In a tense confrontation at the Canada Border Services Agency office in Vancouver, civil liberties and migrant advocacy groups delivered a petition with 7,500 signatures, demanding an inquest into the in-custody death of Mexican national Lucia Vega Jimenez.
The groups – which included the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Pivot Legal Society and No One is Illegal – are also calling for independent civilian oversight of the CBSA and a review of migrant-detention policies. They delivered the petition to the CBSA's downtown Vancouver office on Wednesday, confronting staffers of the federal agency who accepted the petition but declined all other comment.
"Does the CBSA have any information on how many in-custody deaths there have been under CBSA?" asked activist Harsha Walia, one of about 20 advocates present.
"As we have indicated, I can't provide any comments to you today," a CBSA employee replied. "If you have additional questions, we'll refer you to our media relations staff."
The circumstances surrounding the death of Ms. Jimenez have galvanized groups who feel the agency needs an independent investigative mechanism similar to that of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., whose mandate it is to investigate officer-related incidents of death or serious harm.
Doug King, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, also questioned the appropriateness of the CBSA contracting of private security firm Genesis Security and whether those employees have proper training to deal with detainees.
"This is really why we need an inquest: We cannot have private security guards looking after citizens in detention cells," he said at a news conference before the groups delivered the petition. "What is really shocking in this case is even though we have private security guards responsible for taking care of this woman, the Minister of Justice and the security services regulator have said almost nothing about this incident."
The B.C. Coroners Service is investigating the death but has not yet determined whether a coroner's inquest will be held. The latter is a formal court proceeding with a five-person jury, held to publicly review the circumstances of a death.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix, who was present at Wednesday's press conference, joined the chorus of those calling for a coroner's inquest into the in-custody death.
"I think it's in the interest of everyone, including the authorities, that there now be a full public hearing of this matter," he said. "We know that coroner's inquests do not assign blame, but they do allow us an opportunity to make recommendations about the future."
Ms. Vega Jimenez, 42, was arrested at a SkyTrain platform in Vancouver on Dec. 1 when transit police, finding she did not have a valid fare, checked her identification and discovered she was wanted by the CBSA on immigration matters. She was held in custody for three weeks, attempted suicide on Dec. 20 while in CBSA holding cells at Vancouver International Airport and died eight days later in hospital.
The death was not made public until media reported on it in late January.
Mexican Consul-General Claudia Franco Hijuelos said last week Ms. Vega Jimenez was worried about returning to a domestic situation in Mexico and that, while she was in detention, the consulate had arranged for a transition home in Mexico for her.
"She seemed to be accepting the situation," Ms. Franco Hijuelos said. "It came to us as a surprise that she attempted suicide."
Meanwhile, Barb McLintock with the BC Coroners Service said the agency is not aware of any other CBSA in-custody deaths in the province, although there have been a couple that could be considered CBSA-related: Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died after being stunned with a Taser at YVR in October, 2007; and Andrew Michael Crews, a 32-year-old U.S. resident who fatally shot himself after firing at a Canadian border guard at the Peace Arch border crossing in October, 2012.
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