Ottawa says a collection of deeply personal questions posed to employees at the Canada Border Services Agency is justified and needed to ensure public safety.
The agency wants to know about the marital status, drinking, and internet habits of its employees as part of a new "integrity questionnaire."
"It is key that we ensure that CBSA employees are the best of the best, and are not potentially subject to blackmail. At all times privacy rights are respected," the office of Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews, said in a statement emailed to CBC News.
The NDP's border critic, Brian Masse (Windsor West), called the questionnaire "beyond absurd."
"We don’t have a chronic problem or systemic issue related to corruption or poor performance or criminal activity. Where’s the evidence of a problem?" Masse said. "We have a great deal of integrity."
Masse said the government is undermining its own department by asking such questions.
The union representing Canadian customs and border agents calls the new voluntary survey, which includes questions about hookers and alcohol consumption, "ridiculous."
The CBSA survey asks 57 questions of its employees. Some of them the union considers "intrusive."
Among the questions being asked:
- How much alcohol do you consume in a week?
- Have you ever solicited the services of a prostitute?
- Do you or your spouse/common law partner or cohabiter gamble (including lottery, casinos, online gaming, scratch tickets, etc.)?
- Have you ever committed an act of domestic abuse, including the use of, or the threat of use of, violence against your spouse, partner, parents, children, siblings, pets, etc.?
The Canadian Human Rights Commission guide to screening and selection in employment says to avoid, for example, asking whether the applicant drinks or uses drugs and whether the applicant is receiving counselling or therapy.
The survey also asks about marital status. The Canadian Human Rights Act entitles "all individuals to equal employment opportunities without regard to … family or marital status, sex …."
However, labour lawyer George King said the question can be asked in this case.
"On the face of it, it’s a fairly intrusive document. It’s extensively intrusive and probably not permissible in a normal workplace," King said. "However, an employer can discriminate if it’s a bona fide occupational requirement[to do so]."
Do you think the CBSA questions for its employees are reasonable? Take our survey.
Jason McMichael is a vice president with the Customs and Immigration Union, representing workers at the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel in Windsor, Ont., and officers in Sarnia.
"The questions are exceptionally intrusive," McMichael said. "We feel like they certainly go beyond anything that would be necessary for the CBSA to be aware of about us. And to be quite honest, some of the questions are to the point of being ridiculous."
McMichael said he won't be filling out the questionnaire. He said the union will suggest all employees follow his example.
When asked what prompted management to pose such questions, McMichael wasn't sure.
"There are always going to be occasional blips on the radar which could raise eyebrows," he said.
According to the CBSA website the questionnaire was needed to ensure security.
"After extensive research and analysis of the security screening process of law enforcement organizations, it was decided that the integrity questionnaire is required to ensure a more thorough security screening assessment," the website reads. "The intent of the integrity questionnaire is to measure the applicant's honesty, trustworthiness, integrity and reliability ..."
"It’s necessary for this job that the government be certain you are not someone susceptible to bribes or coercion," King said.
"Our government is committed to ensuring a safe and effective border," the statement from Toews' office reads.
"I find it ironic that the man upset about 'Vikileaks' wants to delve into personal information," Masse said."Vikileaks" was a Twitter account that purportedly posted tawdry details of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews's divorce proceedings.
The account was created in protest of Bill C-30, which would force internet and telecommunications service providers to provide specific information about customers to police upon request and without a warrant.
Survey could affect promotions
Although the questionnaire is voluntary, employees or recruits who refuse to answer could be passed over for promotion or not hired at all.
"Your decision to complete the integrity questionnaire must be voluntary, based on your desire to pursue a career with the CBSA," reads the introduction of the questionnaire. "You may withdraw from the application process at any time. You may refuse to provide answers to any or all of the questions contained in the integrity questionnaire. Such a refusal may result in your disqualification from the recruitment process."
In another section of the CBSA website, the agency says employees "must" complete the survey.
"Individuals wishing to be considered for employment with the CBSA in a higher-integrity position must complete and submit an integrity questionnaire. If an individual refuses to provide answers to any or all of the questions contained in the integrity questionnaire, this may result in disqualification and may be interpreted as a withdrawal from the security screening process."
The CBSA defines "higher-integrity positions" as "positions with enforcement authority and responsibilities and those positions which allow for access to enforcement information in databases, or knowledge of enforcement activity as well as positions of trust."
"Despite the CBSA saying it’s voluntary, they are making an effort to intimidate you to complete the questionnaire," McMichael said.
McMichael said the union is looking into whether the questions can even be legally asked of employees.
The CBSA's southern Ontario region spokesperson, Jean D'Amelio-Swyer, declined to comment.
She said the questionnaire was not something to be commented on from a regional perspective and directed all questions to the CBSA headquarters.
The CBSA website claims it is collecting the information under the authorities of:
- Financial Administration Act.
- Policy on Government Security.
- Personnel Security Standards.
- Privacy Act.
- Public Service Employment Act.
"Looking at the scope of it, the sections it references and how carefully it’s drafted," King said of the survey, "the government has an opinion from its lawyers that in these circumstances, the questions are bona fide."
CBC News has requested a comment from the CBSA's national spokesperson.
"At all times privacy rights are respected," a statement from Toews' office said.
The RCMP has a similar application survey given to new recruits. It also includes questions about gambling, alcohol, sexual activity and computer habits.
The RCMP also issues a pre-employment polygraph interview.