The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) wields vast power in its duty to protect our country’s borders—power that is, in many ways, unchallenged. As one justice concluded, “there is a significant potential for the CBSA’s activities to affect individual rights, dignity, and well-being”. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is exerting pressure on the government by providing the framework for independent oversight and accountability at our borders, pressure that may well lead to sweeping reform that should be noted by those possessing a criminal record.

Possessing a criminal record may hinder your abilities to travel abroad, and at the very least, will subject you to more questioning, detainment, and delays—especially if you’re travelling to or from the United States.

The CBSA possess sweeping police powers at our international borders; however, after a string of tragedies and mounting pressure of the BCCLA, those powers may become checked by independent committees.

Seeing as the crossing between Surrey, BC and Washington State is one of the most traversed between Canada and the USA, the following summary of the BCCLA report —Oversight at the Border—should be of importance to our readership:


The CBSA is staffed by approximately 13,000 employees and is charged with controlling the flow of people and goods at 117 land crossings, 13 international airports, and over 1,000 other points both within Canada and internationally. It has the ability to “collect intelligence and detect, arrest, detain, and remove people from Canada”. These powers are only magnified at the border, especially in regards to preventing entry.

As a law enforcement agency, the CBSA is unique in Canada due to: A) its extraordinary powers and B) its lack of independent overnight.

It’s important to note that the vast majority of Canadians and international visitors experience no issues; however, these two factors create an unwelcoming experience for many, especially refugees. After a string of admittedly preventable deaths and mounting court evidence of structural inadequacy, the BCCLA, as well as other public advocacy groups, are calling for independent oversight to hold the agency accountable, including providing adequate procedures for filing complaints, which are currently absent.

The Case for Independent Oversight

Both structural and anecdotal evidence exist as a basis for increasing the oversight and accountability for our border services. Currently, there are no adequate policies in place to hold the agency accountable for rights violations, procedural inadequacy, and, in extreme cases, preventable tragedies. The case of Lucía Vega Jiménez, a Mexican woman whose death while in custody was found to be preventable, served as a rallying cry for public pressure.

The BCCLA identifies four major reasons for systematic overhaul:

  • The CBSA possess magnified law enforcement powers
  • The CBSA routinely deals with vulnerable people (refugees or migrants)
  • The CBSA’s role in detaining migrants and refugees, including children and those with mental health issues (as was the case with Lucía Vega Jiménez)
  • The impact of the lack of accountability on public trust

In light of evidence of rights violations, abuse of authority, and improper conduct, the BCCLA’s report, Oversight at the Border, recommends the following two-part framework:

Two Separate Accountability Mechanisms

Oversight will be charged with setting standards, reviewing policies, enforcing recommendations, and handing down punishment.

The BCCLA recommends that the CBSA be held accountable using two separate mechanisms:

A) One department charged with real-time oversight of policy and practice
B) One charged with conducting investigations and resolving complaints

These mechanisms include instating a civilian review and complaints body, providing standards that the CBSA would be held to by an independent committee, and providing a method of independent investigation into misconduct. Public reporting and transparency will be mandatory.
While the report is not indicative of legislation to follow, it does support the anecdotal evidence of those who have crossed the border and had unwelcoming experiences. After years of fighting in the public and legislative squares, it seems as though reform for the CBSA is finally on the horizon in Ottawa.

As you are aware, a criminal conviction can seriously hinder your ability to travel and cause serious issues at the Canada/USA border. If you need to protect your rights and fight to prevent this criminal record, contact our Surrey criminal defence lawyers today.

Blog Categories