03/12/2012 05:20 EDT | Updated 05/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Complaints department still a work in progress at border services agency

OTTAWA - Canada's border agency has set up an online link to make it easier for disgruntled travellers to lodge complaints — but there's still no guarantee the grievances will get an independent look.

The "comments, complaints, and compliments" portal on the Canada Border Services Agency website is intended to help the organization respond to public concerns in a more timely and consistent manner.

"It's a way to get a much better handle on the number and types of complaints," said Natasha Alimohamed of the agency's litigation and complaints division. "We've seen concrete improvements."

For instance, the agency published a pamphlet explaining secondary screening procedures after realizing many people had questions.

"We used their feedback, recognized that there was a bit of gap there, and tried to fill that gap," Alimohamed said.

However, internal documents reveal the agency hasn't yet followed through on phase two of the project — a review office to ensure dissatisfied complainants have an avenue of appeal.

A memo outlining plans for the complaint mechanism says the additional layer of review would "serve as an internal, independent body for complaints."

The border agency says it's considering options for a second level of review for service-related complaints, and that "internal discussions are still ongoing."

The agency memos and briefing notes, released under the Access to Information Act, say "the number of complaints levelled against CBSA is very high."

From January last year through the first part of 2012, the agency received about 2,500 complaints, including many through the web portal.

In recent years travellers have accused border staff of rudeness, foul language and unnecessary strip searching.

A Montreal woman who had an unpleasant experience with border officers at the airport lamented in 2009 that she wasn't even sure how to make a complaint.

At the same time, there has been increasing pressure to institute new checks on the agency's considerable muscle.

Border officers have powers of arrest, detention and search and seizure, as well as the authority to take breath and blood samples, issue arrest warrants and operate detention facilities for immigrants. They also participate in multi-agency groups including border enforcement teams and integrated national security units.

Thoughts about creating a better complaint system date from at least 2003, the internal notes say. A proposal was drafted in 2007 and subsequently approved, but not implemented because of "lack of funding."

The web portal has been running for just over a year.

The border agency encourages concerned travellers to speak to a superintendent immediately if they have a problem. But they can also use the web link to submit a complaint later, and should receive a followup call asking them about their grievance. A formal letter to the complainant follows.

"I think what the travellers appreciate the most," said Alimohamed, "is that phone call from the superintendent, where they actually hear a live person who knows their case."

The agency is working on service standards with specified timelines for responding to complaints, she added.

"As time goes on we'll be able to refine our processes further. We'll be able to get a sense from our clients on whether they're using our portal, or whether there's another mechanism that would work better for them."