints from travellers last year, including allegations of racism and rudeness – and one instance of a woman alleging a border officer yelled at her while she was in medical distress.
Data provided to The Canadian Press through access to information legislation says that in 2017-18 these were among the 105 “founded” cases of complaints of officer misconduct – about 12 per cent of 875 misconduct complaints filed in that time.
The total number of complaints through the CBSA’s online “Compliments, Comments and Complaints” website remains at less than a tenth of one per cent of the 95 million travellers seen by officers in the past year.
Nonetheless, civil liberties groups say the latest collection of incidents shows that Canada needs an independent complaints agency similar to those used to oversee police forces that can produce public reports and make binding recommendations to the agency.
As it stands, the definition of “founded” provided by the agency says that “aspects in the allegations made in the complaint were valid.”
Tim McSorley, the national co-ordinator of the Toronto-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, says the definition is far too vague to help lead to changes within the agency’s culture or for the public to be properly informed.
Nonetheless, he says the limited information shows cause for concern, particularly the allegations of racism, questioning of travellers’ nationality, and name calling.
“It shows that the majority of complaints are around respect or disrespect for travellers. ...For us, in particular, the incidents of racism (from border officers) are something in our work we’ve heard more about whether from Canadian citizens, or travellers from abroad,” he said during an interview.
The descriptions of the allegations in the access documents are brief.
On Nov. 6 last year, one of the reports says, a “client states the border service officer was rude and yelled at her until she passed out.”
A CBSA spokesperson said in an email the medical distress wasn’t directly caused by the officer.
“During secondary examination, the traveller was found to be in medical distress. The border services officer followed proper first aid protocols in line with the training provided to all frontline staff. The investigation concluded that the (officer) did not play a role in the travellers medical distress,” wrote spokesperson Nicholas Dorion.
Many of the misconduct incidents are similar to a case described on May 22 last year, when a traveller said a border officer “was yelling and berated travellers, swore at the clients, lacked respect.”
In another report, an officer allegedly “was yelling and berating travellers, swore at the clients, lacked respect.”
In one April 17 allegation, an officer “was racist, called the client ugly, abused his authority.”
The CBSA didn’t provide further details in these cases.
“In these three cases, the CBSA reviewed the details of the incidents and took appropriate measures to address the conduct of the employees involved to ensure that they uphold the integrity of CBSA programs and demonstrate professionalism in their day to day activities,” wrote Dorion.
There were also founded incidents where translation was unavailable, with a case on Nov. 11 last year stating when “clients were targeted ... mistreated, denied a translator.”
The CBSA didn’t comment on the specifics of the case, but said that in some instances translation isn’t available on short notice. If the officer is detaining a traveller, then translation services are sought, said Jayden Robertson, a communications officer, in an email.
A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the CBSA will be included in a wider review of oversight systems the Liberal government is working on.
Scott Bardsley said the Public Safety Department “is advancing legislation to create a new expert review body, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency,” adding its creation would be “a historic change that will greatly enhance how Canada’s national security agencies, including CBSA, are held to account.”
McSorley said his group remains uncertain about whether the proposed legislation will go far enough or is going to apply to the kind of situations described in the CBSA complaints process.
“Given the seriousness of some of these complaints, all Canadians and travellers to Canada deserve to know that they can register their concerns, and that it will receive an appropriate review and resolution,” he said.
However, Jean-Pierre Fortin, the president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said the results of the complaints system show that only a tiny minority of cases are showing problems of officer misconduct.
Some of the cases are later taken to a grievance proceeding and thrown out, he said, though he could not provide precise figures.
“Overall, the percentage of founded cases is very low that are coming to our attention,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said that an independent oversight agency would be acceptable to the union, provided the union has some chance to defend its officers and have a voice in the review of conduct.
The union leader, who spent 18 years as a border officer, said that since 2012 there has been a decrease of more than 1,000 officers due to attrition and that officers are being required to work longer hours on the front line, often in difficult conditions with passengers already tired due to long lineups.
He said that officers who should be on the front line questioning travellers for an hour before relief are instead there for three hours, heightening fatigue.
“We’re dealing with a different work environment that’s very difficult at times, and you can be doing 16 hours in a row. It’s the lack of staffing right now that we’re seeing,” he said in an interview.
During the 2017-18 fiscal year, the CBSA received 302 compliments in its feedback system.
The CBSA has approximately 14,000 employees, including over 6,500 uniformed CBSA officers who provide services at approximately 1,200 entry points across Canada and at 39 international locations.
From April 2017 to March 2018, border service officers processed over 96 million travellers and over 5 million commercial vehicles.