Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to finally have the opportunity to contribute to a long-awaited debate on an oversight body for the Canada Border Services Agency. It has been over a decade since Justice O'Connor recommended that there be an independent oversight for the CBSA. Since then, a chorus of voices have consistently and persistently called for accountability for the CBSA.
I will state very clearly that the NDP supports Bill C-98, as this is something the NDP and stakeholders have been calling on the current Liberal government to act on for a very long time.
In fact, back in 2014, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, issued a joint press release and called for an independent review of all of CBSA's national security enforcement and border policing activities.
The CBSA is the only major federal law enforcement agency without external oversight. CBSA officers have a broad range of authority. They can stop travellers for questioning. They can take breath and blood samples. They have the ability to search, detain and arrest non-citizens without a warrant. They can interrogate Canadians. They also have the authority to issue and carry out deportations on foreign nationals. Many of these authorities are carried out in an environment where charter protections are reduced in the name of national security. However, despite these sweeping powers, it is astounding that there is no independent external civilian oversight for complaints or allegations of misconduct for the CBSA.
Without a doubt, the overwhelming majority of CBSA officers carry out their duties with the utmost respect for the individuals they engage with and recognize that the authority provided to them is to be used responsibly. However, stories of horrific misconduct have also come to light, and the complaint mechanism is anything but open and accountable.
Joel Sandaluk, a Toronto immigration lawyer, said, “CBSA, for many years, has been a law unto itself.”
Mary Foster of Solidarity Across Borders said, “We have enough experience to know that making a complaint to the CBSA about the CBSA doesn't really lead anywhere.”
It is my understanding that between January 2016 and the middle of 2018, the CBSA investigated around 1,200 allegations of staff misconduct. The alleged misconducts are wide-ranging. They include things like neglect of duty, sexual assault, excessive force, use of inappropriate sexual language, criminal association and harassment.
In 2013, there was a case where a woman, reportedly fleeing domestic violence, died in the CBSA's custody. An inquest into the death concluded that there is “no independent, realistic method for immigrants to bring forward concerns or complaints.”
In 2016, two more people died in the CBSA's custody within a span of just one week.
With incidents such as these, it is vital that there is accountability and transparency to ensure that procedures are respected and that there is no abuse of power. That means it is critical that there is an independent oversight body in the event that complaints are lodged.
Right now, if there is an incident where travellers, whether Canadians or foreign nationals, feel something is not right, be it harassment or use of force, the only recourse is to submit a complaint to the CBSA, which undergoes an internal review. We must keep in mind that the nature of the power imbalance that exists between border authorities such as the CBSA, and travellers, especially those in a foreign country, makes lodging any sort of complaint very difficult. Some people elect not to file a complaint. There are real fears, especially if the process is not well known and the body looking into the complaint is not an independent body. People fear, for example, that future travel could be impacted. People are afraid that by speaking out against mistreatment, they may be punished the next time that they try to travel.
We should keep in mind that for some, such as temporary residents and visitors to Canada, they simply are not around long enough to file a complaint or to see it through. We have a responsibility, especially as a nation that welcomes millions of tourists a year, has our own citizens exploring the world and welcomes hundreds of thousands of newcomers who immigrate here each year, to ensure that people feel safe, respected and protected by our border officials. This is why it is critical that there is a public, independent, civilian oversight body for the CBSA.
The BC Civil Liberties Association has studied this issue closely and has done a report on it. From its report, “Oversight at the Border: A Model for Independent Accountability at the Canada Border Services Agency”, it has recommended “two separate accountability mechanisms for the CBSA, one charged with providing real-time oversight of CBSA’s policies and practices, and one charged with conducting investigations and resolving complaints.”
I would be very interested to hear what it and witnesses say about this proposed bill, and whether or not they feel it meets the call for independent oversight and accountability measures for the CBSA.
Bill C-59 introduces a review agency, the national security and intelligence review agency, or NSIRA. This new body would replace the Office of the Communications Security Establishment Commissioner and the Security Intelligence Review Committee, as well as the national security review and complaints investigation functions of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. This means that the new body would have jurisdiction over activities that fall under the umbrella of national security. As for what remains as the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, it will continue to have the external investigative body that reviews complaints from the public about RCMP conduct. However, the bill before us today would rename the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission to the public complaints and review commission and expand its mandate to have a similar review function to the CBSA.
