This decision came days after a CityNews exclusive revealed that the agents from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) were asking people for identification in one Toronto neighborhood to prove they were ”legally in Canada.” The agency confirmed to CityNews that its agents were in the neighborhood at the time, but have denied conducting random street checks.
These events are a reminder that, while Canadians have been rightfully horrified by the images and rhetoric coming from the United States, they should not ignore how Canada itself treats migrants and asylum seekers. The Trudeau government was elected in large part thanks to its welcoming immigration rhetoric, and has since very publicly championed the cases of refugees. But it has not lived up to its words.
Instead, the Liberals have promised to increase deportations by between 25 percent and 35 percent per year. They have also done little to rein in the power of the CBSA, which is currently Canada’s only national security agency without civilian oversight. When a complaint is made against a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), a civilian agency handles the complaint. The CBSA investigates itself, making it difficult for Canadians to stay informed about the agency’s operations.
For example, on June 22, 12 men were arrested by police in London, Ontario, under a warrant issued by the CBSA. Within a week, four of the men had been deported to Mexico. The rest will remain in immigration detention until their next hearings. All of this happened without any publicly released information about who they were and why they were arrested, sparking concern from immigration lawyers.
The CBSA determines when an individual should be placed into custody based on several criteria, including if someone is a risk to the public or if there is a risk that they won’t appear for a deportation order. In Ontario, 94 percent are detained because CBSA considers them a flight risk, compared to just 55 percent in Quebec. The Canadian Council for Refugees argues that this unexplained discrepancy raises questions of fairness.
There are also questions about how CBSA agents treat the migrants and asylum seekers they detain. About one-third of Canada’s detained migrants are held in regular prisons, often with the regular prison population, posing grave risks to their safety: In 2010, 24-year-old Kevon Phillip was beaten to death in Toronto’s Don Jail while being held in immigration detention.
But even the immigrants held in migrant detention centers endure inhumane conditions and treatment. They can be held indefinitely and without charge as their case makes its way through Canada’s bureaucratic immigration and refugee system. According to the End Immigration Detention Network, many migrants are held in cells for 18 to 21 hours per day. Children are also kept in detention: In 2016, a teenager who crossed into Canada from the United States was kept in isolated detention for three weeks. An access-to-information request made by the Canadian Press revealed this month that CBSA agents will soon be equipped with batons, “soft body armor” and steel-toed boots — the same items worn by guards at maximum-security facilities.
The negative publicity around reports of deaths in CBSA custody pushed the Liberals to rebuild detention centers, such as the one in Laval, and to reduce the number of children held in detention. But the party was not able to deliver on the promise of improving oversight.
Over a period of 18 months between 2016 and 2018, the CBSA investigated 1,200 complaints made against its own agents, including sexual harassment and discreditable conduct while on duty. In March , the Liberals committed to expanding the oversight body for the RCMP to enable it to take on complaints made to CBSA as well. The bill was at second reading in the Senate when the session finished in June, effectively killing it.
The Liberals need to make changes to CBSA detention and make border policing a priority. The party has shown that it is responsive to public pressure. Now, Canadians should join migrant justice campaigns and demand that the government institute a mechanism to oversee the CBSA. Canada’s migrant detention system may be more humane than the U.S. system, but that does not mean we should allow these abuses to continue.