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26 October 2006
Right Hon. Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, K1A 0A2
Dear Prime Minister,
I am writing to you to inform you of the concerns of the Canadian Council for Refugees with respect to the decision to arm the officers of the Canada Border Services Agency, which you announced on 31 August. We believe that this will have a number of negative consequences.
The officers of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) are the first people to meet those entering Canada. Whether they be returning Canadians, visitors, refugees or immigrants, those arriving at the border should be greeted by a representative of Canada embodying values of hospitality. An officer carrying a gun conveys an immediate contrary message of suspicion and hostility that will disappoint and unnerve many people. We do not want immigrants arriving to start their new lives in Canada to have an official carrying a gun as their first impression of the country.
We note that people making refugee claims at border points are interviewed by CBSA officials who determine whether their claim is eligible to be heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board. We are particularly concerned about the impact on refugees, many of whom have compelling reasons to fear violence from persons in authority. For people who have experienced state repression, the sight of armed border guards may be traumatizing and make it more difficult for them to answer the questions posed to them, including questions about their refugee claim.
We of course appreciate the need to ensure the safety of border officials. However, we do not believe that it has been adequately demonstrated that border officials are in fact at risk, or if they are, that arming them is to be preferred to other available options. We note that carrying a gun may in fact increase risks of violence and thus could perhaps reduce, rather than increase, the safety of officials, as well as of others around them.
We see the arming of CBSA officials as a step towards the militarization of the border, making the border a point of potential conflict and violence, when it should be a place for creative exchange and meeting.
The CCR’s members have had opportunities to work alongside border officials and we are aware that many are motivated by a desire to serve others and an eagerness to work with immigrants from around the world. For some at least, it is difficult to reconcile carrying a gun with this kind of motivation. We are anxious to know whether CBSA officers will be required to be armed in order to continue to work for the agency. Will people’s careers in CBSA be limited because they choose not to carry a gun?
The question of motivation also raises concerns for us in terms of future recruitment to the Agency. The CCR has been concerned about the long term consequences of the split between Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and CBSA. Currently, many CBSA officials were initially recruited to CIC and entered the job with a commitment to serving immigrants. Over time, that connection will weaken, as a larger proportion of CBSA is made up of officers who chose to join what is essentially an enforcement agency. The arming of CBSA will accentuate this trend, since future recruits will be people attracted to a job that entails carrying a gun. The capacity of CBSA to maintain an appropriate balance between enforcement and facilitation will be challenged as the composition of the Agency staff is increasingly made up of people who see themselves as enforcement officers, with fewer and fewer people who see themselves as immigration officers.
We have questions about which Border Services Officers are expected to be armed. Is the government planning to arm officials working at airports? Surely travellers arriving by airplane can be assumed not to be carrying any weapons, given the tight security at all airports. Similarly, officers working in detention centres should not have any reason to be armed.
The decision to arm border officials strengthens our concern about the lack of an external complaints mechanism for the Canada Border Services Agency. It is the norm in Canada for organizations with arrest and detention powers to have external supervisory mechanisms. CBSA has no such mechanism. Yet, those facing enforcement action from CBSA are among the most vulnerable in Canada. Without permanent status in Canada, without networks of support or much knowledge of Canadian systems, often not English- or French-speaking, they have little ability to assert their rights. In the case of persons deported, the chances of their being able to pursue any kind of recourse if they are mistreated are remote. The imbalance of power between the non-citizen and the enforcing agency is thus very great, and even greater if the officers are armed. Such imbalance of power creates the potential for abuse. An effective and independent oversight mechanism is essential to ensure not only that power is not abused, but that it can be publicly seen not to be abused.
As is clear from the points we have raised, we are deeply concerned about the decision to arm border officials. It does not reflect a Canada that relates to the outside world in a spirit of open and constructive engagement. We ask you to reconsider your decision.