As a result of these changes, depending on the nature of the complaint against the CBSA, a different body with different authorities will be the reviewer of conduct. This will undoubtedly cause confusion at times. Therefore, one wonders why this approach was taken and why it is being done in two separate bills.
However, more concerning is the lack of lack of consultation and the last-minute nature of this proposed legislation. Too often we have seen the government consult and consult, and then do nothing, but then in areas where consultation and study are vital to ensuring that the legislation is what it needs to be, the process is short-changed.
The Customs and Immigration Union, which represents over 10,000 Canadians working on our borders, was not consulted on Bill C-98. This makes no sense to me. Why would the government not be seeking out the views of those individuals on the front lines who are doing the work and who would now have a new body reviewing them and their representative organization? This is not a good way to proceed.
Sadly, as the NDP critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, I have become incredibly familiar with the Liberal government's failure to follow through on its promise on good governance.
As we have seen in Bill C-97, the budget implementation act, the Liberals have decided to ram through dangerous changes to Canada's refugee determination system and put vulnerable lives, especially women and girls fleeing violence, at risk. I suspect that the Liberals are feeling the pressure from the right and want to be seen as being tough on asylum seekers. With an election six months from now, they are jamming draconian changes through in an omnibus budget bill.
I suppose, at least in this case with Bill C-98, while the measures for the changes for the CBSA complaint process were announced in the budget, they at least are tabled in a separate stand-alone bill, Bill C-98.
That is more than I can say about the changes to the refugee determination system, which are being rammed through with minimal study in the omnibus budget bill. In a rush to look tough on borders and caving to pressure and misinformation campaigns by the Conservatives, the Liberals again, without consultation, made very sweeping changes to the asylum system in the budget. Experts immediately called for the provisions to be withdrawn or, at the very minimum, to table them as a separate stand-alone bill. The Liberal government refused.
Some 2,400 Canadians wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the same action. That too fell on deaf ears. Its advice, as recently reported by the Auditor General, was that the 1.2 million calls to the IRCC last year did not get through to the government. I will say that Bill C-98 is at least a stand-alone bill.
With that being said, it must also be recognized, given that the Liberals have failed to take action until the eleventh hour, that there is a chance this bill might not receive royal assent prior to the election. If that occurs, this would then represent yet another broken promise by the Liberal government, another broken promise through its failure to act.
I do wonder what took the government so long to table this bill. Why did it wait until there are only five weeks left in the sitting of the House to bring Bill C-98 forward? I suspect that the Liberal government would employ time allocation measures to limit debate, a tool that Liberals consistently spoke against when the Conservatives were in government. I fear that they will once again have our debate in this place limited because the government could not get its legislation in order in a timely fashion.
The risk that this represents with a bill of this magnitude cannot be ignored. The government, in the rush to table it before the session ends, has failed to properly consult the experts on what the bill should look like. Now, in a race against the clock, the Liberals, if they want to be able to claim that they followed through on their promise, will need to limit the democratic debate of this bill. That is what I expect will happen.
This is not a good recipe for good legislation. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The government has stated that in 2017 and 2018, over 96 million travellers were engaged by CBSA employees, which is over 260,000 per day. They processed more than 21 million commercial shipments, which is over 57,000 per day. They processed over 46 million courier shipments, which is over 126,000 per day. This is a serious matter and deserves thorough debate.
It is our hope that the government will allow for a thorough study of this bill at committee. I also hope that the government, upon hearing from stakeholders and experts at the committee stage, will be amenable to any amendments that expert witnesses put forward. I hope that the government will allow for that work to be done in a proper fashion and is open to input by stakeholders.
This bill has been long awaited for by the community. I regret that the government has waited this long, until the eleventh hour, with only six months until the election and only five weeks of sitting in this place, to table Bill C-98. Canadians deserve to have an independent, external civilian oversight process for the CBSA. The government should have done this work much earlier to ensure that the proper process is in place for all Canadians.