OTTAWA – The Liberal government says it is looking for ways to improve scrutiny of Canada’s border agency amid mounting calls to create an independent watchdog for the organization.
The office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Tuesday the government “is examining how best to provide the Canada Border Services Agency with appropriate review mechanisms.”
The statement came as civil rights groups and refugee lawyers decried the second death of someone in the border agency’s custody in less than a week.
The agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public and those whose identities cannot be confirmed.
In 2013-14, it detained 10,088 immigrants — almost one-fifth of them refugee claimants — in a variety of facilities, including federal holding centres and provincial and municipal jails.
On March 7, the border services agency was notified by the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services that an individual in immigration detention at the Toronto East Detention Centre had died.
On Sunday, the border agency was advised by the Ontario ministry that a person detained at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex had died.
A border agency spokeswoman declined Tuesday to identify the two individuals, citing privacy law.
The agency’s mandate requires it to use detention “only when necessary” and to “safeguard the health, well-being and safety of detainees,” noted Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Goodale.
The minister is “concerned about the two recent deaths” and his thoughts are with their families, Bardsley said. “However, we are unable to comment about these cases while they are under investigation.”
The Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group wants an independent probe of in-custody deaths at the border agency.
“How many more deaths do we need before something is done to stop this tragedy?” said Monia Mazigh, the organization’s national co-ordinator.
“The detention of migrants shouldn’t be systematic unless there are criminal activities involved.”
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have been pushing the federal government to create an independent watchdog to supervise the border agency.
The agency wields a wide range of police powers and deals with some of the most vulnerable people in Canada, said Mitchell Goldberg, president of the refugee lawyers association.
“Canadians expect accountability from every other police force in this country — why should the CBSA continue to be the exception to this rule, while every year, more detainees die in its custody?”
Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. association, said he was encouraged by the federal plan to look at review mechanisms for the border agency. “This is the first time we have heard a government even acknowledge that this is an issue.”
Any such mechanism should be completely independent of the border agency and must provide both real-time oversight to ensure compliance with law, policy and people’s rights, as well as after-the-fact review of agency conduct, Paterson said.
It must also be able to handle public complaints, initiate its own investigations of border agency conduct and include independent civilian investigation of critical incidents of harm or death involving agency officers, he added.
“We will continue to advocate with the government to ensure that it follows through,” Paterson said.
There were no additional details Tuesday on the review options under federal consideration.
However, Goodale has promised a wide-ranging examination of federal security measures, aimed at striking a balance between public safety and individual freedoms.
He is also working with House leader Dominic LeBlanc on legislation to create a committee of security-cleared parliamentarians. Goodale said earlier this year he envisions the body keeping an eye on a variety of federal agencies with intelligence powers — an indication that it could review at least some of the border agency’s activities.
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