On Friday, The Globe and Mail reported that, accompanied by television crews to film their activities, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) raided construction sites in British Columbia believed to be staffed in part by irregular migrants, with the purpose of apprehending and deporting those who are not entitled to live and work in Canada.
The recording of the raid is footage for a new series to air on Canadian television. Intended to highlight "life on the front lines of national security", the purpose of the series seems to be to highlight the extraordinary important role that border security plays in protecting Canadians value. It goes nearly without saying that in permitting television crews to film the CSBA's daily activities, the Canadian government has indicated its support of such an enterprise. This support – the entire enterprise – is disgusting.
These raids highlight the power of border security agents and the powerlessness of the victims they target. These raids dehumanize the individuals who are their intended victims. It may be the case that protecting Canadians requires surprise raids, though that is unproven. Those who are rounded up in these ways may sometimes be violating Canadian immigration law, but they are rarely dangerous; they are not criminals, if by criminals we mean that they rob or physically harm Canadians.
The filming of these raids, with the intention of highlighting to Canadians the effectiveness of our security apparatus, is fundamentally a failure to respect the lives of individuals who, although perhaps in Canada without proper legal documentation, will too frequently be harmed by the aggression and violence to which they are subjected. We may like to ignore it, but where these raids lead to deportation – which they often do – families are broken up, livelihoods are shattered, and many, many, people suffer. This suffering should not be presented to Canadians as evening entertainment to be watched accompanied by loved ones and a bowl of popcorn.
No one denies the importance of protecting Canadian society. No one denies that the men and women who are charged with protecting Canada's borders face tremendously difficult choices every day of their lives. And most Canadians (though not all political philosophers) believe that only those who are legitimately entitled to live and work in Canada should be doing so. Moreover, no one likes to acknowledge the ugly truth that border security requires turning away people whose lives would otherwise go better if they were admitted to, or allowed to remain in, Canada. Yet anyone who has stood in line at border security knows how vulnerable we are to the very quick decisions made by others about whether we can enter or not, which have a tremendous impact on our lives.
These raids highlight the reality that border security does not happen only at the border. Our 'border' must now be understood more expansively. We protect national security at the border, but also far beyond it: before individuals board planes to get here, and, much closer to home, in our communities when CBSA representatives forcibly round up those who allegedly do not belong.
These activities are, for many, the legitimate activities of a sovereign state that is entitled to make decisions about whom to exclude and whom to include. Yet it is equally the job of a liberal democratic state such as Canada to make sure that border security is carried out fairly and effectively, with due respect both for Canadians and for those who are the victims of their power. Balancing the need to protect the Canadian border and the need to respect those who attempt to circumvent it may mean that some of those who are not entitled to be in Canada will remain over the long term. But that is a risk we must be prepared to take in order to protect the commitment to respecting others that is at the heart of Canadian democracy.
Recording the suffering of those targeted by CBSA does not meet these standards. We can only hope that the opportunity to watch the destruction of lives on television will prompt Canadians to stand up against this kind of aggression. Canadians, remember, are polite and shy and boring: our border agents should remember that, and so too should Canadians watching them in action.
Patti Tamara Lenard is an assistant professor of ethics at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. This article is published in partnership with the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS), whose blog carries a version.