CBC Investigates

Border security: hundreds detained in 1st month of new screening measures

Border agents are identifying and detaining more people with outstanding arrest warrants at Canadian border crossings after making changes to the way travellers are checked for security risks.

Tougher screening of travellers follows CBC News investigation

Border security agents now have access to the Canadian Police Information Centre database at primary inspection points. Roughly 1,800 people with outstanding warrants have been flagged since the database was implemented a month ago. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Border services officers are identifying and detaining more people with outstanding arrest warrants at Canadian border crossings after making changes to the way travellers are checked for security risks.

Officer who work on the front lines of Canada's borders were given access to police information late last year, after a CBC News investigation revealed they couldn't screen travellers against Canadian police records, such as outstanding warrants.

New numbers obtained by CBC News show that in the first month after the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database was introduced at primary inspection points, it flagged 1,800 cases in which travellers had outstanding warrants against them.

While some warrants were for minor infractions, such as outstanding fines, a quarter of the referrals were related to criminal offences and resulted in "further action," according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Arrests across Canada

In some cases, they were people who had eluded police for some time.

In March, police records contained in the CPIC database helped border services officers at Toronto Pearson International Airport identify a suspect in a fatal arson in Woodstock, Ont. Jeyakumar Shanmuganathan, 43, had allegedly fled Canada in 2011, but when he tried to re-enter the country after a flight from Sri Lanka on March 2, he was flagged and arrested.

At the same Toronto airport last month, a woman travelling from Jamaica was flagged by CPIC while attempting to enter Canada. Police said she had failed to appear for fraud charges in Barrie, Ont., in 1996, and avoided authorities for 20 years.

Similarly, border services officers at a New Brunswick border crossing in January were able to identify and arrest a suspect in a series of sexual assaults dating back to the 1980s.

Rev. Anthony Onyenagada, a Roman Catholic priest from Nigeria was allowed into the country, despite a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest 3:53

Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, told CBC News she expects more arrests could result from the increased screening resources.

In an email, she wrote, "Victims often yearn for justice even many years after the crime so if the authorities can finally try to hold someone accountable for the harm they've caused — that is a good thing."

Officers who do the primary inspection of travellers at Canadian borders have now had access to the CPIC database since November 2015.

The change came after CBC News reported on a case where a man charged with sexual assault in Canada was able to re-enter the country without being arrested at the border.

A further investigation revealed that although U.S. border services officers used Canada's national police database to help screen all travellers into that country, officers at primary inspection points in Canada did not have access to it.

Border officers pleased

Canadian officers working the front lines of border checkpoints could access information about people being sought by immigration authorities, or those with lost, stolen or fraudulent passports. But until last year, other databases, such as CPIC, were only made available to officers at a secondary screening where more thorough checks are conducted.

That meant that a person coming into Canada had to first be deemed suspicious by a front-line border agent in order to get fully screened against Canadian police warrants by another agent at a secondary checkpoint. The idea was to save time at the border.

After lobbying the government to make the CPIC tool available at all levels of border inspection, the head of the union representing Canada's border services officers says his members are pleased with the changes.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, of the Customs and Immigration Union, said the old system meant that in some cases, front-line services officers "didn't have a clue" about the identities of the people they were letting into the country.

Now, with full CPIC access, he said, border services officers are "way more efficient" in ensuring "that if there's an outstanding warrant, immediately, there's action that's being taken."

Senate calls for more screening

This new screening system arrived years after a Nigerian priest, who had been charged with sexual assault in Canada, was allowed back into the country, unhindered, despite an outstanding Canadian warrant for his arrest.

As CBC News reported last year, Father Anthony Onyenagada is accused of assaulting a female parishioner at a southern Ontario Catholic church he visited in 2004.

By the time charges were laid against him and a warrant was issued for his arrest, Onyenagada had left the country. Police assured the woman that the priest would be arrested if he ever tried to re-enter Canada.

But nearly 10 years later, the woman found out that he had returned and left the country again, without being arrested.

The woman complained to the CBSA, but the agency has offered no apology for allowing Onyenagada through the border.

A 2015 Senate report, released before the CBSA changes took effect, said that around 44,000 people were in Canada illegally last year, and that in some cases, the government had lost track of them. The report called for more rigorous screening of visitors and immigrants to the country.

If you have information related to this or other stories, contact John Lancaster (john.lancaster@cbc.ca; 416-205-7538) or Sarah Bridge (sarah.bridge@cbc.ca).