Liberals introducing bill to boost oversight for border officers

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is expected to table a new bill Tuesday that will give Canadians a new place to complain about the conduct of border officers.

Union representing CBSA officers says employees were left in the dark about government's plan

The Liberal government is tabling a bill to change oversight of Canadian border officers. (CBC)

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is expected to table a new bill Tuesday meant to boost accountability and oversight for border officers.

The proposed legislation follows up on a 2019 budget promise to expand the mandate of the civilian body that handles public complaints about the RCMP to also cover the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The CBSA now has internal mechanisms to handle complaints from the public, but under the new bill at least some of those would be turned over to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC), which handles civilian complaints for the RCMP. To expand the CRCC's role, the federal government set aside $24.4 million over five years starting in 2019–20, and $6.8 million each year after that.

The union representing border officers has heard little about the proposal and was not consulted on the bill. Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union (CIU), said the president of the CBSA also was left in the dark and could not inform the union of any details of the legislation.

"He said it's because he doesn't have a clue, because the government did it themselves. My understanding is they were not kept in the loop on how they are going to be operating," he said.

Canada employs about 7,000 border officers to enforce laws on trade and travel and intercept potential threats at the border.

Officers operate at highway crossings, airports, marine terminals, rail ports and postal facilities, enforcing laws and regulations related to everything from security to agriculture to commerce.

Questions about plan

Border officers deal with millions of passengers and clients each year, and Fortin said his members have questions about the scope of the new civilian oversight.

"They want to make sure they're treated fairly, and we just don't understand how it's going to be rolling out," he said. "Are they going to be intervening in every single complaint? Is it going to be depending on the seriousness of the complaint? These are all the questions."

At the time of the budget announcement, Goodale told CBC News that the change will "fill a hole in the architecture." 

The CRCC would investigate public complaints against the CBSA, but those involving national security ultimately would fall to the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), a new body to be created if Bill C-59, the government's national security oversight bill, passes.

The chairperson of the CRCC also has the power to initiate reviews of actions taken by RCMP officers if its felt to be in the public interest. That power would extend to reviewing CBSA operations if the bill passes.

The budget promised $1.2 billion over five years to bolster border security and speed up the processing of asylum claims.

More than 40,000 asylum seekers have crossed into the country illegally via the Canada-U.S. border.

The bill is being tabled as the end of the parliamentary session draws closer, and a number of bills remain before Parliament. There are still 10 bills before the House of Commons and another 13 in the Senate.

Unfinished government business

Some of the bills still awaiting passage include:

  • Bill C-69, which would overhaul the pipeline approval process.
  • Bill C-48, which would ban oil tankers on the northern coast of B.C.
  • Bill C-92 — First Nations child welfare legislation.
  • Bill C-71, the new gun law.
  • Bill C-59 — a new national security law which includes a redress system for people erroneously stuck on the 'no-fly' list.

With files from Catharine Tunney, Vassy Kapelos