The number of misconduct investigations of border officers grew last year, despite a dramatic reduction in international travel due to the pandemic.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) says it conducted 215 "founded" investigations of its officers last year, up from 171 in 2019. (The CBSA says it considers a complaint "founded" if "aspects" of it are found to be "valid.")
The increase came after border restrictions imposed to control the pandemic caused a massive decrease in travel to and from Canada. Last year, the total number of recorded trips in and out of the country by air and land was just more than 25 million — a far cry from the nearly 94 million trips logged in 2019.
The agency noted that not all of the misconduct cases involved travel.
"The case numbers vary year by year and it's important to note that not all misconduct is connected to public complaints or international travel," said CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy.
Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, also pointed out that some ports of entry still had high amounts of traffic over the past year.
"Even though there was a dip in travel, you will recall that there was a significant amount of travellers at airports for many months in 2020 and land borders (e.g. Windsor) saw very little change, especially with commercial activities," he said.
The 200-plus investigations pursued last year resulted in 170 officers being reprimanded, largely with temporary suspensions.
Just eight CBSA officers have been fired since 2018, according to an access to information request obtained by CBC News.
One officer was let go for interfering in the immigration process. According to documents obtained by CBC, he was dismissed after an internal investigation found he had tried to help an immigration lawyer by illegally removing flags from a client's CBSA file and issuing a temporary residency permit.
Others have been let go for belittling clients, making inappropriate comments toward co-workers, abusing their authority and sharing private CBSA information.
The border agency, which employs about 14,000 people, said discipline is managed case-by-case and is based on the severity of the allegations coupled with mitigating and aggravating factors.
"The CBSA takes public complaints very seriously. For all complaints filed by members of the public, there is a process in place to ensure the file is assigned to the appropriate area of the agency for full review and action," said Purdy.
"All complaints received by the CBSA are handled in an efficient, professional and impartial manner. Complaints alleging employee misconduct are reviewed and investigated and, where employee misconduct is confirmed, corrective measures may be applied, as necessary."
Calls for independent oversight
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says there are likely more cases of abuse that don't go anywhere.
"And the reason for this is people who don't have permanent status in Canada are often extremely reluctant to make a complaint because they are frightened that it might wind up working against them," she said. "And there are indications that this does happen in some cases.
"Sometimes people are removed. And so if the problematic behaviour happens in the removal — for example, if there's physical abuse of somebody who is being removed — but then that person is deported from Canada, they're not even here. It's really difficult for them to make and pursue a complaint."
Dench has been pushing for outside, independent oversight for the CBSA, which is the only public safety agency in Canada without an independent oversight body. She called the current setup "ineffective."
"And it's not really that surprising because you're complaining against the institution that you are wanting to take to task. So, of course, they're going to be reviewing it with a view to protecting themselves," she said.
"The experiences of our members, who support marginalized people, refugees, people without status in Canada, often racialized people, what we see is that CBSA has enormous power over the lives of these people. And in that circumstance, there is always the possibility of abuse of that power."
A bill which would have expanded the mandate of the civilian body that handles public complaints about the RCMP to also cover the Canada Border Services Agency failed to clear the Senate before the end of the last parliamentary session.
The federal government has yet to reintroduce it.
The CBSA said that, so far this year, it has opened 41 founded investigations, resulting in three terminations.
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