Border Guard Complaints: Travellers Faced Rude Officers, Incorrect Accusations

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CANADA BORDER FORCE
Canadian border guards are silhouetted as they replace each other at an inspection booth at the Douglas border crossing on the Canada-USA border in Surrey, B.C., on August 20, 2009. An internal report from the Canada Border Services Agency shows Canada's border guards are pulling out their guns, batons and pepper spray less often. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck | CP

HALIFAX - A complaints system run by the Canada Border Services Agency is documenting cases of travellers enduring rude behaviour and lengthy interrogations, as well as one case where someone was falsely identified as a person "with criminal ties."

According to quarterly reports obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, there were 1,105 complaints — about six per day — about the services provided by the agency's employees from Jan. 7 until the end of June last year.

A report by the agency on the revamped complaints system obtained under freedom of information legislation says .0025 per cent of all travellers complain about the service from its employees, adding "this rate will be used in future media calls as it puts the Canada Border Services Agency in a positive light."

However, a civil liberties advocate says he is concerned about the incidents that have emerged and believes it demonstrates an independent oversight agency is needed — similar to arms-length commissions that oversee the RCMP and other police agencies.

In a separate record created from its database, the agency has documented 129 cases where complaints about "employee or officer conduct" were found to be valid by internal investigators.

Esme Bailey, a spokeswoman for the agency, says that doesn't necessarily mean officers conducted themselves improperly, as there are cases where the agency ruled the officer behaved properly but there was still an unnecessary wait or delay for a traveller.

"It means the client's concerns were generally founded on some level," she wrote in an email.

One of the records says that a highway border agent accused a traveller of "being someone he's not."

Bailey says in an email the record shows the clerk's early description of the complaint and it may have been revised later.

In the email, Bailey says: "(The) client name matches one with criminal ties. (The) client is required to obtain documents from his/her local FBI office and have them present the next time he/she is seeking entry into Canada."

Another case says a traveller complained that private information was given in a public area.

Bailey says in an email that the traveller felt the officer was overly officious and rude, and the traveller was questioned in an area where others were waiting. She says the agency "apologized for the behaviour of the officer involved."

In another incident, the agency sent a refund cheque to the wrong address and it was cashed by an unknown person. When the person who was supposed to receive the cheque called the agency to complain, an agency employee "did not believe client," Bailey says.

"(The) client got upset," Bailey wrote. "(The) employee later apologized to the client directly for the misunderstanding. ... a new refund cheque was issued to the client."

There were also cases of clients upset about their interviews at border crossings.

One traveller said they'd gone through an unreasonably lengthy interview after being taken into an office for questioning. Bailey writes in an email: "the delays for the secondary examination were found to be lengthy. Therefore the allegations that the procedures were not followed properly were found to be valid."

"The client alleged it took three hours for the examination, but documentation shows that it took one hour and 12 minutes."

Bailey declined to give dates, locations or indicate what discipline officers received, citing privacy concerns.

Roch Tasse, the national co-ordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, said the complaints system should be shifted to an independent agency and more complete descriptions provided to the public.

In the case of a traveller being incorrectly identified as a person with criminal ties, he asked whether further questioning could have cleared up the confusion.

"Surely there's enough information in the system, or there should be if there's not, to show you're not the same person," he said in an interview. "What are the odds that you have the same birth date, live in the same city ... I don't know why we have those incidents."

Tasse said his group's reviews of border incidents two years ago showed more serious incidents and he questions if the internal review system is effective.

"We're dealing here with an internal complaints system, not an independent body. So regardless of the content and the outcome, this is an agency investigating itself following complaints," he said.

Ronald Anglehart, the acting director of the agency's complaints unit, said the agency has made the system available on the Internet since 2011, and it is using the results to improve its performance.

He said as a result of the complaints system, the agency has developed a brochure available at ports of entry to explain why people are sometimes taken aside for questioning or inspections when crossing the border.

"We're hoping that by educating clients they'll have a greater understanding of what to expect, and that will reduce complaints," he said.

Bailey says the agency has created three training initiatives for employees to help improve their performance.

The agency, which has 5,500 uniformed officers, processed more than 90 million travellers in 2011 and the complaints total only a tiny fraction of the total, she says. The agency also says it had 217 compliments through the feedback system in 2011.

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