Episodes of racism, harassment, homophobia recorded at border crossing

An investigation of operations at one of the Canada Border Service Agency's busiest ports of entry  found instances of harassment, racism and homophobia, according to documents shared with CBC News.

Outside firm hired to conduct review at CBSA's Cornwall, Ont. port of entry

A road sign at the Canadian border crossing at Cornwall, Ont. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

An investigation of operations at one of the Canada Border Service Agency's busiest ports of entry  found instances of harassment, racism and homophobia, according to documents shared with CBC News.

The third-party review looked at the CBSA's Cornwall, Ont. office, which crosses into New York state and Akwesasne  — a Mohawk Nation territory which encompasses islands in the St. Lawrence River and straddles the Canada-U.S. border.

"During the course of this review, which took place from March to June of this year, employees at the Cornwall port of entry told us they face many challenges while working hard every day to run the operation," said CBSA president John Ossowski in a memo to staff today.

"Many reported disturbing and unacceptable workplace behaviours including instances of racism, discrimination, abuse, harassment and preferential treatment."

Earlier this year, the research firm ParriagGroup interviewed past and current employees at the office and conducted an online survey "to ensure that work conditions at the Cornwall POE were healthy for staff and contributing to important reconciliation work with the Akwesasne First Nation," says a slide show deck on the report obtained by CBC News.

The report's findings point to "occurrences of harassment, racism, homophobia – internal and external" and a "presence of fear of reprisal."

The researchers also heard from employees about the need for increased accountability and mental health support.

The Canada Border Services Agency has trilingual signage at the border crossing in Cornwall, Ont. that includes messages in Mohawk. (Canada Border Services Agency)

CBC News asked whether the allegations involved conflicts between CBSA staff or with members of the public, and requested more details about the allegations of racism and harassment.

A senior CBSA official said the review doesn't get into specifics since the researchers only provided the agency with aggregate data to protect those who spoke openly.

"However, we have enough information to be able to start asking more pointed questions," the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. 

"We're still conducting follow up investigations and will take disciplinary actions where warranted as required."

CBSA investigating abuse allegations

ParriagGroup recommended that the CBSA make sure all violations of the Code of Conduct are recorded and make it clear to staff that there will be consequences. 

It also suggested more training on positive workplace culture and First Nations culture, specifically the culture of the Mohawks of Akwesasne.

The CBSA said that since it received the report, it has launched a separate investigation into potential abuse of authority and sexual harassment and is encouraging staff to submit formal and more detailed allegations without fear of reprisals.

It also promised to step up its senior management presence at the crossing office and has brought in a human resources worker with a background in conflict management to talk to staff.

The CBSA official said they're grateful to those staff members who were vocal about their concerns.

"This is something that we instigated, we asked for this, because it is so important for us to make sure that our employees are working in a healthy environment, and that the environment in which they work is able to support reconciliation across the board," said the official.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said staff were briefed on the report this morning but are also asking for more details about what the researchers heard.

He called the news saddening and said he's been raising the alarm for years about mental health issues at the Cornwall detachment.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the department is encouraged the CBSA is acting quickly.

"We know that there is always more that can be done to ensure that our border services are worthy of the trust of Canadians," said Madeleine Gomery.

"All Canadians, whether it be employees providing border services or travellers receiving them, deserve to feel safe from harassment, discrimination and violence."

The CBSA's presence has led to tensions in the past. In 2009, members of the community staged a six-week standoff around the post on Kawehno:ke (Cornwall Island) within Mohawk territory to protest the arming of border guards.

Afterwards, the chief pushed for more for more sovereignty.

Last year, a domestic lane was opened for motorists travelling directly between Kawehno:ke and Cornwall to facilitate crossings.

Two thirds of Akwesasne’s territory in Canada is landlocked by the United States. (Mohawk Council of Akwesasne)

According to 2018 figures, more than 1.5 million travellers were processed at the Cornwall crossing, and more than one million of them were residents of the Mohawk communities of St. Regis, Que. and Akwesasne.

Because of Akwesasne's unique position, the Cornwall crossing has a dedicated priority lane for residents.

Fortin said the union and the Mohawks of Akwesasne have met to discuss the relationship.