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Opposition calls for border agency watchdog

Arbitrary detainment and seizures 'unacceptable'

In the wake of the detention of three films bound for the Inside Out film festival in Ottawa, Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland is calling for oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

“When something like this happens, and it has a major impact on an event, we’ve got to ask what went on,” Holland says. “There seems to be a targeting that occurred, and so there should be the opportunity to go to an independent third party to investigate, as we do with the RCMP — we have a Public Complaints Commissioner, and yet CBSA has no oversight mechanism.”

“We’re left to scratch our heads … left with no real answers, which is unacceptable.”

On Nov 20, border guards flagged I Can’t Think Straight, Clapham Junction and Patrik, Age 1.5 en route from an American distributor to Inside Out. The same day, the distributor sent a second package without the gay film fest’s name and logo; it arrived without hassle.

The NDP’s public safety critic, Don Davies, says oversight is a good suggestion, but feels that oversight is not the answer to CBSA’s problems.

“It’s the minister’s responsibility,” Davies says, “and there should be sound regulations or legislation that would prevent this.”

“I think in 2009, it’s completely unacceptable that we have what are clearly permissible material being censored and seized by the CBSA. I mean, oversight if necessary, but oversight shouldn’t be necessary.”

Davies feels that CBSA’s structural and administrative problems should be what is addressed.

“Oversight is one thing, but oversight presumes that the structural and administrative problems continue to exist and will be caught by oversight,” Davies says. “I think we have to delve a little deeper into this and make sure that there isn’t a need for oversight.”

A spokesperson for the CBSA says that “all complaints are investigated thoroughly.”

“Travellers have a number of means to reach the CBSA to voice their compliments as well as any complaint,” she says. “During an interview with an officer, the individual may, at any time, ask to speak with a supervisor if they feel the officer’s behaviour is inappropriate. They may also choose to submit a written statement detailing the events.”

Those who have had run-ins with CBSA or its predecessor, Canada Customs, are similarly unsure that an oversight body is the best way to go.

“It’s important that people have some kind of avenue to critique or have things released,” says Janine Fuller, manager of Little Sister’s in Vancouver. Little Sister’s faced down Canada Customs before the Supreme Court for the seizure of queer material and in 2000 it won a partial victory.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea,” says Scott Ferguson, executive director of the Inside Out festival. “If it’s only going to be an after-the-fact ability to do anything, I’m not so sure that solves the problem. If it then becomes another layer of bureaucracy that the agency has to go to before they do something else, I’m not sure that helps.”