A British Columbia-based civil rights group is renewing its call for an independent body to monitor the agency that polices Canada's borders, more than seven years after a public inquiry into the Maher Arar case recommended more outside oversight.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association says the federal government has done nothing to implement a recommendation from the Arar inquiry that an outside body review the national security duties of the Canada Border Services Agency, or CBSA.
The association's executive director, Josh Paterson, said he's written the federal public safety minister asking the government to go even further, creating an independent body to monitor all areas in which the agency acts like a police force.
"Despite the broad police powers given to CBSA, there is no independent oversight of the activities of their officers," Paterson told a news conference Wednesday in Vancouver, speaking alongside groups that advocate for refugees.
"In a society that is bound by the rule of law, we find it deeply disturbing that officials with such wide-ranging power— wider in some cases than police — are not subject to any independent oversight."
CBSA under scrutiny since detention death
The Arar inquiry, which examined what happened when the Ottawa telecommunications engineer was tortured in Syria over false terrorism suspicions, recommended in a 2006 report that a new body be created to monitor the national security activities of the both RCMP and the border agency.
The agency has faced scrutiny in B.C. recently following the suicide of a Mexican woman at a CBSA detention centre in Vancouver. Lucia Vega Jimenez, 42, was found hanging in a shower stall in December and died in hospital a week later.
There is currently no independent body to investigate complaints against the border agency, said Paterson.
CBSA internal complaint system 'unsatisfactory'
The RCMP, in contrast, is reviewed by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, as well as provincial agencies that investigate criminal allegations against Mounties, such as B.C.'s Independent Investigations Office.
Currently, someone who feels mistreated by CBSA officers can file a complaint with a branch of the agency known as the recourse directorate.
Catherine Dauvergne, the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the CBSA's internal complaints process does not work.
"Quite often, the response is along the lines of, 'We've looked into that, but we're not doing anything.' It has been an almost completely unsatisfactory process," Dauvergne told the news conference.
The federal Department of Public Safety did not respond to a request seeking comment.
In a written statement, CBSA said it has strengthened its own internal review processes in recent years.
The statement said an internal department known as CBSA Professional Standards investigates allegations of wrongdoing by personnel. It also noted members of the public can file complaints with the recourse directorate, though the statement did not respond to criticism that the program is ineffective.
"CBSA strives to fulfill its mission to secure Canada's borders while facilitating legitimate travel and trade in a respectful and transparent manner," the statement said.
The statement did not respond to a question about whether CBSA needs to be placed under the watch of an independent body, though it did say the Federal Court and other tribunals can hear cases related to the agency.
Demonstrated need for CBSA oversight
The groups at Wednesday's news conference outlined several cases they said demonstrated the need for outside oversight of the CBSA.
Among them was the case of a man who claimed refugee status after arriving in B.C. along with nearly 500 Tamils in 2010 aboard the MV Sun Sea.
The man, whose name was banned from publication by the Immigration and Refugee Board, was eventually deported to Sri Lanka, where he was arrested, his Canadian lawyer said.
He later wrote a signed affidavit, which was sent to his lawyer, alleging he was imprisoned and tortured for a year by an arm of Sri Lanka's police force known as the Terrorist Investigation Division.
The man's lawyer, Gabriel Chand, who was not at Wednesday's news conference, said he later attempted to use the affidavit in other refugee claimants' hearings to demonstrate they would be in danger if forced to return to Sri Lanka.
He said he presented the affidavit with the understanding it would remain confidential, but it found its way to Sri Lankan authorities. The man was later summoned by Sri Lankan police and then interviewed in the presence of CBSA officers, said Chand.
"I couldn't believe it," Chand said in an interview Wednesday.
"Why would you do that? Not only is it unethical, but also it's illegal. The document I disclosed, I disclosed it for the purpose of a refugee hearing. The last person you would give this to is the Sri Lankan government, because that's who he's afraid of."
The man was killed in a hit-and-run last fall, said Chand.
The statement CBSA released on Wednesday didn't address questions about the Sun Sea passenger's case.
Dauvergne said her group wrote CBSA last October demanding an investigation of the man's case, but has received no response.