The Canada Border Services Agency was aware it could face scrutiny for contracting out security positions at the holding centre where a Mexican national died by suicide last December, freedom-of-information documents have revealed.
The first alert regarding the death came from the CBSA's Regional Operation Centre shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 20, about two hours after Lucia Vega Jimenez was found in medical distress in the bathroom of the B.C. Immigration Holding Centre (BCIHC): "Attempted suicide while in custody," it read in part.
In the following hours, the agency's communications team exchanged a flurry of e-mails checking to see if the news had become public on Twitter and ScanBC, an online radio scanning group, and to craft key messaging points in preparation.
That afternoon, CBSA director-general Ken MacKillop sent an e-mail to agency executives – including Martin Bolduc, associate vice-president of operations; Caroline Weber, vice-president of corporate affairs; and spokeswoman Patrizia Giolti – proposing that the agency's holding lines (official responses to questions) "simply acknowledge that an incident has occurred and that an investigation led by Richmond RCMP is underway."
Early that evening, Ms. Giolti e-mailed draft holding lines to colleagues that outlined that the agency should confirm only that first responders were called to the holding centre and that a short-term detainee was sent to hospital. Only if pressed should the agency say that the Richmond RCMP was looking into the matter, according to the e-mail.
The federal agency was subject to intense scrutiny after media in January reported the death of Ms. Vega Jimenez, 42. The CBSA declined interviews with media, instead issuing short statements that contained little information. Freedom-of-information requests submitted by journalists in February took nine months to yield responses despite a 30-business-day deadline under Canada's Access to Information Act.
The records – more than 1,750 pages – show that the agency carefully prepared responses in anticipation of media interest.
A memo titled "Communications Approach," that was issued by CBSA regional director Perry Boldt on the day Ms. Vega Jimenez was discovered, outlined "reactive media lines" should there be questions from the public. In part, it noted that the death occurred at a detention centre where CBSA uses contracted security agents from Vancouver-based Genesis Security.
"It will be important for the public to understand that such employment is done under very strict guidelines and the protocol is adhered to at all times," the memo states. "This kind of messaging will need to be developed with Genesis."
Last month, a coroner's jury heard that the private security firm had made mistakes, including not having a female security guard present and missing some checks of detainees. It made several recommendations, including that CBSA staff – not contracted security guards – monitor immigration detainees.
Ms. Vega Jimenez was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1 after a fare and identity check by Transit Police revealed she was wanted by CBSA on immigration matters. She was held in custody for three weeks before attempting to kill herself on Dec. 20. She was taken to hospital, where she died eight days later.
Claudia Franco Hijuelos, consul-general of Mexico in Vancouver, said Ms. Vega Jimenez feared being deported due to a domestic situation at home.