PHOTO: Canada Border Services Agency workers can stop travellers for questioning, take breath samples and search, detain and arrest people without warrants. Some even carry firearms. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Details of the cases — all of which were deemed founded — were released under access to information law and cover the period Jan. 1, 2020 to Jan. 1, 2022.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said that, during the last fiscal year, it concluded 92 founded investigations. Of those, 12 saw border officers verbally reprimanded, 42 led to written reprimands and 38 ended in suspensions.
That figure is substantially lower than the number for 2020 — the first year to see a reduction in travel due to the pandemic. In 2020, the CBSA reported 215 founded cases resulting in nine dismissals, 82 suspensions, 52 written reprimands and 27 verbal reprimands. (The figures don’t say what happened in the remaining cases.)
A CBSA spokesperson said the agency considers a complaint “founded” if “aspects” of it are found to be “valid.”
While details of these cases — including names and locations — are redacted in the documents released to CBC News, they describe some troubling behaviour at land and air crossings.
In one case, an officer was found to have failed to properly process travellers and vehicle plates — a key component of the job — for three years.
In another, an officer accessed the CBSA’s computer system to remove flags from someone’s file. Flags are indicators related to an individual’s criminal or travel history that are meant to warn CBSA officers that a particular traveller warrants a closer look.
One founded investigation report said only that the officer in question posed “a security risk” and could “harm the agency’s reputation.”
The documents also describe multiple founded cases of criminal association — including one involving an officer who “provided [a] false name when stopped by police while having dinner with [a] cocaine smuggler” and another involving an officer with ties to the Hells Angels.
A handful of cases involved officers engaging in sexual harassment — sexually assaulting a colleague while off duty in one case, spraying insect repellant on a colleague’s crotch and sending sexually explicit messages or photographs in others.
Other investigated cases involved interpersonal grievances, such as employees spreading rumours about each other.
Allegations typically are reviewed by CBSA management through the disciplinary process. If the allegations are serious enough, a senior investigator from the agency’s security and professional standards directorate launches a formal investigation.
“The CBSA has a responsibility to address misconduct in the workplace and takes this obligation seriously. CBSA management addresses allegations of misconduct,” said CBSA spokesperson Patrick Mahaffy.
“Discipline is managed case by case, and discipline is rendered based on the severity of the allegations and takes into account mitigating and aggravating factors.”
But Mark Weber, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said he believes the CBSA goes too far in its approach to discipline.
“The serious things are absolutely investigated, and many things that shouldn’t go to a formal investigation are also investigated,” he said. “Discipline is not supposed to be punitive. It’s supposed to be corrective.”
While Weber acknowledged some of the founded cases are serious, he called the agency’s approach to discipline “extreme.”
“Everything is very cold, clinical,” he said.
“Over the years, what we have noticed is that the agency has become very formal. Things that used to be dealt with between a manager and an employee with a conversation …’You could have done this differently and it would have gone better’ … everything at the CBSA has been centralized and become an official email, an official fact-finding that often happens weeks or months after the event.”
The CBSA remains the only public safety agency in Canada without an independent oversight body for public complaints.
While the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency keeps an eye on CBSA’s national security activities, members of the public have to take their complaints about the CBSA’s services directly to the agency, which deals with them internally.
Last month, the federal government announced plans to reintroduce legislation to allow travellers and immigration detainees to complain to an independent body if they feel they’ve been mistreated by Canada’s border agency.
“Ultimately, this legislation is about strengthening our law enforcement agencies by strengthening accountability, transparency … and it will lead to a safer country for everyone,” said Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, whose portfolio includes the CBSA.
Bill C-20 (previous versions died on the order paper) would replace the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission — the watchdog agency that fields public complaints about the RCMP — with a Public Complaints and Review Commission that would handle complaints about both the RCMP and the CBSA.
Weber said he worries C-20 will put even more pressure on a strained employer-employee relationship at the CBSA.
“We have an employer who is already very heavy-handed in terms of discipline,” he said. “Our members are regularly placed on leave without pay, sometimes for a year or more, pending the outcome of investigations.”
f the bill passes, the new Public Complaints and Review Commission would be able to carry out reviews of any CBSA activities that don’t involve matters of national security, either on the commission’s own initiative or at the request of the minister.
Weber said he’d like to see the new body take on managerial misconduct as well.
He said that if a complaint “points to a systemic issue,” the commission should tackle that issue “rather than everything being directed to the one person that the traveller interacts with.”
He said CBSA officers are often stuck “working on mandatory overtime” and sometimes process “hundreds of people” a day.
“Depending on what happens in that circumstance, that might be the reason for the complaints,” he said.
Bill C-20 is still awaiting second reading in the House of Commons.
A caption on a photo in this story has been updated from an earlier version which incorrectly stated that CBSA officers collect blood samples.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org