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Civil Liberties Association renews calls for Border Services oversight

Jorge Salazar, centre left, presents a petition seeking an inquiry into the death of Lucia Vega Jiminez to a Canadian Border Services Agency official at the CBSA office in Vancouver on Feb. 5, 2014.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Ten years ago, after Canadian citizen Maher Arar was deported from the United States and tortured in Syria over false terrorism suspicions, the federal government launched a public inquiry into the role its officials played in the troubling matter.

Two years later, Justice Dennis O'Connor released an 800-page report with recommendations that included independent oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency's national security duties.

More than seven years have passed. On Wednesday, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) renewed the call for action with a letter to federal Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and a Vancouver news conference.

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"For seven years, there has been no action," said Josh Paterson, executive director of the BCCLA.

"We have written to the federal government today to say that not only must they act on that old recommendation to create an independent review agency for CBSA's national security activities, but also that an agency must be created to cover all of the exercise of police powers by the CBSA."

The federal agency has been under scrutiny since Lucia Vega Jimenez, who was from Mexico, died by suicide in CBSA custody last December.

Advocacy groups sought details on her death and demanded to know why the incident was made public only after media began reporting on it a month later. Mr. Paterson said Ms. Vega Jimenez's case "just underlines the broader allegations of misconduct and unfairness" reported for some time at the CBSA.

Lesley Stalker, a member at large of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and former regional legal officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said refugee lawyers and advocacy groups have for years heard "stories of inappropriate and sometimes horrifying conduct" by individual CBSA officers.

"The stories seldom reach public ears," Ms. Stalker said. "Claimants and migrants do not know to whom to turn when their rights have been violated. More significantly, they fear deportation to lands where they are at risk of persecution or destitution. They don't complain to the CBSA lest the complaint compromise their status in Canada. And so, most accounts of misconduct go under the radar."

There is significant concern that individual CBSA officers contact people in a refugee claimant's country of origin – using information from laptops and mobile phones – without regard for the risk this may create, Ms. Stalker said.

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Catherine Dauvergne, a UBC law professor and representative of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), criticized what she called a toothless complaints process in the CBSA's recourse office.

"The CCR has [submitted written complaints] on numerous occasions," she said.

"Quite often, the response is along the lines of, 'We've looked into that, but we're not doing anything.' It has been an almost completely unsatisfactory process."

The CBSA says it has in recent years taken steps to strengthen the review of its activities.

"CBSA Professional Standards investigates all allegations of improper or illegal conduct by CBSA employees and contractors and takes appropriate action when there is evidence of wrongdoing," the agency said in an e-mail.

It also defended its recourse program, noting it reports through a different branch of the agency "to keep it separate from program and operations decisions, while at the same time using the results of recourse decisions to correct policies and practices and provide useful information and performance management."

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The CBSA also launched a mechanism two years ago that allows members of the public to "voice their comments, complaints and compliments" through an electronic feedback form or by regular mail, the e-mail said.

Public Safety Canada did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

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