Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says he is examining the Canada Border Services Agency’s migrant detention practices, including the detention of children.
Speaking Monday at a Senate committee on National Security and Defence, Goodale said he wants to end the Canada Border Services Agency’s practice of detaining child migrants. He told the committee his department is looking at alternatives to locking away children, but he suggests the issue is a complex one that requires study.
“We are working now on a number of very important revisions to issues related to detention in our immigration and border system.” He hopes to put proposals for change forward later this year.
The border services agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public, and those whose identities cannot be confirmed.
In a confidential inspection report made public in January, the Red Cross says Canada should jail child immigrants only as a “last resort” and must find alternatives to detention for such vulnerable newcomers.
The Red Cross says the border agency detained 10,088 immigrants — almost one-fifth of them refugee claimants — in 2013-14 in a variety of facilities, including federal holding centres and provincial and municipal jails.
Among these were at least 197 minors, held an average of about 10 days each.
Oversight of CBSA
Goodale was at the committee to discuss Bill S-205, a bill that would improve the oversight of CBSA’s activities.
“It has no oversight presently,” said Senator Wilfred Moore, who introduced the bill. “There’s no oversight and there’s no opportunity for citizens or visitors to the country to make a complaint and have it heard by an independent third party outside the agency.”
So, his bill would create an “inspector general” with the power to monitor and report on CBSA’s activities, as well as investigate complaints.
Immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann agrees “100 per cent” that CBSA needs more oversight.
“The CBSA wields more power and has less restrictions than I think any other law enforcement agency in Canada,” he said.
“Typically people who appear before the CBSA have no right to counsel, which is very unusual. If you are interviewed by a police officer, you have the right to counsel, you have the right to remain silent. In the world of the CBSA, there’s no such thing.”
Moore said he was surprised to learn that CBSA operated four detention facilities, and his bill was particularly inspired by the case of Lucia Vega Jimenez, a Mexican national who committed suicide in a CBSA detention facility in the basement of Vancouver’s airport in 2013.
“When I heard about the Jimenez lady and what happened, I couldn’t believe that. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “We can’t let her death just go.”
“We’re in a democracy here. We’re not in a police state.”
While Mamann thinks the agency needs more oversight, he wants to be sure that the overseer is fully independent and has the power to change things, in court or elsewhere.
He also thinks all reports should be made public. “I think it could have a huge potential effect,” he said. As the public becomes more aware of CBSA’s activities, he hopes that public pressure would force the government to make changes.
At committee, while Goodale said he supports the spirit of Moore’s bill, he cannot support the text as it is written. The mandate of the inspector general is unclear when it comes to monitoring, and it could conflict with other review agencies, he said.
Also, the Liberal government promised to create an interparliamentary agency, composed of members of Parliament and senators, to monitor all of Canada’s security activities, including CBSA.
“It is very much the intention of the government house leader, Dominic LeBlanc, to present legislation in that regard before the summer,” he said.
With files from the Canadian Press