From soliciting bribes to abuse of authority, CBSA officers hit with hundreds of misconduct complaints

Documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request outline a long list of allegations against Canada Border Services Agency officers, covering everything from abuse of authority and criminal association to excessive force and sexual harassment.

Border agency has investigated more than 500 allegations against its own staff over the past two years

CBSA officers have the power to search travellers, use firearms and conduct deportations. (CBC)

One border services officer was accused of bragging about making clients touch themselves during private searches. Another was accused of soliciting bribes at the border.

And thousands of dollars and a handful of luxury items — including a Rolex watch — went missing from a border services safe.

Documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request outline a long list of allegations against Canada Border Services Agency officers, covering everything from abuse of authority and criminal association to excessive force and sexual harassment. Some of the allegations have been verified, some have not and some are still under investigation.

The Canada Border Services Agency investigated more than 500 allegations against staff members between Jan. 1, 2018 and early 2020.

While the documents have been heavily redacted (none of the released files include names or locations), the individual files still paint a troubling picture of discreditable conduct among federal officers who have the power to search travellers, use firearms and conduct deportations.

In one incident later verified by a CBSA probe, an officer boasted in a staff lunch room about a personal search he had conducted.

"I made him grab his balls then stick his fingers in his mouth to open it," the officer told his colleagues, according to the file.

"Half the times people do it and the other half, they say something, then I don't make them do it."

The CBSA conducted a full investigation of that case, said CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy.

"Although the CBSA will not provide comment on the specific details of individual cases, we can tell you that the [border services officer] in question is no longer employed with the CBSA," she said.

Missing cash

In another case described in the documents, a cleaner found $9,000 and turned it in — but the wad of cash later went missing from a superintendent's safe. Around the same time, a Rolex watch and iPhone also went missing from that same CBSA office.

The border agency wouldn't say whether the money was recovered but said it has since implemented the recommendations that came out of that investigation, including guidance on the placement of cameras.

Another officer is under investigation following bribery allegations. The case dates back to August of 2018, when a CBSA employee reported finding during a vehicle search an e-transfer receipt with another CBSA officer's name on it as the recipient.

That prompted the investigating officer to look through the vehicle owner's phone record. There, according to the report, the officer found a long series of texts from an officer allegedly offering to accept bribes in return for work permits.

The rest of the file is redacted. The CBSA said it won't comment on individual files.

Officer accused of collecting women's phone numbers

Other cases investigated by the CBSA cite allegations related to sexual harassment, officers demanding preferential status when crossing the border and the deletion of emails related to access to information requests.

For example, the CBSA launched a formal investigation when an agent was accused of collecting the phone numbers of women travelling from the Philippines to later call them and ask them for dates. It's not clear whether that investigation has been concluded.

Some complaints focus on simple errors in judgment. One officer became the subject of an investigation for complaining publicly about federal government policy and sending out a tweet saying that CBSA stands for "can't be sure of anything."

Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, says most border officers are professional and would never engage in misconduct on the job. (CBC)

"The CBSA takes all allegations of employee misconduct very seriously and thoroughly investigates cases. As soon as a Code of Conduct violation is brought to the attention of the CBSA, an internal investigation is undertaken. Appropriate corrective measures follow when allegations are determined to be founded," said Purdy. 

"The CBSA will continue to work with all employees and unions to build a healthier culture that is free from workplace harassment, discrimination and violence."

Most officers are 'professional,' says union head

The CBSA reported 255 "founded" misconduct cases for 2018, along with 81 unfounded ones and 10 that were "inconclusive." Complete statistics for 2019 aren't available.

Of 2018's founded cases, four ended in termination or demotion while 79 led to various levels of suspensions.

The head of the union representing border officers said the number of misconduct cases should be weighed against the vast number of interactions border officers typically have with the public every day.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said he doesn't think the CBSA has a "culture" of rule-breaking among border officers.

"I can tell you that the people that I ... represent are extremely professional," he said. "Like in any other organization in the law enforcement, sad situations do happen but it's certainly not the culture in the majority of the people that I do represent."

The border agency is the only major federal law enforcement agency without external oversight of employee conduct.

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

"As you can see from the complaints ... there is some negative components to the culture that have to change," said former CBSA officer Kelly Sundberg, now an associate professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary and founder of the International Centre for Migration and Border Security Studies.

"There needs to be an oversight body that truly looks at budgetary issues, officer selection, training, human resource issues, complaints between officers, whistleblower complaints, complaints by the public, complaints by other government agencies, complaints by foreign governments."

Oversight bill at second reading

Last spring, a bill that would have addressed the situation — by expanding the mandate of the civilian body that handles public complaints about the RCMP to cover the Canada Border Services Agency — died when it failed to clear the Senate before the end of the parliamentary session.

It was reintroduced in January as C-3 — but has stalled at second reading during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Canada is the only country in the Border Five allies that currently does not have an independent review body for complaints about the conduct of border agency staff," said Mary-Liz Power, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair.

"We are committed to ensuring all federal organizations have a zero tolerance policy for workplace harassment, discrimination, and violence."

Meghan McDermott, senior staff counsel at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said her group was "horrified at the revelations of gross misconduct."

"These complaints reveal what happens when we give unchecked power to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers, who have wider powers than police agencies," she said in a statement Tuesday.

"We urgently need robust CBSA accountability and external oversight, and more needs to be done to tackle the marginalization of migrants and refugees created by our immigration enforcement policies."

Fortin said many of the offices he represents also would like to see investigations sent to an outside body. 

"I think that internally, within CBSA, there are a lot of problems with the investigation process, which in certain cases takes years and years to actually get a settlement," he said.

"So we're hopeful that it cannot be worse than the actual body that we have internally now."

Sundberg said the CBSA deserves its own oversight watchdog, not one also preoccupied investigating the RCMP.

"For them to add on an agency that arguably, probably would constitute the third largest policing service in the country is nothing short of ridiculous," he said.

"It's irresponsible. It's crazy."

Canada employs about 6,500 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.


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

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