Politics

CBSA won't be getting independent oversight as bill dies in the Senate

The Liberal government's promise to set up an outside review body to keep tabs on misbehaving border agents isn't going through. Bill C-98 did not clear the Senate before the end of the parliamentary session.

Bill C-98 did not pass the Senate before it rose ahead of the fall election

An agent of the Canada Border Services Agency inspects a vehicle entering Canada at the Rainbow Bridge Border Crossing in Niagara Falls. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

The Liberal government's plan to set up an outside review body to keep tabs on misbehaving border agents isn't happening.

Bill C-98, which would have expanded the mandate of the civilian body that handles public complaints about the RCMP to also cover the Canada Border Services Agency, did not clear the Senate before the end of the parliamentary session.

The CBSA has internal mechanisms to handle complaints from the public, but critics have long argued the agency shouldn't be allowed to investigate its own agents.

Following years of high-profile incidents —  including allegations of harassment, profiling and inappropriate interrogations — the 2019 budget put aside more than $24 million over five years to bolster the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. Bill C-98 was then introduced in May.

"The Liberal government has dropped the ball here. I think it's really concerning for all Canadians," said Kelly Sundberg, an associate professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"It is mind-boggling that this government has not put more significant effort into ensuring one of Canada's largest armed law enforcement agencies [has] civilian oversight."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's spokesperson Scott Bardsley said the Liberals are still committed to the idea of independent review.

"While the Senate did not pass C-98 before adjourning today, the government remains committed to external review for CBSA," said Scott Bardsley.

"It is significant that C-98 received all-party support. It is an idea whose time has come."

The House of Commons security committee limited its study of the bill to a single day, in hopes of jamming the bill through Parliament more quickly.

NDP MP Matthew Dubé, the party's public safety critic, said that while the bill died in the Senate, it was the Liberal government's responsibility to introduce it long before the dying days of Parliament.

Hundreds of complaints

"This particular bill, the responsibility lies at the feet of the Liberal government and Minister Goodale. I've been on him on this issue for years. You know activists and civil society groups have been talking about this issue for even longer than that. It was long overdue," Dubé said.

Earlier this year, CBC News reported that the agency investigated around 1,200 allegations of staff misconduct between January 2016 and the middle of 2018. Alleged offences in the records released to CBC News included sexual assault, criminal association and harassment.

"A lot of the people who are in detention. who are being addressed by the CBSA, are vulnerable people," said Sundberg.

The CBSA is the only public safety agency in Canada without an independent oversight body.

However, national security complaints regarding the border agency ultimately would fall to the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), a new body created by Bill C-59, which received royal assent on Friday.

"Those bodies are concentrating on the national security aspect, which is very different (from) a Canadian who is crossing and then being asked for their cell phone, or who might have an issue related to a criminal record for possession of cannabis," said Dubé.

Canada employs about 7,000 border officers to enforce laws on trade and travel and to intercept potential threats at the border. They work at land crossings, airports, marine terminals, rail ports and postal facilities, and are in charge of enforcing laws and regulations related to everything from security to agriculture to commerce.

After a series of late-night sittings over the last month, Parliament passed virtually all of the outstanding government legislation, minus the CBSA bill, and has taken a break for the summer.

Most MPs and senators likely won't be back until after the fall election.

In the 42nd Parliament — which started on December 3, 2015, after the last election — Parliament passed 88 government bills and 21 private member's bills.

With files from Kathleen Harris

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