Opinion

Canada's border agency shouldn't be using pandemic to impose surveillance on undocumented immigrants

Monitoring bracelets have been rushed into use during the coronavirus outbreak without public debate, writes Martin Lukacs.

Monitoring bracelets rushed into use during coronavirus outbreak without public debate

Over the past several weeks, the Canada Border Services Agency has imposed controversial electronic monitoring bracelets as a condition for some releases of undocumented immigrants from detention centres in Quebec and Ontario. (Canada Border Services Agency)

This column is an opinion by Martin Lukacs, a journalist and former environmental writer for The Guardian living in Montreal. He's the author of  The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

With Montreal a front line in the country's battle against the coronavirus, hundreds of asylum seekers there have taken up dangerous work as health orderlies in long-term care homes. While some rightly consider them heroes, Canada's border agency has continued to demonstrate a very different attitude towards migrants.

Undocumented immigrants, held in prisons and detention centres where COVID-19 has spread, have gone on hunger strikes demanding to be released for their safety. The vast majority are detained merely because of irregularities in their refugee or immigration claims, not because they've been charged with a crime or were alleged to be a security risk.

Yielding to public pressure, the Canada Border Security Agency (CBSA) has conducted release hearings at an accelerated pace.

But there's been a catch.

Over the past several weeks, the CBSA has imposed controversial electronic monitoring bracelets as a condition for some releases in Quebec and Ontario. The migrant justice group Solidarity Across Borders is among those who have denounced the move.

Electronic monitoring bracelets continuously track the wearer's location via GPS and transmit it to a monitoring centre. (CBC)

It's hard to miss the irony: while some asylum seekers do jobs lauded as "guardian angels" by Quebec's Premier François Legault, others are being subjected to treatment lifted straight from the criminal justice system.

The widely panned monitoring bracelets, rushed into use during the coronavirus outbreak without any public debate, were first proposed as part of a package of reforms initiated by the federal Liberal government. At the end of 2017, amidst hunger strikes, increasing media scrutiny and the deaths of several people held in detention centres, the Trudeau government promised a long-overdue overhaul of immigration detention.

Canadians have looked in horror at Donald Trump's U.S. immigration measures, but our own current policies run afoul of basic decency. Thousands of undocumented immigrants, including children, are held every year in jail-like detention centres on the outskirts of Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, or in maximum security prisons. Canada remains one of the only countries in the world that does not put limits on the time that non-citizens can spend in detention without trial.

As part of the Trudeau government's new plan, the CBSA partnered with the Correctional Service of Canada to launch a two-year pilot project in 2018 whose stated objective was to explore "alternatives to detention."

One of its main proposals included a surveillance system based on electronic ankle bracelets. These have been tested in Toronto, and conclusions were scheduled to be issued in July 2020 as to whether or not their use should be extended across the country.

The use of GPS tracking bracelets allows a person's whereabouts to be known at any given time. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Yet without the release of the pilot project's results or proper public scrutiny, the CBSA appears to be taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to push through and normalize the use of electronic monitoring of undocumented immigrants in Quebec.

"They are trying to use us as their guinea pigs while no one is paying attention," one detainee in Quebec told me.

While monitoring bracelets have been used in the criminal justice system in the United States and in some parts of Canada since the 1980s, it is not part of a humane vision of altering detention. The increasing use of monitoring is part of a global swing toward criminalizing those trying to find safety in new countries. It may reduce costs for governments, but it offers undocumented immigrants a disturbing choice: either physical or electronic prison.

Electronic bracelets introduce continuous surveillance into the private life of a detainee, who can be re-arrested at any moment. "It brings the prison into the home," the detainee in Quebec told me. "I may not be behind literal bars, but this is not freedom."

Based on the findings of an internal government review, a past pilot project conducted on criminal parolees in Canada was criticized as an "unmitigated disaster." Among other things, the devices often malfunctioned in public, creating stigmatizing situations for detainees. For new arrivals to the country who have likely fled dangerous conditions, this is liable to further traumatize them.

Meanwhile, the government has conscripted non-governmental organizations into being its digital jail-keepers, outsourcing the monitoring responsibilities to the John Howard Society and the Salvation Army.

There are growing calls for governments to let asylum seekers who are currently working on the front lines of the pandemic to be allowed to stay in Canada permanently. 2:03

The threat of this kind of e-incarceration enhances the social control of undocumented immigrants, for whom permanent status in Canada has grown more elusive in recent decades. While the Trudeau government proclaims its friendliness to refugees and migrants, it has also directed the CBSA to increase deportations by 30 per cent, setting a new national target of 10,000 deportations a year.

And the Liberal government is overseeing construction of a new detention centre in Montreal, which is supposedly designed to inspire a "warm and homey feeling," with foliage covering the prison fence to "limit harshness of look." These initiatives do not constitute true reforms, they merely offer a more gentle facade to an inhumane system.

There are better alternatives to either detention or coercive surveillance measures for undocumented immigrants.

We should begin to decriminalize the immigration system, providing support and services so people can live safely and openly, without fear. Legal advice, job opportunities and social assistance are also much cheaper than imprisonment.

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is to open our eyes to how so many overlooked people in our country – people who came here seeking sanctuary – deserve more safety, dignity, and compassion. Let's not allow our government to use this moment to push through measures that take us in the opposite direction.


About the Author

Martin Lukacs is a journalist and former environmental writer for The Guardian living in Montreal. He's the author of 'The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent.'

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